6 Ways to Gently Respond To A Tantrum

Written by Ariadne Brill on July 19th, 2013

This entry was posted in Gentle Discipline and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

responding to tantrum

Children most often have tantrums when they are feeling overwhelmed and unable to express their frustration, anger or upset feelings.

Although popular advice may center around ignoring, walking away or using time-outs, gently responding to a tantrum is a wonderful way to connect and meet a young child’s needs and help them learn self regulation skills.

Below are six ideas that can help you respond calmly when your child gets upset.

6 Gentle Ways to Respond to a Tantrum

  1. Be present: Staying close by and supporting a child during their tantrum is a gentle and kind way to let a child know they have support to feel their feelings fully. While it may not be easy to just sit and watch, children often just need a kind and compassionate presence during a tantrum.
  2. Make Eye Contact: It’s tempting to walk away from a tantruming child, but often, trying to establish some non threatening face-to-face contact can help a child sense your genuine concern and feel validated.
  3. Use kind words: Using gentle and kind words sparingly during the tantrum such as “I love you”, “I’m here for you” and “I’m on your side” can help a child to re-center and find a positive mindset. Plus focusing on kind words can help us not lose sight of staying positive and helping our child cope.
  4. Kind Hands: Offering a hug or a hand to hold can be a very grounding yet positive way to connect with a child and help a tantrum subside. By using touch in a positive manner we also help children learn that even while upset or angry, hands can be using in a positive way and not for harming others. Sometimes children don’t want to be touched, that is ok too, in that case, just try being close by for support.
  5. Listen: Children often need someone to help them reflect on their choices or sort out their feelings. Listening and repeating back to a child what we understand makes a child feel better understood. Often this can avoid a tantrum all together, and is a great way to decode some of the frustration.
  6. Focus on solutions: Once you have been able to connect trough touch, eye contact and listening, invite you child to help you find a possible solution to whatever caused the initial tantrum. It’s possible that your child really just couldn’t express their need without some help and became frustrated, or that a need such as tiredness, hunger or some attention may be needed.

An example of how I responded to my three year old’s strong feelings.

Recently at the start of the day, my soon to be three year old daughter was refusing to eat her breakfast. The bowl and spoon were not the ones she wanted. She left the table and started to cry. First I gave her some space, and after a little bit, I walked over to where she was and sat on the floor nearby. I let her know I was there if she needed or wanted me. “I can offer you a hug,” I said softly. First she cried a little more and louder, but then within about 30 seconds, she crawled into my lap, gave me a huge hug and a teary eyed kiss. She sat there for another minute or so then walked to the table and promptly ate her breakfast, with that same bowl and spoon! 

Children, just like grown-ups, become frustrated, and there are many times when we need to set a limit our children may not like. Such moments may lead to tears or tantrums. Children must feel a full range of emotions, frustration included, for healthy development. Gently responding to tantrums and remembering to also meet their needs does not equal being manipulated or tricked.

Positive interactions, especially during upset feelings, are what help children cope with a host of feelings as they grow and create trust between parent and child.

Do you find it difficult to respond sensitively to tantrums? If so, what moments are most challenging to you?

About The Author: Ariadne Brill

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Ariadne is a busy and happy mama to three curious and spunky children and a Certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. Ariadne practices peaceful, playful and positive parenting and to avoid doing the laundry she created the Positive Parenting Connection to share resources and ideas with other parents. Ariadne believes parenting is not about perfection but connection and making time to have fun! Find her on  Facebook

37 Responses to 6 Ways to Gently Respond To A Tantrum

  1. Jane

    My son is 3 years old for almost a year now he bangs his head hard on the floor or wall over the smallest of things. I have tried hugging him gently talking to him scolding him blackmailing him nothing has worked yet. Am afraid he may cause some real damage to himself. At times he even bites himself. How can I help him.

