How to address temper tantrums and outbursts [Helpful Guide for Parents]

Anger is a normal emotion and naturally, as your child discovers new emotions it is likely they will have a temper tantrum (or several) in their younger years. We would love to be able to predict when and where these situations will occur so we can avoid them, but this is a rite of passage for the parents of young children and a necessary stage in their development.

At about two years old, your child starts to become independent. They can walk, talk, and grab onto things. They are learning how to self-regulate natural occurrences such as going to the toilet and expressing their hunger.

One of the things they also begin to develop are big emotions: excitement, anger, embarrassment, guilt etc. And because these are new experiences, children often do not possess the tools and understanding to effectively express their emotions – cue the temper tantrum.

As parents, it is our job to teach them emotional regulation and healthy practices for calming down.

What is the most important thing I should do during an outburst or tantrum?

The most important thing for parents is to remain calm. In general, you are in complete control of your emotions while your child is not. Because of this it is important that you don’t respond in an equally aggressive or upset manner as this tends to escalate a child’s aggressive behaviour, and teaches them that aggression is an appropriate response to denial or frustration.

By being calm, you are able to address the situation, and reaffirm to your child that everything is ok and that you will help them sort it out. Knowing that they can approach you when they are experiencing big emotions is critical as it will lay the foundations for how they respond to complex situations.

Healthy Practices for Calming Down

As a parent, an outburst can be an abrupt awakening that your child is growing up. If you struggle with calming your child down or don’t know where to start, consider these helpful tips.

1. Identify the emotion

Understanding their emotions is an important first step to developing autonomy for your child. As they begin to learn about colours and shapes, introduce feelings and emotions too. Teach them what might occur when they feel these emotions.

One of the ways you can introduce emotions is with a Feelings Thermometer. This visually demonstrates to your child what emotions look like and teaches them about what they might experience. A Feelings Thermometer can be used during an outburst to assist children in identifying what they are feeling.

During their outburst, bring them to a quiet space and take a few deep breaths with them. Then begin asking them questions about what they are feeling. If they can’t identify what emotion or feeling they are experiencing, you can ask them what they want to do and provide examples to further clarify. For example, if a child is in distress you could ask them if they feel like crying or screaming to help verbalise the underlying emotion.

2. Connect the emotion to the situation

Once you have identified the emotion, begin to understand the situation. Sometimes an “Ok can you tell me what happened” can help identify why your child might be reacting a certain way.  Other times, asking more qualifying questions such as “Why do you think you feel this way” can unveil the truth.

During this stage, it is important to remain calm and be patient while they attempt to explain their emotions to you.

3. Pause

If they are struggling to calm down, take a pause and let them experience the full effect of the emotion. At this point they are unreachable, and reasoning or trying to help them calm down will probably not work. You can continue to provide them with support by gently rubbing their back or giving them the option to hug you. Or, you can stand back and wait for the tantrum to pass. It’s helpful to remember that tantrums are temporary. By experiencing the full effect of the emotion, they will begin to understand how to regulate their emotions and next time may be able to express how they are feeling more clearly to prevent an outburst from happening in the first place.

4. Address the behaviour

After the outburst has occurred, address the behaviour and help them identify how the challenge could have been avoided. Some of the things you may suggest to them include:

  • Healthy reactions to emotions i.e. if you’re upset, talk about it.
  • Searching for comfort and reassurance such as a hug or sentiment that “it is ok”.
  • Problem-solving such as suggesting they use their words to express how they are feeling.

Additional Tips

Set Expectations Early

Make sure that your child is aware of the limits and set boundaries to assist them with self-regulation. For example, “it was not ok to bite someone because they were using that toy, I would like you to apologise.”

Encourage Meditation

Meditative practices such as deep breathing can assist a child’s development and reduce aggressive behaviours and outbursts.

Think About Your Own Actions and Inactions

In their formative years, children are like sponges and you are their heroes. The way you act and react to stressful, exciting and overwhelming situations is likely the behaviour they will pick up on and mimic when they have an outburst.

Get started early!

While all of these tips are likely to help during an outburst, they cannot prevent them and it is important to remember this when helping your child learn self-regulation.

Applying these helpful measures early is crucial to your child’s development as they take these lessons into adulthood and beyond. If you want more information or guidance on dealing with big emotions, drop in to talk to your room educator at Child’s Play ELC.