Seven Ways to Tame Your Preschooler's Temper Tantrum
Updated: Jan 11
Temper tantrums may occur when young children are unable to describe and/or navigate their experiences, thoughts, and big feelings. Children need consistent modeling, teaching and empathy to help them understand their own feelings and begin to use words to describe what they need. Here are five ways to respond to a temper tantrum and help your little one gain additional "tools" to express themselves during this phase of their development.
1) Give your child feeling words when they are calm.
When you notice your child is experiencing a specific feeling during a calm moment or in daily life, point these out to him or her and give them a word. Model the word using a facial expression. Take the time to look at TV characters, book characters, movie characters, people around you, etc., and use these opportunities to widen your child's emotive vocabulary. Familiarizing your child with emotion words from a young age can help them establish a vocabulary to draw from as they continue to develop and create associations between the words and their behaviors and/or feelings.
2) Connect the feeling word to a specific behavioral cue.
For example, if you look at your child and they are smiling and wiggling their legs, point out that they are smiling, and give them the word "happy" or "excited". If their fists are clenched and mouth is downturned, point out their clenched hands and give them the word "angry", "mad", or "frustrated". If they are pouting and squinting their eyes, point out the pout and give them the word "sad" or "upset". Children use concrete clues based on their own experiences to learn new concepts during this phase of development, so pairing a concrete behavioral cue with a new word can help your child associate the two. They may then be more inclined to use the feeling word if they have experienced this consistent association!
3) Cue into your child's "pre-tantrum" behaviors
Become familiar with the cues that your child is beginning to become frustrated, upset, or overwhelmed, and notice what those cues are. A wobbly lip, restless feet, tugging at their hair, looking down at the floor, etc. If you can notice these cues and ask if they need help or intervene, you may be able to avoid a full-blown meltdown. In these earlier moments, you can help your child gain new coping skills and regulate these feelings at an earlier stage of the "storm", so to speak, instead of trying to soothe a tsunami!
4) Check in for basic needs
If your child has not slept adequately, eaten much, is especially physically uncomfortable (too hot, cold, wet. etc.) or has had their daily routine interrupted significantly (travel, special occasions, etc.) you may notice that they are difficult to soothe or more prone to tantrums. In this case, meeting those basic needs must be priority #1. The mind cannot focus on cognitive tasks such as gaining new coping skills, thinking about their own behaviors, or anticipating consequences of a tantrum without the appropriate resources of sleep, healthy food, physical comfort, and routine. In this situation, attempting a "teaching moment" during a meltdown will not be effective or helpful. Simply take steps to meet these needs so that your child can move towards increased calm, comfort, and self-regulation.
5) Model emotional regulation in-the-moment
Responding to a temper tantrum, can be very difficult. However, remaining attentive, empathetic, and available can help tame a "tsunami" tantrum. During this developmental stage, children respond best to immediate interventions rather than interventions that are provided too long after the situation occurs. That being said, interventions should be focused primarily on de-escalating big emotions rather than joining in with big feelings, lecturing, or negotiating, because your child will not be able to absorb complex information at this time. When a child is in "tsunami" mode, a simple and immediate approach is best: maintain consistency, model calm behavior, and emphasize your availability and attentiveness in-the-moment.
6) Be consistent and concrete
Modeling emotional regulation means maintaining consistency even if it would be easier to give in and avoid the difficult interaction. It also means providing very concrete choices in the moment rather than asking an open-ended question, such as "Why are you doing that?" A better question might be " I see you crying, what happened to make you sad?" In this example, you provide a clue that crying often indicates that one is sad, and by asking "what" instead of "why", you can cue into a specific interaction/situation. You can then follow that up with validating their feelings, providing a small amount of choices that help the child navigate their situation, or intervening to help them solve a problem. For instance,
P: I see you crying, what happened to make you sad?"
C: You said no more cookies!
P: Oh, you're upset I said you can't have any more cookies.
C: You're being mean!
P: You're really upset that the cookies are put away for the night.
C: Yeah, I want more!
P: It looks like you're pretty sad right now. Would you like a hug to help you cool down, or would you like to cool down on your own?
P: Okay. Would you like to cool down by coloring in your coloring book, or playing with your stuffed animals in your room?
C: I want to color.
In this example, the parent didn't bend the boundary, but simply validated the child's feeling and helped provide concrete choices towards cooling down. Children crave consistency and boundaries for emotional support and regulation, even though it may not seem like it at times, which you provide by offering choices and maintaining consistency. Consistency provides emotional safety by communicating that even if your child expresses challenging behaviors or "tests the waters", they can predict the nature of your safe response, and use this foundational "springboard" to learn to regulate themselves.
7) Behaviors are meaningful
Recognize that big feelings and their corresponding behaviors are the tools that a child has in their "toolbelt" to solve a problem they are facing. Consider what developmentally appropriate "tools" may be helpful for your child, and help them curate these resources, whether it's having more emotion words, learning words or phrases to navigate social situations, or just learning to ask you for help. Also, some children or families may benefit from additional support from a great family or child therapist, trained to provide developmentally appropriate interventions.
Tantrums can be very difficult to handle. Taking the time to be proactive and recognize cues and provide emotion words when calm can help a child increase their emotional "toolbelt". Modeling emotional regulation by remaining calm, helping solve a problem, maintaining consistency and giving choices can help tame the intensity of a tantrum. Regardless, some tantrums are just unavoidable, messy, and difficult. Take time to care for yourself and give yourself a pat on the back for doing an incredibly hard, messy, rewarding, amazing job! Parenting!