4 Steps for Surviving a Tantrum

If you’ve come here looking for the magic trick that will instantly end any tantrum, I’ve got good and bad news for you. 

The bad news first: there isn’t one. But before you click off this page, hear me out!

The good news is that these four steps always work for me, and they are very simple things you already know how to do. The trick is remembering them when you’re seeing red and the toddler screaming in the background has made it impossible to think straight. These four steps will get you through almost any tantrum, and leave you stronger than you were before.

Let’s set the stage. You’re about to walk out of the house for an appointment, dinner, meeting, insert-literally-anything-here, and all heck breaks loose over the most minuscule and unimportant detail. The tears, the drama, the screaming, and little fists pounding begin. Your heart rate spikes, nothing you say helps, and you’re becoming even more late with each tear shed. 

Step One: Do Not Yell Back 

Most of us have a knee-jerk reaction to want to yell when we reach our breaking point. This and physically carry them to the car seat while they pull super-human-strength ninja moves in your arms. On one hand, you can get to where you need to go or do on time. On the other, you’ve done nothing to help your little one learn better coping strategies when they are angry or upset. 

Don’t rush the situation and don’t lose your cool. My therapist often reminds me that children have ‘lizard brains’, meaning all they know is an instinctual or impulsive fight or flight reaction. They haven’t learned rational thought yet, but steps two through four can help you teach them. I promise there are very, very few things in this world that you absolutely cannot be late to, compared to the one shot we have at raising our babies right.

Step Two: Get On Their Level

Rarely does anyone feel comfortable speaking to someone larger and more imposing than them. And to your toddler, when they are knee-deep in fight-or-flight mode, you are an imposing figure when standing tall over them. 

Take the intimidation factor off of the table. Sit down on the floor in front of them in an open and inviting stance. Criss-cross applesauce with my hands in my lap, not crossed over my chest, is my go-to. It’s inviting, relaxed, and comfortable. 

Step Three: Validate and Normalize Their Feelings

When your child is screaming and throwing a fit, more often than not, they probably can’t explain why they are so upset. Or if they can, the reason probably doesn’t match the level of their reaction. Again, lizard brains. So I follow a simple process for talking through the tantrum: I calmly ask them to talk to me about how they are feeling and why, then validate and normalize their emotions while give direction for healthy coping. The conversation usually goes along the lines of: 

“I can see that you’re upset/sad/frustrated. Can you tell me why? Mommy feels those things too. It’s okay to feel those things. It’s not okay to hit, kick or throw. When you’re feeling sad or upset, let’s try a different way of coping: hugging mommy, daddy or a stuffy; drinking water; taking deep breaths; coloring; doing some stretching or yoga; or more.” We also turn to our ‘My Calming Strategies‘ poster hanging in our playroom which has other great ideas for calming down.

Step Four: Offer a Safe Space in Your Arms 

My kids have grown to recognize my criss-cross applesauce as a safe space, so by the time I’m on step two, they are almost always already crawling into my lap, arms around my neck, and deep breathing. But it wasn’t always like that, and we still have moments where the tantrum has turned them into a puddle on the floor. 

In those moments, I sit and wait. Talk calmly to them. Remind them you’re here. Rub their back, and ask them to come sit with you. It might take a few minutes, but don’t give up. They need a source of safety and comfort and when they realize that, you’ll be right there.

Child throwing a tantrum

And there you have it – my not-so-secret recipe for surviving a tantrum. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that many children have different coping needs and this may not work for everyone or even every time. These steps have helped me through many tantrums with my own kids, nieces and nephews, and while babysitting over the years. Still, the premise of all of these is to approach every meltdown from a place of love and empathy. 

Our kids have so much to learn, emotionally regulating themselves included. A tantrum, as frustrating as it is, is an opportunity to teach healthy, empathic coping skills that will stick with them for the rest of their life and their relationships. If these don’t work for you, I encourage you to find the most loving approach to working through a tantrum that works for your little one and you. 


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