Talk amongst yourselves: Your best tantrum-stopping secrets?

Sara, contributor of many hacks, needs our help!

Well…  we've finally reached the tantrum throwing stage.  It started off small (and relatively cute) but we've now progressed to the full arched back/screaming type of tantrums….  We've been exploring ways to "manage" (live through without scarring for life?) tantrums, and of course I thought maybe my fellow parenthackers would have some suggestions.

So far we've had little bits of success with "ignore" and a decent amount with "distract" — but any other ideas (or ways to ignore and distract) would be appreciated.

Let me begin by patting your shoulder sympathetically. Tantrums can be so unsettling in their force. I found I had the best luck early on when I sympathized with my kid's distress instead of calling him out too harshly on his behavior. I remained firm about my decisions (I tried to never let a tantrum change my mind about a decision I had made), but attempted to be kind in the face of uncontrollable frustration. The trick was to not pay so much attention that he kept acting up just to keep me talking.

As he got older, my expectations for his behavior increased. A tantrum at two is one thing, but at four, required different handling.

What say you?

Tags: , ,


  1. krista Kusnier says

    I have found that the best thing to do is the ignore. especially when they are young (before they can understand simple sentances and have small comprehension of certain events.)
    Just think on why they do it. there are two reasons why they throw tantrums. One is for atention the other is out of frustration. If you pay any attention to them it is showing them that you recognize them in what they are doing. When you ignore them it shows them that the method of throwing a tantrum is not the way to get resolve.
    I have a friend who holds her kid close every time he throws a tantrum. now he does it just to get mom’s affection. And when you distract with toys and so on then that just shows that that is what they need to do to get mom and dad to jiggle the keys for them in distraction.
    When they get older, tantrums might develop out of frustration of communication. They cannot figure out how to express so they go primal and just belt it out in tears and fist banging. When they have slight comprehension this is the time to impliment a slight of dicipline.
    If you do time outs then that is good. Tell them that what they are doing when they throw the tantrum is bad and there will be reprocussions to this.
    You can do what we did. We took away certain things. If our boy threw a fit because a toy was not working or so on then we would take it away.
    Or if he is throwing a fit because we told him not to do something the he would be in time out.
    I know some parents might believe this is harsh and that they want to hold their child close and make them feel better when they feel bad but that only leads to trouble.
    If you give into tantrums now with attention then they have successfully manipulated you !!
    and once they learn the art of manipulation it will continue through their whole lives.

  2. steph says

    I agree with the first commenter above. What we have done is say, calmly, “if you’re going to do that you need to go in the other room.” And put her there, if necessary. Now if it happens OUT somewhere, for courtesy’s sake, you have to remove the kid from the store, library, etc. but you can still ignore the behavior, and talk about it later: “that is not acceptible behavior. People do not want to be around you when you are like that.” The main thing is to stay calm. That’s the hard part, because as a parent, screaming makes me want to scream too. :)

  3. DizzyG says

    I threw one when i was little, the end result was me being hosed down with the sprayer from the sink for a good two minutes while I tried to keep throwing it. There was no yelling, no stop that, no attention other than a sprayer to the face.

  4. Loraine says

    Naps. My child seemed to throw less tantrums with adequate sleep.

    For the rest of the tantrums, we used the “you need time to calm down” line and took her to her room/crib. I had to. Otherwise, the crying got on my nerves and I got a bit…grumpy.

  5. Tim says

    The best advice I ever received on parenting (I have 4 kids now aged 8,6,5,2):

    “Your child does that because it works.”

    You need to ask yourself what you are doing that re-inforces the behaviour.

    Bottom line… it might take a while but ignoring works.


  6. Charisse says

    Well, since we lived by The Happiest Baby on the Block when we had a newborn, we tried out Dr. Karp’s toddler method and found it fairly useful. There’s more info at but basically you reflect back the kid’s feelings *and their intensity level*, which often causes them to shut up for a second so you can distract, explain, etc. It’s worth having in your toolbox–I think there are different kinds of tantrum like behaviors that require different treatment. Ignoring is definitely necessary for the obviously manipulative kind, but some meltdowns are different–you wake your kid from a deep sleep, you might get a real confused, miserable humdinger.

    Worst one our daughter has yet thrown (knock wood) was when she was briefly in the hospital and really wanted to rip the oxygen cannula out of her nose…and was on Albuterol. That was horrible–ignoring wasn’t exactly an option since she could hurt herself and the docs would sedate her (and have to do an IV which she didn’t already have) if we couldn’t calm her. Used Dr. Karp, holding, really aggressive deep breathing. It did work after 15 minutes or so, but I hope not to have to do it ever again!

  7. oddharmonic says

    What’s worked with my 6-year-old: deep breathing, directed thinking (“Close your eyes. What color butterflies do you see?”), reminders to consider others in public places and, when necessary, a timeout or removal from the situation.

