How to Tackle Tantrums: A 3-Step Guide

First, let’s just acknowledge that dealing with tantrums is tough!

They are loud, disruptive, sometimes embarrassing, often irrational, and usually frustrating to manage. So, what can you do about them? 

The good news:

We have some simple steps you can start using today to help manage your child’s tantrums more effectively. 

While these steps won’t make the tantrums go away immediately, or forever, the goal is for you, as the parent, to come prepared to each tantrum with a plan of action.

We want you to know you are truly doing everything you can be doing in that moment to both diffuse the tantrum, teach your child how to better communicate, and manage their big reactions and emotions going forward.  

Please note these steps are the ones you will take when your child has already started having a full-blown tantrum.  For strategies and tips on how to prevent tantrums from starting in the first place, read this article on Preventing Tantrums.

When that next tantrum starts up, take a deep breath, and follow the steps below:

1. Keep Calm and Acknowledge the Problem

Keeping your cool, and not letting your child’s behavior get YOU all worked up is much easier said than done, but it is crucial to both diffusing the tantrum and teaching your child what you want their behavior to look like in the future.

Your job is to be a cool, calm, collected, and in-control adult.  Sometimes you need to fake it ‘til you make it! 

(Check out this video by Melissa Schulz, BCBA, about how to not take your children’s behavior personally.)

At the same time, you want to acknowledge the problem that the child is experiencing without dwelling on it. Coming with some scripted language will help. For example:

“I see that you want (x) and you are mad/sad/frustrated that you cannot have that right now.” 

Another example:

“You want to do (x). I’m sorry we can’t do that right now.” 

What’s important is that you are acknowledging the issue (“I see the problem you are having and I understand how you feel”) and that you use a tone and a manner of speaking that lets the child know you are not rattled by what’s happening (“I see that you are having a hard time and I am ok with that”). 

At this point, it’s time to move on to step 2…

2. Setting expectations

In order to get to the other side of this tantrum as quickly as possible, we don’t want to dwell on the problem too long.

At this point, your child needs a clear understanding of what is going to happen next and what is expected of them at this time. This can take the form of:

  • Setting expectations of what they need to do in order to have/do what they want (if that’s possible at this time)
  • If it is not possible for them to have/do what they want (or if you don’t actually know what they want/why they are upset) your job is to set some expectations about what they can do and how to get access to other things they might be interested in.

Examples of setting expectations might be: 

“When you put on your shoes, we can go outside and play (if they are tantruming because they don’t want to wear shoes, but they do want to go outside). 

“It’s time for a snack, let’s go to the kitchen and you can choose which yummy crackers you’d like to eat” (if they are tantruming because they want to watch more tv but now it’s snack time).

Note: If your child is not ready to listen to the information about what is happening next/what is expected of them, it’s also ok to just wait for some of their loud and disruptive behaviors to deescalate before taking this next step, without drawing a lot of attention to their negative behavior and without allowing the child to get their way while they are still engaged in tantrum behavior. 

For more on how to execute this type of “waiting it out” see our training video on Planned Ignoring. 

3. Following through

Now that your child has the information they need about what’s going to happen next and what they can have/do, your job is to execute step 3; arguably the most important step of all.

Following through can be difficult, especially if you are not feeling confident about tackling tantrums just yet. It may seem like the tantrum is going to go on forever.  You may start thinking “oh heck, this isn’t worth it, I’ll just give them what they want” – but STAY THE COURSE. 

In following through, you are teaching your child some important information about boundaries, limits, social norms and safety…the list goes on. And the good news is that if you are able to follow through consistently, your child’s tantrums are likely to decrease in both intensity and frequency over time. 

For example, it will only take a few episodes of “we can go outside only when your shoes are on” for your child to learn that their tantrum isn’t going to change the rule about wearing shoes.  Likewise, your child will learn that having a tantrum won’t actually change the schedule for the day, and they will be less likely to engage in a full-blown tantrum, even if they do still feel disappointed that tv time is over.  

Tackling tantrums takes patience and energy, so be mindful of finding time for yourself and find ways to regularly recharge your batteries.

Tackling tantrums effectively also requires that all of the adults who are interacting with your child and managing their tantrums have the same approach and the same commitment to follow through. Make sure that you all communicate and that everyone has the same idea about what their response should be and what expectations they should be setting for your child in these situations.  If everyone follows these three steps, it WILL get better.

You got this. 

Please check out our parenting support course, “5 steps to helping your kid calm down.”