Positive Discipline Guide to Dealing with Tantrums

You are probably reading this because you are blessed with children (your own or the ones in your care) who tend to express their emotions through tantrums. They cry, kick, whine, scream, refuse to cooperate or listen (or move?!), shout, throw themselves on the floor, sulk… And all of this because of seemingly unimportant reasons – you offered the ‘wrong’ coloured cup or some such. Sound familiar?

The bad news is, none of this is pleasant and certainly not something we look forward to. We have all been embarrassed in public, many times. The good news is, there is nothing wrong with your children; there is nothing wrong with you; it is not down to your parenting. Temper tantrums are completely developmentally normal and children will grow out of them. However, until that happens, you need to stay sane and your children need help to deal with tantrums. They need to be taught how to express their emotions in less explosive ways.

How do we do that? Before we start considering specific steps to help you emotion-coach your child through tantrums, we need to understand what is driving your kids’ behaviour and why they simply can’t control themselves. One of the principles of Positive Discipline is to view behaviour as a way of communicating needs. This is true for most adult behaviour, but especially true for children’s behaviour because children are not equipped with enough emotional and verbal maturity to express their needs in more structured ways. Our job as parents is then to learn to look behind the behaviour and try to respond in the best possible way to make sure the needs underlying the behaviour are being met. This is the difference between reactive and responsive parenting. Reactive parenting simply sees the (mis)behaviour and reacts to it, usually through punishing, lecturing, scolding, threatening… while not being aware of, or ignoring the needs that are driving that behaviour. Responsive parenting, like Positive Discipline, observes the behaviour, tries to understand the needs behind it, meets those needs while connecting with the child, and then corrects the behaviour.

To put this in the context of tantrums, children have tantrums not because they are naughty, manipulative, or just to annoy us. Younger children have tantrums because:

  • They are frustrated because they are not able to verbalise their needs and thoughts;
  • They are hungry, thirsty or tired;
  • They don’t feel like adults are listening to them or respecting them;
  • They are responding to a power struggle with an adult;
  • They feel sad or fearful;
  • They lack skills to self-calm and regulate their own emotions (the part of the brain that allows humans to control their behaviour isn’t developed enough in children).

Adults are often surprised to see or hear that children older than three years also have tantrums. Unfortunately, these children are frequently labelled as the ones with ‘emotional problems’. The truth is that the majority of them don’t have problems, they are normal, they just need to be understood and shown how to deal with scary emotions. The reasons why older children have tantrums are pretty much similar to the above list – take away ‘the lack of language ability’ and add ‘emotional overload’. Emotional overload is when children feel an increased sense of frustration, fear, anger, sadness, and joy which they are finding difficult to deal with, plus struggling to make sense of friendships, to keep up with school demands, to adjust to new feelings of not wanting parental help and input but needing it at the same time, and so on.

Now we know a bit more about what causes tantrums and why it is difficult for children to ‘just snap out of it’, we can start considering how to help a child through a tantrum in a gentle way, in a way that will bring them closer to being that responsible, caring, emotionally mature person that we want them to become. Following the principles of responsive parenting mentioned above, I suggest parents practice these 7 steps:

  1. Stay calm: Remember that this is not your tantrum; you don’t need to be part of the drama. Do whatever you need to do to speak calmly (count to 10 before saying anything, for example) and model behaviour that you want to see. Because if you get angry, you will only provoke more rage in your child.
  2. Be empathetic and validate children’s feelings: Believe it or not, sometimes all it takes for a tantrum to stop is for you to say something like “I see that you are angry because we have to go home. I understand that you want to stay in the playground for a bit longer. I am sorry this is so hard for you. I’ll be right here if you need hugs.” By doing this, you are showing to your child that you care for their feelings and that they are allowed to express their emotions.
  3. Although your child might be screaming ‘I hate you!’ from the top of their lungs, remember that most often what they say during tantrums has nothing to do with you and that they are trying to communicate a need or a feeling. This means that “I hate you!”, probably means “I am hurting, I am scared, I need you to help me.” Children need us the most when they are the most challenging.
  4. Set limits and remember to be kind AND firm: In a calm voice, offering open arms for a hug, say something like “I know you want to stay in the park. I love you and the answer is no.”
  5. Avoid power struggles: After the limit is set (above), it is likely that your child will kick off again or just intensify the tantrum. Many parents stumble at this point, but try to keep on keeping calm and focus on BEING the person you want your child to become – calm, confident and mature. Resist the urge to back talk back.
  6. Wait before you start lecturing and correcting behaviour: While your child is having a tantrum, the lecture you are trying to give is lost on them because their brain isn’t allowing them to be rational and focus on your words. You need to wait until you are BOTH calm. In order for this to happen you need to connect with your child first, because connection is the only way you can truly influence anybody. In the heat of the moment, you can achieve connection by offering hugs, going to positive time out together, laughter or similar. Connecting with your child on a daily basis is one of the best ways to keep tantrums to a minimum. This can be done by holding regular, weekly family meetings, having a special time with each of your children, showing empathy and similar.
  7. Problem solve by focusing on solutions: When everybody is calm, take the time to brainstorm solutions with your child. Try not to overanalyse or focus too much on what happened as your child might be embarrassed. Simply state what happened and ask what can be done differently: “I noticed that you were so angry that you wanted to hit mummy. Mummies are not for hitting. But what else could you do when you feel so angry?”

By following the steps described above, you are emotion-coaching your children. Emotion-coaching isn’t about repressing emotions; it also isn’t about always acting upon emotions. It is about helping children accept their emotions, understand them and learn how to control them. If children learn how to manage emotions, they can then manage behaviour, which further helps with the development of emotional intelligence and reaching our goal of raising confident, mature, kind, calm and capable children. To quote Dr Jane Nelsen, “Positive Discipline is not about teaching parents to manage their children. It is about helping parents empower their children to manage themselves.”



Information presented in this article was based on Positive Discipline and gentle parenting publications, including:

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen

Positive Discipline: The First Three Years by Jane Nelsen

Parenting from the Inside Out by Dr Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell



Marijana Filipović-Carter is a mum of two and a Positive Discipline Parent Educator. She runs courses and workshops for parents and other childcare providers; she also offers individual support to parents via skype, phone or email. To find out more about what Marijana can do for you, please visit www.pdparentingsolutions.org . You can also like her Facebook page to join the Positive Discipline virtual community https://www.facebook.com/pdparentingsolutions/

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