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Navigating Temper Tantrums

The System that Just Might Work

My 4-year-old son is making a name for himself all over Richmond. He has had major meltdowns at the pool, the movie theater, and the grocery store. Do you have any guidance for handling temper tantrums? 


Welcome to parenting! There are very few of us who can say we have not dealt with temper tantrums. As a family coach, I believe you are the expert on your child, so I would ask you to think with me about what might be going on with your little one, and how you can get ahead of this behavior to help him. 

First, we need to determine if you’re dealing with what Dr. Dan Siegel, renowned pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist, calls an upstairs temper tantrum or a downstairs temper tantrum. The upstairs version is intentional (in the thinking brain). Your child is using it to control you or the situation and enjoys the attention, whether it’s good or bad. When you give in, the tears magically dry up. A downstairs tantrum (in the feelings brain) is a classic meltdown. It’s often due to lack of sleep, being hungry, tired, or over-scheduled, and in some cases, a medical condition. With this type of tantrum, the child is completely overwhelmed and inconsolable. If it happens frequently, you will want to reduce stress inside and outside the home to address the issues I’ve listed, or check with your pediatrician to try to get to the root of it. 

In most cases, parents find success with a simple system I call BDA – short for before, during, and after.

BEFORE: Prepare your child for stressful situations at home or out in the world. Regularly teach coping mechanisms, through the example you set, books at bedtime, and practicing with him. For instance, help your child use his words by saying, “I’m angry!” There are also tangible expressions of anger. He can stomp his feet, or pound some Play-Doh. Older children can throw a ball against a wall or punch a pillow. It can be useful for the whole family to practice mindful breathing with big belly breaths or using pinwheels. 

Second, does your child know your expectations of him before you enter the store, the movie theater, a friend’s home – or any place a temper tantrum might occur? What will the consequences of a poor choice be every single time? Before you go into a public place, review – and review again! – so it is crystal clear that he knows what to do, how to do it, and what will happen if he makes a poor choice.  

DURING: This is the tough one for parents and caregivers: Stay as calm as you can. Yelling will only increase the volume for both of you. If you’re at home, remove him to a safe place to let the tantrum run its course. Diffuse and acknowledge his big feelings by reflecting back: You really wanted the ice cream, didn’t you? Or, You must be really angry. Then calmly follow up with, How can we solve this problem? You may need to sit with him and stay quiet, unimpressed with his antics. This might help him begin to cope. You can use all these tactics if you are in a public place, but if he continues to act out, it’s respectful of others to remove him to the car, leave the movie, or go to a quiet place to work with him. This is inconvenient for you, I know, but it will teach him that the consequences are consistent and he does not get rewarded for his actions. He is loved, but your boundaries are firm. 

AFTER: When things have calmed down, take the time to have a sweet moment together. Ask him what his plan is for making tomorrow a better day, and move on to the next thing. 

Finally, once you’ve put this strategy into action, remind yourself that you did some awesome parenting today! 

Susan Townsend Holt, M.Ed, is a board-certified family life coach, parent educator with Everyday Parenting Solutions, and director of family ministry for Community West Church. She specializes in social/emotional skills for calmer and healthier families and classrooms. She is blessed with her husband of thirty-seven years and two adult daughters.
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