    • matt

      Have him evaluated by a mental health professional. Also possibly by occupational therapist. May look for Applied Behaviorist creds.

    • Ariadne Brill

      Hi Jane, It sounds like you have tried many things and it’s evident you care so much about your son. In a situation like this I would suggest you talk with a trusted health provider like a pediatrician so you can have someone that will be more familiar with your son and able to offer personal, one on one ideas. best wishes to you and your little one!

    • stephanie

      My son up until last year banged his head or hit himself in the head with various objects. He would have non consolable tantrums for up to two hours daily. I stumbled upon the movie Genetic Roulette. Cleaned out the cupboards and no more tantrums no more banging his head in any way. Just wanted to share. Now he’s a pretty happy boy.

    • Maryanne Pickering

      See a pediatrician and be sure to check his ears for fluid and if need be have tests for inner ear fluid. My son used to do that too. He needed grommets in his ears. Good luck

    • Karen

      As a former early childhood educator I have dealt with many tantrums (22years worth), and have learned over the years that some head banging tantrums, although not all, are the result of inability of the child to hear clearly. If a three year old is frustrated to this degree stop at nothing to find the root cause of the frustration.

  2. Lisa

    Try crying on his behalf.

  3. Samantha

    Lovely article! I find with my 32 month old, as we try to head off a tantrum, asking her “Mommy is trying to understand. Can you say it another way please?” I totally agree that tantrums are a way of dealing with emotional upset, and its our job as parents to start giving them the appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with stressors as they grow.

    • Ariadne Brill

      Thank you for sharing that Samantha! I think asking for clarification is so validating and a great way to let children know we want to help and not just make the tears go away.

  4. Rasa

    My four year old son will throw things when he is mad/ having a tantrum. It sets me off, I react badly I don’t like when he purposely tried to break something in the house how do you react in a peaceful way when things are being thrown or broken?

    • Ariadne Brill

      Would it help you if you went in knowing next time that this might happen? Mental preparation sometimes and self talk for ourselves can be so valuable in these situations. Maybe saying to yourself “ok I see he is mad. I will keep my cool and help him” might help you stay focused on your goal. For most children, having an adult that comes in, calmly and confidently does not allow things to be thrown and then stays near by to listen to the upset is very helpful so they can discharge their feelings in a safe way.

    • Danielle P.  

      When a child is escalating, most times we can see it coming or we are aware of situations which trigger frustration & other strong emotions in our child. In some ways that’s helpful. Sometimes though, when we are aware that things might be thrown or broken, or if we know that child tends to bang their head or harm themselves, our awareness of their triggers can be more stressful to us. When we anticipate their tantrum before it happens, we can often begin escalating right along with them without meaning to. The best thing I know to do is to choose a time to sit down by yourself, or with your partner ahead of time. And come up with a simple 3-5 step plan for what you will do the next time they have a meltdown. Keep the steps simple & very basic. They are merely a tool to help us regulate ourselves during the tantrums. Because If we have a plan in place for how we will react to their behavior, then we can focus our mind on following through with each step, and that takes some of our focus off of our own heightened emotions. It can give us a grounding point to refer to when situations get intense. Given a little time, this can even allow us to get more insight into our child’s needs. Because the more focused and present we are in the moment, the better we can mentally take a step back to observe what’s happening and sometimes that can lead us to finding solutions that we may not have thought of otherwise.

      • Ariadne Brill

        Danielle, I think your idea to have a plan is spot on. Much like you said, if we have a plan or a go to way to handle our own emotions it’s much easier to model self-regulation skills for our children. Thank you for sharing that idea.

  5. Stefanie Cromarty

    Thanks so much for these ideas!
    It is so true that our kids need to experience the full spectrum of emotions! My son Charlie (20 months) is so bright! He is very independent almost all the time. I am a very busy single mom too so often it is important that we make time to play, and read books, and connect other than just doing chores. A tantrum is actually a great opportunity to show Charlie that I’m there for him. It’s not a control thing. He is not manipulative. Just lacking in the skills he need to self-manage his emotions and environment. I hope those words helped someone!

