Temper Tantrums

August 11, 2008 · 28 comments

in Daily Life, Development, Toddler 10, Toddlers

Update: The eighth post in a series of ten on effective gentle discipline methods. This was one of my favorite posts to write.

           “Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words.” -Calvin & Hobbes


Swifts in a stormy sky




We’ve been having thunder storms here for days now. It thunders. There is lightening, and then it pours rain. Afterwards, the sky clears, the air is cool and fresh, and all is well again. Sometimes this process goes on for weeks, until we are back to fair skies.


Temper tantrums are much the same as thunder storms. Think of temper tantrums as emotional weather. They can be loud and scary, but in the end, the air is clear, and skies are sunny again.

Bright Sun Through Clouds


Each child is unique, but I’ve never known one who went through toddlerhood without at least one good tantrum. Why are children prone to tantrums at times? There are many reasons. Young children are small, but often have big feelings, and ideas which they can’t always express or carry out easily. Their daily schedules and activities are decided upon by the adults who care for them. They are learning and growing daily, but they can become easily overstimulated and overwhelmed. When too much pressure builds up they may blow up!

If your child is well nourished and well rested, gets outdoors and plays actively each day, has a predictable daily routine, has plenty of opportunities to participate in her own care, and you are communicating clearly and respectfully, allowing for tarry time, and monitoring your home environment to make changes as needed, chances are temper tantrums will be few and far between.

Here is one of my favorite stories about S. who will turn three in just another few weeks, and occasionally succumbs to whining, which is a whole other beast! As long as I’ve mentioned whining, I might as well go ahead and say that while temper tantrums are common at one and two, whining is more common at three and four.

With an older child, whose verbal skills are well developed,  it helps to have a zero tolerance policy towards the whining. When S. whines, her parents and I calmly explain that we don’t like her tone of voice, and find it hard to understand or listen to her when she talks in that tone. Then we ask her to repeat herself in her “regular” voice. We reassure her that she is much more likely to gain our help, and understanding if she just talks to us without whining. This works.

But it does no good at all (and may make matters worse) to tell a one or two year old to “use your words”, especially in stressful situations. I’ve always loved what Magda Gerber had to say about this topic: “If they COULD use their words, they would.” Have you as an adult (who no doubt has a LOT of words and is very capable of using them) ever become so overwhelmed by a situation or an emotion, that all you could do was cry, or scream? I know I certainly have. OK then. Let’s move on.

If a toddler isn’t using her words, it’s because the situation is too stressful, she doesn’t have the words to express her feelings, needs or desires,  or she feels “unheard” in a situation, and is ACTING in a way that she knows everyone will pay attention to. Smart child.



scream and shout

OK, so back to S. and her temper tantrum. S. was just a little over two years old, and had received an easel and watercolors for her birthday. S. loved to paint morning, noon, and night. Her parents, well meaning and caring adults that they are, thought it would be a great idea to enroll S. in a class, where she could interact with other two year old children and paint to her heart’s content.

Honestly,  it was this low key little class, where parents or caregivers stayed with their child, and for the first hour, the children could paint, work with clay, or spread glitter glue all over paper. There was no formal instruction, no emphasis on creating a finished product, no model to follow, nothing.

The second hour, kids could choose to help make cookies, or play outside on the little playground, and an older lady (a grandmother) strummed the guitar and sang popular kid songs. Most of the children would sing and dance along, and the whole morning ended with warm, fresh baked cookies, and organic juice.

Sounds ideal right ? Except S. didn’t think so. She would much rather paint with me at home. The other difficulty was that this class started at 9:30 am, and I arrived at S.’s home at 9:00 am, so there was a little bit of a rushed atmosphere in the morning, as her parents would quickly give me a morning report, and I’d steer S. towards the door so we could get to class on time.

One particular day, S. was determined to paint at home, before class. Her parents and I were chattering above her while she readied her paint supplies, and kept repeating that she wanted to paint, “right now, please.” We told her what fun she’d have painting at class, and continued our exchange of information and preparations to leave.

Suddenly, S. said  (in a very loud voice and while stamping her feet)  I. WANT.TO. PAINT. RIGHT. NOW. We all stopped, and stared at each other in astonishment. S. hadn’t ever had a tantrum before.  Then S., looking a little sheepish, said, “Where did that big voice come from?” and promptly burst into tears. Where indeed?

Sometimes, a temper tantrum can alert parents and caregivers to the fact that they need to slow down, and really see, and listen to a child. S. wanted to paint. At two years old, she didn’t want or need an art class- no matter how “ideal” it was. It wasn’t ideal for her at that time. The class was abandoned, and S. painted happily ever after- at home.

