Temper Tantrums

"What can a parent do when a child throws herself on the floor kicking and screaming, especially if it happens in a public place?"

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Temper tantrums can be infuriating and embarrassing. Sometimes, children have tantrums because they are tired and parents are dragging them to places they don't have the resources and skills to handle. Other times, it helps to remember that your child's behavior may have a purpose. Children may throw temper tantrums to get an adult's attention, to get their own way, to hurt back if they feel hurt, or to get others to leave them alone. Temper tantrums are an emotional display. The child may feel angry or frustrated or vindictive-or even playful. We are most effective when we deal with the tantrum and then later deal with the feeling behind the tantrum.


One of the best ways to deal with a temper tantrum is to simply ignore it. Stand quietly and wait until it's over.

Another possibility is to shut your mouth and act. One way to do this is to kindly and firmly pick up the child or take the child by the hand and leave the public place. If you take the child's hand, and she pulls in the other direction, do not resist. While still keeping your mouth shut, let yourself be pulled in her direction until she stops pulling. Then start walking (still holding her hand, kindly and firmly) away from the public place. Keep repeating this every time your child resists. It looks like a seesaw, with you leaning in the child's direction until she stops resisting, then pulling in your direction until she resists, then back in her direction until she stops resisting. When you don't engage in the power struggle, your child will usually stop resisting after three to five times of this seesaw.

With some children, it helps to hold them and comfort them when they have a tantrum. Say, "It's okay to be upset. It happens to all of us. I'm here and I love you.

It's okay to say no to your child, and it's okay for her to be angry. You don't have to fix it. It is healthy for children to learn that they can deal with their emotions. They will do so more quickly if parents don't feed the emotional fires with arguments and lectures.

Once the tantrum is over, say nothing about it. If your child is using a tantrum for emotional blackmail, she will soon give up if you don't buy into it.

Follow through by deciding what you will do instead of what you will try to make your child do. This is effective only after pre-planning has taken place (see "Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems," below).

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

Ask your child at a calmer time if she would like to learn some other ways to handle frustration. Teach her to tell you in words how she feels instead of using an emotional display.

Pay attention to ways you may be setting your child up to have a tantrum. Most kids don't start off with a tantrum. You may be arguing, demanding, controlling, and fighting with your child until she throws a tantrum in exasperation.

Ask your child what she would like you to do when she is having a tantrum. Do this at a time when you can discuss it calmly. Give choices like, "Would you like a hug, would you like me to just wait until you're over it, or would you like to go to your comfort place (positive time-out) until you feel better?" Children are more receptive to an intervention that they have chosen in advance.

Role-play before going to a public place. (Three- to six-year-olds will understand it better as the game "Let's Pretend.") Describe the behavior that is expected and let your children pretend you are in the public place and that they are doing what is expected. Let them have fun role-playing a temper tantrum while you role-play what you will do. It is also fun to reverse roles. You play the child who is having the tantrum and let your child play what the parent will do.

Set up a time for training shortly after you have played "Let's Pretend." Plan to go somewhere in public where you are willing to follow through immediately with the agreed-upon suggestion. If the tantrum starts, follow through immediately without anger.

Decide what you will do and inform your child in advance. For example, you may decide that you will take the child to the car and patiently read a book until she has settled down and tells you that she is ready to try again. Or you may decide that you will go home immediately. Whatever you decide, be sure to follow through with dignity and respect. In other words, keep your mouth shut and act. The only thing you could say that would be effective is, "You can try again when you are ready" (if you are in the car) or "You can try again tomorrow or next week" (if you have returned home). It might be better to wait until everyone is calm to make either comment.

Put the problem of tantrums on the family-meeting agenda and let your children brainstorm for solutions about what to do. After you have a list of suggestions, let the child who typically has tantrums choose the suggestion she feels will help her the most.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that tantrums and emotional blackmail won't get them what they want and that there are more appropriate ways to express their feelings. They can learn that it is okay to have their feelings and you love and accept them even if they are having a fit.

Parenting Pointers

The more you involve your children in decisions that affect them, the less they feel the need to use tantrums to have a say.

Some kids (and some adults, too) like to bluster before they accept the inevitable. It's their style and doesn't hurt anyone. Once the blustering (or tantrum) is done, often they will cheerfully do what needs to be done. Keep your sail out of their wind while they bluster, and it won't rock your boat.

Booster Thoughts

It may be difficult for parents to accept how effective it can be to remain kind and firm at the same time. Remember that kindness shows respect for the child and for yourself. Firmness shows respect for the "needs of the situation"-in this case, that acting out in public is not appropriate.

Keeping your mouth shut while acting adds to kindness and firmness. It is useless to talk during the time of conflict for several reasons:

Anything said would usually be disrespectful. (Lectures are disrespectful.) It is also disrespectful to assume that the child does not already know whatever you are trying to convey.

Things said in anger are usually later regretted by the speaker, but retained by the listener.

Whatever is said during a time of conflict may be heard, but not rationally-nor is it spoken rationally.

Whatever is said in anger usually feeds a power struggle or a revenge cycle.

On the other hand, keeping your mouth shut is a reminder for you to maintain kindness and firmness. Keeping your mouth shut also teaches your child that you mean what you say. Actions speak louder than words.

Words can be used for follow up when the conflict is over and everyone feels good. At that time you could help your child explore what happened through what and how questions so the event is transformed into a learning experience.

These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn