How to deal with tantrums part 2, the 5 techniques for coping with tantrums

tantrums 2Thanks once again to the marvellous Rachel Fitz-Desorgher, all-round parenting guru, who has kindly written for Live Oxfordshire this two-part guide to dealing with tantrums. Last week she looked at the 5 principles to keep in mind during the tantrum years and, if you didn’t see it, then it is definitely worth reading before you look at these techniques. This week she will cover, in detail, 5 specific strategies to try once a tantrum is in full swing to minimise the distress to you and your child and, hopefully, prevent them from becoming a frequent weapon in your child’s armoury.


1. Ignore: This approach can give the quickest result but can also be the trickiest to implement. Your child will learn very quickly that her tantrum gets her some degree of attention, good or bad. Completely withdrawing ANY attention allows an individual tantrum to dissipate in its own natural time rather than causing it to become an attention-seeking device. However, ignoring completely means just that. Here are some ways that parents who are trying to ignore a child inadvertently give attention and reinforce the behaviour:
  • “I’m not listening!”
  • “I’m counting … 1 … 2 …”
  • “Stop the tantrum and then I’ll listen.”
  • “Don’t start or I’ll be cross!”
  • Silent glare
  • Fingers in ears and singing
  • Giving the “Speak to the hand …” sign
If you have decided to ignore a tantrum then you really have to ignore it, calmly, confidently and completely. Carry on doing whatever you need to do: read a book, make a cup of tea, hoover the stairs. Just don’t get drawn in. Your child will try and try to get your attention but do not waver. Think of a drinks machine. You put in £1 and press the button … nothing. You press the button again … nothing. You will keep on pressing until you are satisfied that no drink is coming and then you will give up. If you kick the machine and you get a drink, next time, you will try the kick again. Why wouldn’t you?
As soon as the tantrum is really over, invite your child to join you and then give praise for something as soon as you possibly can, “OK, Poppet, all done! Come and give me a hand with the laundry. There, you found your two blue socks – well done you!” Don’t harp on about the tantrum or discuss it in any way. It’s gone. Don’t rub her nose in it!
2. Remove and Ignore: If you find it hard to ignore your child during a tantrum, or if he grabs you or tries to throw things around, remove him to somewhere completely safe and free from valuables and then ignore him. All you need to do is calmly warn him that that is what you are going to do, “I can’t let you stay in with me to shout and throw things. You will be safe in here until you feel better and can come back to join me.” Then do not say any more at all. If he comes out mid-tantrum, calmly and silently pick him up, pop him back in the safe area and shut the door if you need to (you may choose to leave it open if you are sure you won’t want to keep checking up on him and engaging.
When all is quiet, leave him for a minute to be sure and then calmly ask, “Are you feeling better now? Ok, come on out and let’s get back to making that train track.” Remember not to revisit the topic, “but you are still not having your brother’s red train!” unless he does and then stick to your guns, “I know how much you want the red train and you can have the blue or yellow one, you choose.” If the tantrum starts up again, go straight to putting him in the safe area without a warning this time. Hard to do over and over again but your child will need dozens of opportunities like this before he learns adequate emotional control.
3. Natural consequences: Older children may respond better to consequences. It is also a good approach if you just cannot ignore the tantrum. However, you WILL have to carry out the consequence if pushed so make jolly sure you can before you say anything. Most tantrums (or, if the child is older, most rows) take up time. So the most natural consequences are time-related ones. A pre-bed tantrum may mean no time for a book.
If this is a regular occurrence, pick a good time to make a bedtime ritual chart with your child and then she can tick off each ritual in turn each night. If she has a tantrum, she will have to lose one, then two, then three rituals. However, when the tantrum is over, cheerfully say “Ok. Now, choose 2 things from your chart.” If she says she wants three things then stand firm but don’t harp on about the tantrum, “No, you haven’t got time for three, choose two quickly.”
With an older child, you may feel that you do not want to spend the afternoon shopping with someone who is yelling rudely at you. This is just the way of the world. If people are horrid to us, we don’t want to spend time with them. But deliver the news firmly and congruently. No apologetic voice signaling your uncertainty and guilt! Try “I suggest you stop speaking rudely to me double quick or I’ll be in no mood to go shopping with you!”