  6. Mary

    Especially if the child is under three, it’s often that they are just flooded with emotions.

    When my daughter would be in the throws of a full-blown tantrum, I would try to make eye contact, sit on the floor and then silently open up my arms for a hug. Many, many times she would bring herself over to me (still screaming and crying) to be silently held and rocked. After a little while (after it subsided) I might ask: “Can you use your words now?” but sometimes I just patted and soothed. I kept the limit (whatever it was) and it did not change the outcome of what needed to happen (leaving the playground was a big one for her at that age!) but I did offer comfort.

    Sometimes this did not work at all – and the tantrum could last for a LOOOONG time (I think 45 minutes was her longest!!!) if that were the case I might say – every ten minutes or so – “Can I help?” or “Can you use your words?”

  7. Dulce

    Beautiful! My daughter has been soooooo three, and both coming and going on a recent trip out of the country she had meltdowns in the airport (although she was fine on the planes, which was good!). I received so many unhelpful comments from bystanders, but also a few kind and gentle ones that helped keep *me* from joining her in the tantrum. Gentleness and empathy are priceless at any age.

  8. Kelly Pfeiffer  

    Ariadne, what a lovely post and so helpful for parents. Great ideas! I shared this with readers of my fb page.

  9. Pam

    When my boy was 3 (he is 16 now) we went through about a year of crazy tantrum behavior that I really didn’t think I would make it through at the time. We tried everything. Scolding, ignoring, timeout, holding, nothing worked. Then he turned 4 and amazingly and immediately it just stopped. We had so much fun when he was 4 because suddenly he wanted to explore everything. He wanted to know how things were made, and how they worked. Anyway, my point is that when they are 3 you think that they will be horrible adults if you “don’t get a handle on that temper” but the truth is they just grow beyond it when they learn better communication skills. A tantruming 3 year old is NOT a sign of a bad parent, and when it is over you will enjoy your kiddo once again. It happens again when they turn 13. But it helps to remember that they are just people growing up like we did and they will turn out ok too.

    • J

      That was exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.
      My son is 2, and the tantrums at daycare are apparently worse than the ones at home. We have been asked to either do part time daycare or find another provider. I’ve been soooo upset thinking that I am a terrible parent, I’m failing him, and he is going to grow up to be this angry person.
      I am glad to see that others have went through these issues and children do grow out of them.

      • Ariadne Brill

        J, I just want to wish you strength and continued support as you sort out your child’s needs for a daycare provider that will work for your family. At age 2 many children experience really big feelings, often getting so overwhelmed but this doesn’t automatically mean they will grow up to be angry people! Most children can learn to regulate their emotions with guidance and social-emotional support, like being helped in a tantrum. Many two year olds do well with having a feelings chart or cards they can use to help describe their feelings (not during the tantrum but after to reflect or before so things don’t escalate..) Best wishes to you.

  10. Michelle

    First of all, I want to applaude each and every one of you moms who commented on here! It shows just HOW MUCH you love your child because you are reaching out for help! That is awesome!! ???? You should be proud of yourselves for being brave enough to put “it” out there for comments or constructive criticism!! So good on ya for doing that!!!! Secondly, thank you SO much for this post!!! It has given me 6 great ways to deal with my sons tantrums! So I thank you for that!!! Good luck to all of you moms who are willing to try these new techniques!! ????????????????????

  11. Kaitlynn

    Will this encourage tantruming? In ABA therapy for autism it is recommended to ignore this behavior. You let them cry it out, but you offer no hugs. You wait until they stop and praise ‘quiet voices’ or say nothing and walk with them. Offering no attention until favorable responses are given. If you pay attention to them when they are more calm, they learn to manage their behavior. “When I am calmer, mom will give hugs and kisses because I am sad. I want that.”

