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How to Handle a Tantrum

For generations, tantrums have been considered a form of misbehaviour – something that needs to be prevented, stopped and eliminated. But behaviour is often not something that’s intentional, or even controllable, for young children. Children have an in-built ability to move from their dysregulated state to a more calm regulated one, but this often involves an emotional outburst. Usually, they need our help to do this. We call this co-regulation, and every young child needs this to happen many, many times in order to learn self-regulation. So how do we do it?

1. Get close to your child, and make physical contact if possible. They might want you to hold them – do that. If they don’t want you near them, the odd stroke of the arm or squeeze of the hand will remind them you’re there. Approach them with warmth, and an open heart.

2. Try not to speak. Now is not the time to rationalise what upset them or try and get them to tell you what’s wrong. Some helpful phrases are: “I’m sorry this is so hard my girl.” “I’m right here, I won’t leave you.” “I’m listening darling.” “I love you.” “You’re safe, my love.”

3. Continue to hold this space of warm acceptance – let their feelings flow. Avoid distracting them, this communicates that uncomfortable feelings are to be avoided, rather than processed. The goal is to provide the safety for your child to see the feelings through, not to stop the crying.

4. It’s very normal for a child to get physical, and you may need to put a limit on their physical reactions to the feelings (hitting or destructive behaviour). All you need to do is prevent it from happening & calmly say “I’m not going to let you kick/hit/bite me/the dog/the plant/yourself.”

5. Trust that your child is doing exactly what they need to do in your confident and reassuring presence to process their feelings. Picture yourself as a harbour in their stormy sea, keeping them safe until the sea returns to calmness. Only then should we attempt to talk about what happened, in a non-judgemental & curious way.

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