What do I do when my child has a tantrum and can I avoid them?

[Q] Argh – tantrums! What do I do when my 4yo has a tantrum? And can I avoid them happening? It’s so embarrassing having him meltdown in front of other people.

[A] If you’re getting tantrums from your young child, you’re not doing a bad job of parenting!

Tantrums are a normal part of kids development. Young children get overwhelmed with their emotions and don’t know how to manage them so the flood of emotions takes over their brains. 

They have a built-in way of coping which is to release all that pent up emotion by externalising it (crying, banging, writhing around etc). This disperses all the hormones of their emotional reaction and they feel calm and okay again afterwards (but it leaves us parents wiped out!). Some children have lots of tantrums, and some have none – every child is different.

When a tantrum arises:

  1. Just sit with your child and let them know you’re there if they need you. Do not disappear as they need the support to handle their full-on emotions.

  2. Don’t try and pick them up unless they want you to hold them.

  3. Wait patiently until the crying has completely finished then hold and soothe them.

Remember, a young child can’t be rational about what they’re feeling and they can’t handle their emotions – they’re too young. So don’t expect them to control themselves.

Having said that, there are some things you can do to try and avoid tantrums arising.

Children don't handle emotional triggers well when their defences are down (i.e. if they're tired, hungry, over-stimulated or feeling disconnected from you). Preempt these possibilities to avoid a tantrum occurring as follows:

  • Bring extra nourishing snacks (non-sugar based) to fill their tummies when you're out.

  • Give them pre-emptive cuddles before a big event or situation.

  • Remove them from over-stimulating environments and go home early if you see they are getting overwhelmed.

  • Don't do too much when you know they might be tired.

  • Overstimulation can be due to artificial colours/flavours or stimulants like cola or excess chocolate so avoid these at all times!

And as for you, the parent: it’s natural to feel upset after a tantrum so allow yourself to feel it.

If you’re around other people it can feel embarrassing to have others see your child like that and you might feel like a failed parent. Just remind yourself that most parents have gone through this at some time and can empathise.

They’re thinking “poor you” not “what a hopeless mother”!

And, as with parenting generally, if you’re taking a loving, calm and mindful approach to parenting then you can just ignore what others think because you are doing your very best!