    If I were to give in to hugs and all that to a client I am working with, they will associate tantrums with hugs (which are also sensory desired). Is there a difference between what you say to do and ABA Therapy, or do you think it should apply to everyone?

    • Ariadne Brill

      Hi Kaitlynn, I think it’s important to recognize that there are different challenges going on in working with children that are on the autistic spectrum and many theories and approaches to behavior, parenting etc… My work is based on behavior being seen as communication and children needing connection, encouragement, belonging and loving attention to learn self-regulation and to grow with a sense of capability (my personal experience is that this is can also be applied to children with sensory and developmental challenges very successfully). I don’t work on reinforcement, maintenance and elimination, although some components of NET are very interesting to me, ABA is not part of the work I do. I think each child and each family and circumstance is varied, so adaptability and sensitivity to each child and family is important.

  12. Cara Moore

    I have been blessed with 4 speacial needs children 1 biological 3 adopted …. My son being 23 was my teacher. He was diagnosed at 4 yrs old with ADHD , BI-polar, anxiety disorder, and learning disability all wrapped up in one little boy. Anyway he would have horrible fits of rage not even on the tantrum level hurting himself and anyone in his path. His therapist taught me different techniques to deal with these fits. On a bad day in the midst of a bad fit I hugged him from behind and we went to the floor I held on tight and wrapped my legs around his. With my mouth close to his ear I was able to calmly talk him down as well as well console him through touch without the risk of injury and I still use this method today!! My hug technique is one of many things I learned from my son!! Now I have been blessed with 3 more teachers I can’t wait to see what else I can learn! pick your battles mommies ……some days its enough that my babies wake up with a smile….cherish the small things……<3<3<3<3<3

    • Ariadne Brill

      Cara, thank you for sharing your story. How lovely that you have been open to learning from your children. it’s amazing what cherishing the little things really means!! Much strength to you as you continue your parenting journey.

  13. Mindy

    My son is 21 months and his tantrums involve hitting, pulling my hair and throwing toys. I’ve mainly focused on redirecting, tried ignoring and told him calmly these things hurt people. I always quickly move on so as not to focus on the tantrum. Nothing has worked, he is getting more aggressive with his attempts. Help please, he’s a very loving boy.

  14. Elizabeth Ingham

    I read your post and I remember doing some of the same things when I was younger. My family didn’t handle things gently with me, but that isn’t what I wanted to share about. I wanted to share what my mom told me one day. She told me (during one of these episodes) that she’s sad that I was breaking those items, but that she had a realization. She realized that all those things are replaceable, but that I wasn’t. It made me cry harder (in her arms) for a little bit, but it changed how I dealt with things. I stopped breaking them and throwing them. Instead I began crying on my mom’s shoulder until I could speak, then when she would ask what was wrong, I’d tell her. I thought it might help for you to know my story. Just remember that you are a strong and wonderful influence on your child. I wish you the best of luck.

    • Ariadne Brill

      This is such a powerful example of the importance of listening to a child crying and releasing all that upset. Your mother did a wonderful thing, thank you so much for sharing that.

  15. Angela

    tantrums are usually a warning that my child has had a long day at school and is over tired. a few minutes of calm cuddling and saying ‘oh ya?’ usually result in him conking out for the night.

  16. Anne

    Thanks for the great article. I think sometimes we forget how how frustrating it can be for some kids to express their wants and needs. These are great suggestions to let our kids know we are there to help them and then teach them to express themselves properly. Do you have any articles on siblings. My 3 yet old son always lays on his 1 year old sister or pushes her over and laughs. I would get it if he is mad but it happens most often when he is not mad. What would you do? Thanks

  17. Anne

    Thanks. I thought it was an attention seeking behavior at first but doesn’t seem to be. I have tried picking up the younger one and walk away, breaks ( somewhat like time outs), special time for the older one