How to Help Your Child Handle Tantrums

By Lesley Iwinski

David is playing with his blocks, and he’s having trouble building a tower. He is getting frustrated. You try to help, but he will have none of it. He knocks the tower over, throws himself on the pile, and screams and cries. 

As is the case in medicine, making the correct diagnosis is essential to providing the best treatment.

According to Dr. Margot Sunderland, a child psychologist in England, tantrums generally fall into one of two categories:

Distress tantrum: A child is in real pain. His immature brain is overwhelmed, and his body is flooded with stress hormones. He doesn’t know that this terrible feeling won’t go on forever, and he is frightened.

Manipulative tantrum: The child is usually able to talk, is less likely to have tears, and does not have the neurochemical and stress hormone storm.

A child in distress needs you to move toward him, to be soothing in your tone or warmly silent.

This helps his brain to develop pathways that provide the basis for handling stress in the future.

Ignoring a distress tantrum or punishing it can be harmful. He needs your compassion and comfort.

When a child is trying to manipulate, that is the time to move calmly away.

When parents give in and get the candy in the checkout line, the toy they didn’t plan to buy, or let the child stay up late, they are sowing the seeds for more and bigger tantrums in the future.

This child needs a firm boundary, enforced matter-of-factly and with love.

Most parents are uncomfortable when a tantrum happens. Here are some tips to help you:
1.) The storm will pass. No tantrum lasts forever.
2.) Use your own self-calming tools to keep from being drawn into the storm. Breathe deeply and tell yourself, “I can be calm.”
3.) Tantrums are a normal part of child development. Your child is not “bad.”
4.) Prevent tantrums in the future by noticing patterns and plan ahead. Perhaps three errands in a row are too much for your 3-year-old to handle after a day at preschool.
5.) Get support. Talk with your pediatrician or a parent educator.

The time and compassionate effort you spend guiding your child through tantrums are wise and worthwhile investments in his emotional development and future happiness.