Sandia Pueblo Grandma with Grandchild

What to Do About Tantrums?

Valerie Holloway
Updated on October 24, 2022

What to Do About Tantrums?

A New Mexico Expert Offers Tips, Ideas, and Solidarity

Sometimes you can feel it coming, like a gathering storm. You and your toddler had a fun afternoon, but now they seem hot and tired. You are also hot and tired. You wearily heat up leftovers (things they like!) pour them some milk, and sink into your chair. Then you find that you’ve made a huge mistake. 

You’ve served the milk in their dark blue cup, but they wanted the light blue cup.

Now you’re half-heartedly insisting that the milk is already poured, and anyway they are both blue. 

Your toddler bursts into passionate, heaving sobs. 

Why do they do this? Is it some sort of test? Are we being punished for something in our past? To help us better understand, we talked to Dr. Esther Devall, a retired professor of family and child science at New Mexico State University. She knows a lot about tantrums and challenging behavior in young children, and even has some ideas about what to do.

The Honest Meltdown
So, why does this happen? Does your toddler just have extremely strong feelings about cup color? Will they grow up to design dishware? Not likely, according to Dr. Devall. In toddlers, things like coping with disappointment and following directions require energy and concentration. When they are tired, hungry, or have an itchy tag bothering their neck, sometimes they just…can’t. This happens to grown-ups, too, as anyone knows who has ever behaved badly while hangry

When this happens, comfort your child and help them regain their calm. Some parents worry that responding to a tantrum with kindness will reward the behavior, but Dr. Devall said that’s generally not the case. 

“They’re not trying to be bad, they’re not trying to manipulate you. They’re just expressing that they’ve reached the end of their limit of coping,” she said. “In that case, what you want to do is provide comfort. You are not reinforcing bad behavior. They’re uncomfortable, and you’re helping them to feel comfortable again.”

The Gimme Tantrum
Dr. Devall said most tantrums are honest meltdowns, especially in littler kids. But, there is a second type. Sometimes when kids reach age 3 or 4, they might try a tantrum to see if it will get them something they want. You should still be calm and kind, but it’s important not to give them what they’re tantrum-ing for. If they are throwing a fit in the grocery store because they want a candy bar, you may be tempted to buy it just to end the howling—especially as you catch someone staring at you who is definitely being judgy and also definitely doesn’t have kids. 

“If you have to leave, you leave and take them back to the car, but you don’t give in,” said Dr. Devall, adding that kids throwing this type of fit actually are trying to manipulate you, especially once they are a little older. 

As for those glares from your fellow shoppers? 

“It’s hard, because you feel like everyone’s looking at you and judging you,” she said. But they mostly aren’t, especially other parents who are just grateful their kid isn’t the one screaming (for now). And even if you are getting some mean looks, Dr. Devall said, “You just can’t worry about it, you’ve just got to do what’s right for your kid.”

Learning the Rules
Sometimes children act in less-than-adorable ways because they don’t know what is expected of them. Or, they may be testing out how serious the rules are and what happens if they are broken. If you’ve been giving your kid “to the count of three” to follow directions, one day they’ll get curious about what happens if you get to three. Do you even know? Has it been an empty bluff this whole time? Are you just desperately counting slower and slower, buying time? 

You can help kids understand your expectations by telling them what to do, rather than what not to do. So, instead of telling kids not to run, you can tell them to walk. Or rather than telling them to stop shouting, you can tell them to use their quiet voice. 

“Kids don’t automatically know when you say ‘don’t shout,’ that that means they should do the opposite. What is the opposite of shouting? That’s a lot of cognitive things going on, so it’s just better to state the behavior in the positive,” said Dr. Devall.

Big Feelings
Behind every tantrum is a feeling, and kids’ feelings can be huge.

“Just because they are little in size, it doesn’t mean that their emotions are little,” said Dr. Devall. 

Naming and managing feelings is an important life skill, and you can help your child by teaching them words for the different emotions they have. You can start this from birth! Long before they can talk, babies begin to understand feelings from your facial expressions and tone of voice. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the basics, like happy and sad. Dr. Devall said it helps for kids to be able to describe more subtle feelings, too.

“Use lots of different words. You’re frustrated, or I’m upset, or I’m stressed or I’m scared or I’m worried. Teach them an emotional vocabulary from the very beginning,” she said. 

The goal is not to stop kids from having a wide range of feelings. Feelings—even tough ones—are an important part of being a person. But you can give your child tools and strategies for what to do when their feelings get too big. Some kids take deep breaths or move themselves to a quiet area, if possible.

Hitting Doesn’t Help
Hitting or other corporal punishment isn’t good for kids, and it also doesn’t work. Studies have found that children don’t learn well from punishment that hurts their bodies, and it sends them complicated messages about how to solve their problems. This is especially true if they are being disciplined for hitting or biting. 

“The research doesn’t support that any form of corporal punishment is effective,” said Dr. Devall, adding that in the long run, it doesn’t make children behave any better. “It hurts your relationship with your child, and that’s the most important tool you have. Your child loves you, your child wants to please you, and so hurting that relationship takes away some of their desire to want to do what you say, and to please you.”

Your Feelings
Raising and caring for young children is hard work on a good day. On a day full of tantrums, it’s enough to make you throw a tantrum of your own. Try not to, but realize that sometimes you will. Dr. Devall said staying calm is an important part of showing your child what to do. If you yell at them, it becomes hard for them to calm down and move on from the tantrum. The best response to a tantrum is to stay calm, kind, and consistent, giving your child the support they need to calm down.

But what if you don’t? 

“Give yourself a little grace,” said Dr. Devall. Caring for children is hard, and no one does it perfectly. If you yell at your child or react in a way you aren’t proud of, forgive yourself quickly and move on. You’ll probably get another chance within the hour to respond calmly and firmly, when your child is wracked with sobs because you handed them an apple with a bruise. 

Forgiving yourself quickly is important, because it’s hard to bring your A-game to the next tantrum if you’re still agonizing about how you handled the last one. And while you’re forgiving yourself, it’s OK to apologize to your kid. If you lost control of your big feelings, it can be a teaching moment. Tell them you’re sorry for yelling, and talk about your feelings. Learning to manage our emotions is a lifelong journey, and it’s OK to be honest about that. 

If you’re finding your child’s behavior overwhelming, you don’t have to do it alone. New Mexico offers free home visiting to families with babies and young children, which means a trained expert will come to your home and provide you with information and support. Will they stop your child from doing frustrating things? No. Definitely not. But they are pros with lots of good tips and tricks, they are 100% non-judgy, and they will never, ever yell at you for serving milk in the wrong color cup.

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