7 Surefire Ways to Stop a Tantrum in its Tracks

Disarm the bomb before it goes off.

Everyone has heard of the Terrible Twos.

In my BC years—before children—I thought, “what could be so bad?”  I had these four adorable nieces and nephews whom I got to spend hours or even a weekend with, and I didn’t see the big fuss.

My youngest daughter, Cayleigh, is now four, and raising her has been one of the biggest challenges I have ever tried to tackle.

This little girl, with her blonde ringlets in her hair, cherubic little face, and big blue eyes has thrown temper tantrums that had me believing that my only way through would be to find a toddler-sized straight jacket, or searching the Yellow Pages for a young priest and an old priest.  Or possibly both.

Luckily, I have learned several toddler hacks along the way, and I am going to share with you my top 7 surefire tips on how to stop a temper tantrum before it starts.

Tantrum Terminating Tip 1: Understanding the Tantrum

First, the most important tip is why a tantrum starts in the first place.

When I poured my frustrations out to my doctors and her pediatricians, I learned a very important fact.  The very thing that I was doing (complaining), my daughter could not do.

According to my pediatrician, Sharye Atchison, MD, this little person that I created did not have the communication skills of an adult. Not even close.  My daughter had wants and needs, but she had no way of telling me how to fulfill these wants and needs.

This is the number one reason why children throw tantrums, according to my pediatrician: The inability to communicate.

Tantrum Terminating Tip 2: Communicating with Your Child

Now that I knew what the problem was, I could go about finding a solution. I needed to find a way to communicate with my daughter, so I turned to the Internet.

On the Parents.com website, the online version of the famous magazine, I learned some better ways to communicate with my daughter.

I had been telling her things like, “Be quiet!” Or, “Stop hitting your sister.”  Those commands were not seeing any success.

At the Parents.com site, I learned that toddlers and preschoolers communicate a little differently. Instead of telling my child to be quiet, I found that if I whispered to her, she would whisper back.

Children want to copy the behaviors that they see parents and other family members doing, so if I wanted her to behave a certain way, I told her to “copy mommy,” and it worked!

If she started to get loud after we were whispering, I would gently remind her that mommy is still whispering, and she would revert back to whispering herself.

Tantrum Terminating Tip 3: Controlling Emotions

With the hitting, I realized that this is another form of tantrum. Her little emotions were just too much for her to handle, and she lashed out at her sister in the form of hitting.

This was a problem.

Since I work for a medical school, I have access to medical professionals and researchers studying just about every single potential medical problem a person could imagine.

I emailed one of my friends in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry department to see what I could do.

My friend suggested I take my daughter for an evaluation at the department’s child and adolescent psychiatry testing center. After her testing, the doctor, Dr. Ahmed, recommended that we try something different with my daughter.

Instead of punishing her after she hits, which is happening because she was overwhelmed by feelings in the first place, I should try calming her down and teaching her how to understand and control her emotions.

Dr. Ahmed taught me the tone of voice I should use, which was a very calming and quiet voice, and what I should say to her. And, it worked!  My child stopped hitting her sister in her frustration.

When my daughter starts to show signs of losing control of her emotions, the first thing I do is have her calm herself down.

Dr. Ahmed said that this is a very important skill to learn, and some adults have trouble regulating emotions.

We practice taking deep breaths—in and out—until she has control of her emotions—usually I can tell she is in control because she has stopped crying.

After she has control of herself, I ask her to sit on my lap in the quietest place I can find, and we start talking through her anger. I ask her why she was angry.  I ask what happened.  And, most importantly, I listen to her without interrupting or judging her feelings.

Tantrum Terminating Tip 4: Encouraging Honesty

At first, I had problems with her being honest. For me, her being honest is very important.  I started the rule that as long as we are honest about what we have done, and freely admit what we have done without trying to hide things, then I will not punish the my daughters for being honest with me.

This does not mean that I do not punish her at all, but I encourage honesty by making honesty the easier choice.

When she tells me that she has hit her sister, or broken something in anger, or whatever it is that she has done, instead of focusing on the action that she has done—hitting, breaking, etc.—I ask her how she can make it better.

I used to say things like, “How could you hit your sister? You know that is wrong! You are not supposed to hit anyone!”

Now, I simply ask her what she did, and when she tells me, I thank her for being honest with me, and I leave it at that.  Which brings me to my next tip.

Tantrum Terminating Tip 5: Allow Your Child to Participate

Part of the new process of discussing my child’s feelings and her actions is talking about her choices and whether she could have made a better choice.

After my daughter confesses her actions, I ask her what she did that was wrong, and she tells me.  If she is honest, I thank her for being honest, and then I ask her how she can fix the problem.

The inspiration for this came from the Disney Jr. program, Sophia the First.  In episode 17 of the first season of the show, “The Amulet and the Anthem,” the main character Sofia is cursed by her magical amulet for hurting her friends’ feelings.

When she apologizes, she thinks that the curse will be lifted, but soon finds that it has not.  Sofia asks for help, and Princess Belle from Beauty and the Beast arrives to explain that sometimes saying I’m sorry isn’t enough and you have to try harder, and “Use all your might to make it right.”