Prevention is best, but sometimes things get out of balance, and a child’s loss of temper alerts us to the fact that they need more connection. So if your child is having frequent tantrums, it might be a good time to ask yourself if things are a little out of balance or there are areas in your child’s life that need adjusting.

What can you do to support your child in the moment when she’s experiencing a storm of emotions?  Make sure she’s in a safe place. Just stop. Hold a space. Don’t try to console or distract her. Let her go all the way through the tantrum to the end. Stay nearby. If your child wants hugs and cuddling after a tantrum, by all means offer them. Otherwise, a few comforting words can help. “You were very upset. I heard you yelling loudly, and saw you kicking the pillows. Do you feel better now?” It’s usually not necessary to say or do much more. (If you are in a public place when a tantrum starts- leave. Get your child to the car, and follow the above steps.)

It is never acceptable for a child to hurt others, including you, no matter how angry she is. If she is hitting, kicking, or biting you, first put her down if you are holding her, and tell her in a calm, firm voice, “I understand you are upset, but I won’t let you hurt yourself, or anyone else. If you want to kick/hit/bite, here is a doll/pillow/toy, that you may use.” Then move away.

The less emotion YOU show, and the more calm acceptance you can muster, the more quickly temper tantrums will dissolve and cease to exist all together. It’s normal and natural for your toddler to have an occasional tantrum, but  sometimes parents become so upset or distraught when a child has a tantrum, they will go to any lengths to try to stop it. This gives the child a message that a tantrum is a good way to get a reaction from Mom or Dad, and possibly a way to get things her own way in the future.You don’t want to give your child the idea that temper tantrums are a good way to get you to cave in to every whim and demand, or that she needs to have a tantrum to get your attention anytime he’s upset.

By the way, no normally developing, healthy child I have known, or heard about, has EVER seriously injured herself during a tantrum. So if you are tying yourself in knots trying to appease your toddler for fear that she is going to literally stop breathing, bash her head in, or claw her eyes out- you need not worry.

When your child is mastering a new physical skill like walking, she tries and fails many times. She lurches forward, falls down, and gets back up again. Learning emotional control and maturity is no different. She’ll try, fail, possibly have a temper tantrum, and move on. It’s all a part of growing up!

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heather September 16, 2011

Thank you for this. I couldn’t agree with your post more. Could I share it on my blog?

Lisa September 16, 2011


Yes. It would be an honor. Just as long as you credit/link back to me, I’d love it if you’d share with your readers!

Marcy January 19, 2012

Your approach to tantrums sounds a little different from the Stay-Listening idea at Hand in Hand Parenting. Could you elaborate on that — do you think holding a flailing child during a tantrum is a bad idea? How far away do you move when you move away from the flailing? How do you disengage without disconnecting?

Lisa January 19, 2012

Hi Marcy,

It would help me to know what your understanding of the Stay-Listening approach at Hand in Hand Parenting is, so I can answer your question more fully. I do encourage adults to stay and listen when a child is experiencing a loss of emotional balance. I suggest adults talk minimally, because most times when a child is so out of balance that the only thing they can do is cry, scream, kick, etc. they can’t “hear” what an adult is saying, and they just need to release pent up emotions and frustrations. I don’t advise trying to hold a child who is in the midst of a tantrum, unless they indicate they want to be held. Many children will ask to be held when they come through to the other side. I also don’t think it’s helpful to do a lot of talking about the tantrum with very young children (infants, toddlers) once the storm has passed. It’s enough to acknowledge, “You were very, very upset. I could tell because… Do you feel better now? Would you like a hug?” I fully trust that children know how to cleanse themselves of built up emotions, and all adults need to do is provide the emotional safety, acceptance, and “listening.” How is this different from what Hand in Hand suggests?

Marcy January 20, 2012

Thank you, Janet.

I really had the impression that stay-listening involves physical constraint, especially if the kid needs to / chooses to hit, kick, bite, and otherwise flail.

I understand about listening without talking much if at all, I just wasn’t clear on the holding and the space and the moving away.

I think it was mainly this paragraph that prompted my question: “It is never acceptable for a child to hurt others, including you, no matter how angry she is. If she is hitting, kicking, or biting you, first put her down if you are holding her, and tell her in a calm, firm voice, “I understand you are upset, but I won’t let you hurt yourself, or anyone else. If you want to kick/hit/bite, here is a doll/pillow/toy, that you may use.” Then move away.”

I understood stay-listening to be that you move IN when they hit, kick, etc, and restrain them so they can’t do it, with the idea that sometimes they need to struggle and you can be the thing they struggle against. How far away do you move — just far enough to not be hit? Or out of the room? Do you stop paying attention, or do you still watch them warmly?

