Taming Tantrums

Portrait of crying baby girlYou know that feeling you get when your 2 year old starts in on yet another tantrum—your body tenses up, you move one step closer to total exhaustion, and your brain just wants to hand over the controls to someone else? That’s how your little one feels, too. Only worse.

What causes tantrums?

For the first three years of life, children’s brains are growing and developing at an unbelievable rate—to the tune of one million new neural connections per second! That’s a lot of learning and information processing going on inside the brain of a child who’s still new here, and who doesn’t yet have the speech skills to effectively communicate very real wants and needs. And when you, the most important person in your child’s life, just doesn’t get it, the emotion becomes overwhelming, the brain’s electrical circuits get overloaded, and meltdowns happen.

How do I respond?

Taking a couple of seconds (and a deep breath or two) to reflect on why your child is acting out is a great first step. You’re stressed and about to lash out at your little one, who is stressed and lashing out at the world. That won’t help. 

Remember the main reason for the tantrum—any tantrum—is a need or a want that’s going unmet, and the inability to explain that need or want effectively. It’s not bratty or bad manners; it’s science. Whether you can’t figure out what they want, or you know exactly what they want, but they aren’t going to get it, the first thing to do is show that you understand and acknowledge their frustration. You might say:

  • “You’re upset because I don’t understand what you want.”
  • “You wanted abc, but instead, xyz happened.”

You might be shocked by how quickly you can defuse a tantrum just by showing your child that you understand their feelings.

If that doesn’t work, again, see this from your child’s perspective. If you were so overloaded with sadness and despair that all you could do was fall to the floor and cry—what would you want your most trusted person to do? Would you want them to send you to your room all alone? Yell at you? Leave you there to scream by yourself? No, probably not. Sometimes, we all just need comforting until the thinking part of our brain is ready to take over again from the overwhelmed emotional part. Sometimes, we just need a hug.