When I ask my child what she can do to make things better, I’m giving her some control and power in the situation—or at least the illusion of control.

That is a big contributor to tantrums for most children: the feeling that they do not have control.

When I put the decision back in her hands on how to fix her mistake, it gives her so many positive feelings to replace those negative feelings that brought on the tantrum.

She sees that I have confidence in her to make decisions, that she is allowed to make mistakes, but also knows that when a mistake is made it has to be corrected.

Most importantly, she doesn’t feel like she is a bad girl or think that I feel she is a bad girl.  She simply made a mistake.

Tantrum Terminating Tip 6: Learning the Triggers

Once my daughter’s tantrums started to subside dramatically, and I saw a huge improvement in her behavior, I looked for ways to prevent tantrums before they began. I found an article on WebMD.com that had a list of potential tantrum triggers.

The article explained that if you knew the triggers, and planned for them in advance, you could prevent the worst of the tantrums.

Some of the triggers are obvious. When a child is hungry, tired child, or, God forbid, hungry and tired, then tantrums are more likely to happen.  Others are not so obvious.

Change can be a common trigger for tantrums. Moving from play time to dinner time to bath time to bed time can cause tantrums.

One of my friends had a brilliant idea that works really well for her children.  She bought a large kitchen timer and glued a paper circle ring around it that is colored in sections of green, yellow, and red.

When the timer gets to a certain point, the ring goes from green to yellow to show that the time to change to a new activity is coming, and then when the yellow turns red, the children know that the time for the current activity is over, and it is time for a new one.

The visual display is a concrete reminder that a new activity is coming.

Temper Terminating Tip 7: Coming back from the Edge of the Ledge

Sometimes, even with the best planning, tantrums can still happen. Here are some helpful hints to stop a tantrum after it has begun.

  • Giving in: This is possibly the easiest method of shutting down a tantrum in progress, but certainly not the most viable in the long-run.  My child throws more temper tantrums in the mornings while we are getting ready to leave for the day than any other time. Sometimes, it is simply easier to say, “Ok, you don’t have to brush your hair today” than it is to work with her to do as I ask.
  • Distraction: Another tantrum time in my family is at the grocery store.  Usually, we go to the grocery store after I pick them up after I get off of work, and they are hungry and tired—the worst combination—and we are going to the store filled with candy, cookies, and toys.  Sometimes, the easiest way to talk them down from the proverbial ledge is to distract them with something else.  If they are whining to go down the toy aisle, I distract them by going through the fruit section.  It has pretty bright colors, and if my children ask for something, I am more likely to give it to them in the fruit aisle.
  • Pick your Battles: Sometimes, whatever the child wants is just not worth the hassle of fighting them for it.  For example, my child loves to play in my cosmetics.  In the beginning, when she would first start to get into my lipstick or fingernail polish, I would get very angry.  Now, I’ve learned not to purchase expensive cosmetics, and what I do have, I keep as far away from her reach as possible.  Sometimes, she still gets into my purse, and will smear lipstick all over her face.  But, when I buy $5 lipstick, and she messes it up, it just really isn’t that big of a deal.
  • Ignoring It: Every once in a while, no matter how well prepared I am, or how much I try to do the right thing by my children, my human side shows through.  After all, I am not perfect either, and I make mistakes.  In my opinion, a child throwing a tantrum has a problem needing fixing.  But, sometimes, I just cannot deal with it myself, so the easiest way to deal with the problem is to ignore it.

One such time was recently in the grocery store—it’s always the grocery store…

I had this ill-fated idea to bribe my children to be on their best behavior by allowing them to choose a small toy from the toy aisle, with the understanding that if they had one issue of bad behavior, we would return the toy to the toy aisle and they would go home without a toy. We didn’t make it out of the toy aisle before my youngest lost her toy for yelling in the store.

Through the rest of our shopping trip, she whined and screamed and bawled about that toy. After a long day, I just did not have the energy to deal with her behavior.  So, I ignored her.  I let her cry, scream, kick, and fuss to her heart’s content.  I figured at the very least, she would tire herself out and go to sleep early.

When we were making our last purchases before going to the checkouts, she was still fussing, and asked if she could have her toy. I said no, of course.

And, she told me that if I gave her back her toy that she would be good.  I told her that Mommy doesn’t negotiate with toddler terrorists, and that she had her chance to be good, but chose not to be good.

A woman down the aisle started laughing, and as I passed by, she touched my arm and told me that she had been going through the store as I was and heard my child throwing her fit.

She said that she was happy that I never gave in, and went back for the toy, as she had seen many other young mothers do.

She said that sometimes, we just have to ignore the temper tantrums.  I asked if it ever got better, and she told me an emphatic YES! I asked when, and she said that eventually, our children grow up, and move out.

I’ve had a lot of solicited and unsolicited advice sent my way in the five years since I became a mom, but I think this one piece of insight from a lady I never even asked her name was probably the best.

Eventually our kids do grow up, and move out.  But, in the meantime, I’ve learned the hard way why some animals eat their young…

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