Behavioral Pathways: Tantrums

When a child throws a tantrum, it can be frustrating and exhausting as tantrums often come at inconvenient times, and let be honest, we want them to do what we asked–which is what caused the problem in the first place.

When dealing with tantrums, it requires a mind-shift as the goal is to help our child calm down. It is not getting your child to do what you originally asked them to do. 

For example, if your child threw a tantrum over putting on their shoes, you don’t discuss them putting on their shoes until they are calm. 

Reasoning with your child will not work when their emotions are running high. Often it will only make the situation worse and prolong the tantrum.

Parents may also have heightened emotions during this time, but it’s vital for you to control your emotional response. Stay calm. Take a breath, evaluate where you are mentally, and engage in this process. Your child cannot calm down if you are not calm.

Using the skill of Observe and Describe, Following Instructions, and Effective Praise, you can help your child through their tantrum.

Skills to Learn

Observe & Describe

Observe and Describe lesson link

Following Instructions

Following Instructions lesson link

Effective Praise

Effective Praise skills link

This is what you will do:

When your child goes into a tantrum behavior, you will engage with them by saying the following:

Parent: “Name of your child, right now you are (describe the behavior). What you need to do is (simple instruction).”

You will repeat this information in a calm, consistent manner with your child. 

Let me give you an example:

Parent: “Ryan, right now you are yelling at your sister. What you need to do is look at me.”

Repeat this over and over again until you see some compliance. Avoid arguing, debating, or reasoning with your child. It will not work.

As soon as your child does even a little part of the instruction, praise them for it–even if they obey partly or begrudgingly. Anything your child does close to the instruction requires praise from you. Praise helps deescalate your child’s mood and encourages your child to comply more with what you ask.

Let me give you an example:

Parent: “Ryan, great job looking at me. Thank you.”

Then you begin the process again with a description of the behavior they are doing and a small instruction on what they need to be doing.

Parent: “Ryan, right now you are looking at me. What you need to do now is take one deep breath.”

If you notice, all the behaviors that are described and given are very simple and very specific to helping your child calm down. Keep it as simple as possible with one instruction at a time.

The following instructions can be given to help a child calm down:

Take a deep breath or do breathing exercises

Sing a song

Clap your hands

Drum on the floor

Blow out a candle

Squeeze your fists or a stuffed animal

Rip a piece of paper

Play with a calm-down toy

Tell a joke

Do a yoga pose

Jump up and down

Do an animal crawl

Eat something

Take a sip of water

Run your hands under running water

Stand on one foot

Listen to a favorite song

Watch a YouTube video

Describe a favorite place

Look at a picture

You will continue this pattern of describing a behavior, giving a simple instruction, praising them for that instruction once they do it, then describing a new behavior, giving another simple instruction, and praising until your child is calm. This process may take some time for some children, while it may happen quickly for others.

Throughout this whole process, adopt the idea that progress is more important than perfection. 

Be patient, be consistent, be calm. Remember that when a child throws a tantrum, they are trying to communicate with you something they don’t know how to, so it’s crucial to help them work through what they are feeling.

Tantrums often occur because a child is hungry, tired, overwhelmed, anxious, sad, or in need of attention.



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