How to Stop a Tantrum

Set limits, prevent a meltdown, and don’t forget the Law of the Soggy Potato Chip.

Students of Rollins College's Child Development Center play make believe and show off their best meltdown poses. (Photo by Scott Cook) Students of Rollins College's Child Development Center play make believe and show off their best meltdown poses. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Sharon Carnahan is a developmental psychologist, the mother of two, the grandmother of two, and executive director of Rollins College’s Child Development & Student Research Center.

Executive Director of the Child Development & Student Research Center Sharon Carnahan. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Carnahan) Executive Director of the Child Development & Student Research Center Sharon Carnahan. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Carnahan) She has witnessed more than her fair share of tantrums, meltdowns, and crying jags, in both children and adults. The professor of psychology is compassionate, insightful, hopeful, and, like many mothers across the generations and around the world, she’s sympathetic—up to a point.

While acknowledging the anguish a parent can feel over a child who is screaming uncontrollably, Carnahan offers some how-to tips for maintaining self-control while adjusting the child’s behavior. Based on her experience as a mom and her research as a professor, her advice, of course, assumes the presence of loving parents or grandparents—caring adults who want youngsters to grow into independent young adults.

Stay calm and coach.
A child’s tantrums generally stem from one of these situations: fatigue, a need for attention, too many demands, an expression of control, or avoiding something. Knowing this can help you manage your own behavior first, then worry about the child’s. This way, you can be an emotion coach for your young child and model self-control. It also helps if you make sure that you, as the parent or grandparent, maintain a healthy lifestyle. “Children’s needs are best met by parents whose needs are met,” Carnahan says. “Am I getting enough sleep? Am I under too much pressure at work? Am I in control of my own emotions?”

Put safety first.
Don’t reinforce screaming. It’s fine to walk away after telling a child: “I see that you’re mad, but I can’t understand you when you’re so upset. So when you calm down, I’ll be here and we can try to solve the problem.” But when you do walk away, make sure your children are not in danger of hurting themselves. And check on the child’s safety without reacting to the ongoing emotional outburst. “I’ve walked by a two-year-old who was on the floor in a tantrum. I made sure the child was safe, but I was careful to ignore the behavior.”

Make sure the child’s immediate, basic needs are being met.
Between birth and 6 years, children are developing the ability to plan and to stop themselves. Toddlers can’t express their needs. So parents, first, must see if the youngster is in pain, hungry, thirsty, or in need of a nap. In rare cases, ongoing, intractable tantrums may be due to deeper mental or physical problems that require medical attention, such as a pain that the toddler cannot yet define in words.

Remember the Law of the Soggy Potato Chip.
Parental attention is a powerful source of gratification for children, even if, in some cases, the attention is negative. “If you love potato chips and there are no chips around except soggy ones, you’ll eat the soggy ones, even if they’re not great,” Carnahan says. Parents who respond to emotional outbursts by yelling or threatening punishment may provide the very attention the child craves. Even if it’s not healthy attention, it still reinforces the behavior.

Have a plan.
Children under six can’t reason very well and are not likely to understand the rules of a debating society. Nevertheless, if emotional outbursts bring desired results, they will then increase. Parents must take the child’s developmental level into consideration and decide the rules, then be consistent. If the child is resisting going to preschool or church or somewhere that the family must go, then “eventually, the child must be picked up and put in the car.” An older child who knows disruptive behavior brings attention or the power to get his or her way will have no reason to stop. Parents, however, have the power to ignore them and to let the firestorm die out from lack of fuel. Don’t be emotional about your child’s emotions. Don’t get angry about their anger.

Carnahan explains it this way: “If you are teaching emotional self-regulation, model it. Think of it as if you are teaching a child to hit a baseball. Would you yell at a child for striking out? No, you would not. You would keep on coaching.” Give the child feedback and remind the child of how to improve.

Don’t hug it out.
A child in the throes of a tantrum often does not want to be touched or hugged. A quick reassuring pat may be okay, but don’t try to hold or hug the child for any extended time. “You become an invader of their personal space,” which can make things worse.

Teach them techniques for calming themselves.
You can’t teach in the middle of a tantrum! It helps to practice these techniques at other times, when the child is calm. For example, children can learn to quiet their emotions by controlling their breathing and becoming calm. Show them how to take a short shallow breath, followed by a quick exhalation.

Make it a game and give it a name. Carnahan calls this exercise “Take a Breath, Blow out the Candles.” Another favorite is STAR—Stop, Take a breath, And Relax your body. This is not the moment to encourage deep breathing techniques because the extra oxygen drawn in can add to agitation. You just want to disrupt their behavior by changing the rhythm of their breathing and getting them to focus away from their feelings of being overwhelmed.

Another way to calm children is to put them near water—provide them a pan of water to play with, for example, or put them near a sink, bathtub, or wading pool, depending on the age. “We all find water soothing,” Carnahan says.

Pick your battles and look for teachable moments.
Catch your child being good! Consider your rules and be consistent, but make as few rules as possible. Carnahan notes, “Parents of preschoolers can overwhelm them with demands and commands. If a child wants to wear pink shoes to school for four days in a row, then is that worth a fight? You want your child to learn to make choices. If the child refuses to go to school, that’s something much different.”

Carnahan said that while techniques and approaches may have become more enlightened over the decades, a large part of parenting is still about socializing and “apprenticing the children to become good neighbors.” She notes that what Fred Rogers, who graduated from Rollins in 1951, preached in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood remains true today.

Parents, she said, may do well to recall Rogers’ wise and catchy song, “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?” The song is about how emotional self-control can be empowering:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.