Be quite clear that you will have to follow through on your consequences a number of times before your child realizes that you really DO mean what you say.
It is fine to put consequences in place that really will make it clear that there are limits. If an older child has lurched from one ‘scene’ to another all day, then it is not unreasonable to refuse to have supper with him, or to put him to bed half an hour earlier or to leave him at home for the day whilst you go out with the rest of the family as planned. Just don’t threaten anything you are not 100% sure you can go through with. And remember to remain congruent.
4. Choices: Using choices can help both to distract and manage a tantrum. If a tantrum is brewing in the supermarket then distract, “Shall we have fish fingers or jam sandwiches for tea? You get to choose.” But if you find yourself in the midst of the real thing, use a choice to cut it short, “I can’t allow that in here. You stop and walk with me or you can sit in the trolley. Quickly, choose.” If she chooses to sit in the trolley but continues to tantrum then YOU have a choice – ignore her and carry on shopping or push the trolley somewhere quiet and handle the tantrum in your chosen way.
Remember that any consequence for a toddler needs to make sense and be immediate, “You need to calm yourself down. I will count slowly to ten. If you are not calm by then, we won’t have time to buy the doughnuts we wanted for tea.” If you possibly can, avoid consequences that are too far away time-wise as you are likely to just precipitate another tantrum, “If you carry on, there won’t be time to feed the ducks this afternoon”. Your child will have forgotten about the tantrum by the time she has had lunch and will not want to be reminded of it when it comes to time for feeding the ducks.
In truth, with a toddler, a tantrum is so overwhelming that, unless it has barely got going, your child will be in no fit state to make a choice so only use this if you have got the timing right. With older children who are trying to make you do what they say against your better judgement then keep choices small and don’t be deflected, “I have said no to a sleepover. You can have a pizza evening with two friends or a breakfast picnic tomorrow with three friends. You choose”. Do not be talked into compromises “Why can’t I have a pizza evening with three friends?” “The choice is, pizza evening with two friends or breakfast picnic with three friends. You choose.”
The purpose is to get the child to make a choice and accept that she can’t always have what she wants. If she stomps off saying “Fine, I won’t have either!” That’s ok. Of course, she may reflect for a while and then choose the breakfast picnic. That’s ok, you were not wanting to punish her anyway. She still hasn’t got the sleepover and she HAS made a choice, “Great choice. What do you want to prepare for breakfast?”
5. Hold: This is the most loving way to manage your child during a tantrum. You provide the control, calm and loving reassurance that your young child desperately needs at this moment. However, make sure that you can do this calmly and lovingly. Often, you find that holding your child during a tantrum helps you to calm down yourself and feel your love for them return. But if your anger is too strong, put him safe away from you and ignore him. It may take a LOT of will power so maybe get a relaxing tape especially for such moment!
In order to hold your child, put him on your lap facing away (so he can’t bite or head-butt you), and talk gently to him, “you’re quite safe, I’ve got you, you’re ok, Mummy’s here, I love you …” and so on until the tantrum is over. Then stay still and just cuddle. When you both feel better, get on with whatever you had planned. Nothing should change because of a tantrum and never re-visit it.
If your child tries to hit or pinch you, gently say, “Pinching hurts, I’m going to hold your hands so you can’t hurt us” and then do it – sometimes it is even necessary to cuddle his arms right around his tummy to stop the violence. Likewise, kicking can be restrained with your legs crossed over his. Be sure not to get angry – he needs your reassurance that you are not as overwhelmed as he is.

Remember to go back over last week’s points and look at the principles. After you have dealt with the tantrum and it has gone (at least until the next one) remember to reassure & move on. And NEVER LET A TANTRUM CHANGE ANYTHING.


Rachel Fitz-Desorgher offers “Confident Parenting” courses comprising six

2½ hour workshops designed to equip parents with tried and trusted strategies that leave both children and parents feeling empowered and capable. For more information, or to contact Rachel, you can visit her website – Rachel Fitz-D

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