Lisa January 21, 2012

Dear Marcy,

I’m Lisa, but I don’t mind if you call me Janet!I couldn’t be more honored to be mistaken for her! I know that Hand in Hand encourages holding children while they cry, but I believe this should only be done if a child requests, or in some way indicates they want to be held. I’d never advise holding or restraining a child who wanted to physically express their feelings.I think it’s much too disrespectful and invasive, and as you note in your next comment, it can be almost impossible to do.

I want to give the child who is hitting, kicking, or biting a strong message that while I accept their feelings and support them in expressing their emotions, I will not allow them to hurt me or someone else. To me, it makes sense to move away, and give the child an acceptable way to express his feelings. I’m not dictating to the child “how” to express his emotions- I’m giving him acceptable alternatives to express big, angry feelings. Personally, I just move far enough away to be out of reach of a child who is hitting, kicking, or biting. If the actions are directed toward another child, I put my body between the two children, thus giving both children safety and space. Does this make sense?

Marcy January 22, 2012

Ha ha — sorry about the name confusion! It’s because I found this post from Janet’s Facebook page and just didn’t think about it not being her own post! Even though your name is RIGHT THERE. (Oh how I hate it when people misspell my name, when it’s right there in front of them!! The brain is remarkably able to screen what it notices.)

Yes, what you are saying makes sense. I have sometimes felt very disrespectful, nearly abusive, when trying to do stay-listening in a physically restraining way. Sometimes I have felt able to do so in a loving and calm way, but sometimes it has provoked stubbornness, determination to win, and efforts to be stronger than she is, and that has felt awfully close to the kinds of things recommended by people like the Pearls, and I don’t want to be like that.

I do want her to know she is safe, and that she is not so powerful that she poses a danger to the universe — but I don’t always feel that my being the physically restraining container is the best way to communicate that.

Thank you Lisa!

Marcy January 20, 2012

(I’ll add that it’s hard to restrain my five-year-old — she’s strong and has a heavy head!)

Katrina October 3, 2012

This is a great article. I’ve shared it on my facebook. I have a 21, nearly 22 month old, and we are in a tough transition staying with my mother-in-law’s while we finish building an attached apartment for us. My daughter is really having difficulty adjusting to this non-“baby-proofed” full of “no’s” and “stop touching that” atmosphere. Previously, she could go wherever she wanted and do what she pleased. I’m struggling here, too. She’s been having a lot of rough tantrums (1 every day or a bit less) and it breaks my heart. The other day we were in the bathroom and she flung her head back so hard onto the tile floor she bled. I was actually holding her but she is just so strong she arched back and bang!. The cut is healing but this is what scares me about being in public with tile/concrete floors. It’s definitely sometimes hard to restrain a tantruming child, especially as they get bigger. So, while she was not “Seriously injured” she was injured and it could have been worse. Ugh!! Anyway, I know that’s not the point of this article but I thought I’d add that in.

Lisa October 4, 2012


I’m sorry this is such a rough time for you and your little girl. All you can do is what you are doing. Make the environment as safe as possible, and avoid public places with tile or concrete floors! Try to get outside as much as possible, into a “yes” environment. I don’t advise holding (unless your toddler clearly indicates she wants to be held), or trying to restrain a toddler who is in the midst of a tantrum, as this sometimes leads a child to fight harder. If a tantrum begins when your little girl is in an unsafe area, I’d advise picking her up and moving her to a safer area, or placing some kind of soft, protective covering under her, and letting her go through it to the end, while you remain quietly present and available. I hope this time will pass quickly for both of you!

Taylor October 31, 2015

I follow these steps, but still, my son (13 mo) has daily upsets. Usually around not being able to access something he wants – which is almost always something I can’t or am unwilling to give him. IE, last night we were at an ‘arcade’ type place and there was a basketball game. He loves balls, so obviously wanted to play with those balls. I however had no quarters to get access to the balls… But I did have a ball in the car, which I got for him. This wasn’t enough. He wanted the balls he couldn’t have.

It does happen more when he’s exhausted. The problem there is, no matter what I do, he fights sleep to the bitter end – quite literally ‘fighting’ his own body. I try to make sleep natural, comfortable, but for him it’s a scary time. He will be 1 second away from sleep and will feel this ‘falling’ and freak out, waking himself back up screaming. This is quite possibly related to the wanting things he can’t have. He wants to run, to play, to explore – not sleep. But sleep is what he needs…

Anyway, vent over. Thanks for your blog.

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