    My daughter’s tantrums have decreased dramatically with speech therapy since communication issues were behind a good deal of her frustration.

  8. Naomi says

    It often helps to figure out what triggers tantrums.

    While frustration may be the trigger, if my son isn’t well rested or he’s hungry, tantrums are much more likely to occur. So if he seems especially frustrated, I might give him something to drink or eat. As well, I try to distract, which works, occasionally!

    I don’t exactly ignore them if they do happen, but usually they are a sign that he hasn’t eaten enough, or it’s time for bed. We are working on “using our words” to help as well.

  9. Jill says

    We started using deep breaths when our children were only about a year old. I hold up five finger “candles” and they try to blow out the candles. If they aren’t taking a deep breath it sometimes “doesn’t go out”, and they try again. By the time they’ve blown out five candles they’re usually calm enough to talk. My two year old has asked his teddy bear to blow candles sometimes when he (my son) is upset. He clearly gets the idea.

    For other ideas I’ve read The Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and come up with good solutions. I agree that different causes require different strategies. That said, I’ve calmly stepped across many a tantrumming child and carried on with my tasks.

  10. Whitney says

    Ooh, I like the five finger with deep breaths idea.

    We are just reaching the tantrum stage and as Karp-junkies from babyhood, are also finding that his method works for calming toddlers – read The Happiest Toddler on The Block.

    Also ignoring, like our pediatrician instructed us to.

  11. James says

    Out of curiosity.

    Am I the only parent that will still look my boy right in the eyes and tell him if the tantrum doesn’t stop I will give him a reason to cry?

    We get about 3 maybe 4 tantrums a year, this from our only (and very spoiled, thanks gramma) 2 and a half year old boy.

    When I was going to school we still got paddlings. And another when we got home because we got one at school.

    Call it mean, call it what you will but a stern voice with a warning and action to follow if not taken seriously will work wonders for any child out there.

  12. Hans Kokx says

    My daughter is 13 months old now. she’s getting to that phase where she will throw a tantrum if she’s not getting enough attention. If she does something that i’ve told her repeatedly not to do (touch the stereo, bang on the keyboard, etc) she gets a hand smack, and a stern “no.” and will start crying. (she’ll cry even if she hears the NO and nothing else!) when she cries? best i can do right now is learn to tune it out. if she starts screeching, i lock her in a (safe) room alone until she can cool down -and if after 15 minutes she’s still screaming, i’ll put together a bottle and hand it to her. (it’s nice that i’ve gotten her to take her own bottle now, so i can hand it to her and leave). this generally works, and usually ends up in a nap time. what parent doesn’t love nap time? maybe i’m going about it wrong, but one year olds are just so frustrating, i’d rather put her in a room alone than get really upset with her. it’s not like i can hand her off to mommmy… (single parent *sob*)

  13. Kat says

    I’m confused. Just last week, you told me my extremely similar question about stopping screaming fits was not answerable as a Talk Amongst Yourselves (it was too general?!) and yet here’s this one.

    If you had said that you were posting an extremely similar question and so weren’t going to post mine also, that’d have been fine!

    I’m not angry, I just don’t understand why this one was not too general and mine was.

  14. bobsmo says

    distract, entertain, distract, redirect, and confuse. My 15month old has mostly frustration tantrums, and sleepytime tantrums. I pay enough attention to him just to get his brain back on track. I try to redirect his focus, “look its a helicopter!” I try to get his body moving “lets march like a marching band”. I try to cunfuse him. “look daddy is a monkey.” I’m 40 year old stay at home dad and I figure I have all the time in the world to have contact with baby right now… so I don’t mind giving him all the attention. my world can wait.

  15. bobsmo says

    … spraying the kid in the face ! thats really goofy too. I’d most likey try that but only if I spray myself in the face along with the child… otherwise it sounds too much like a hazing ritual… he’ll get enough af that in college. LOL

  16. ringsabre says

    With my 3rd child, tantrums have been relatively rare; I do not feel the need to flex my authority, and so only “pull rank” when necessary. The relationship thus becomes more mutually cooperative and seems to work well.

    In other wds, fewer tantrums b/c he knows and trusts that I will be open-minded and responsive to his needs.

  17. ringsabre says

    Also, I second, bobsmo above:
    “distract, entertain, distract, redirect, and confuse…”

  18. James says

    “I do not feel the need to flex my authority, and so only “pull rank” when necessary. The relationship thus becomes more mutually cooperative and seems to work well.”

    I like the way you put that, I guess maybe thats why our little one does such a good job, we talk with him like he is expected to be a member of the family and not just a child.

    I think he likes being able to be part of whats for dinner, and other things of that nature, by giving him other things to think about he usually doesn’t have a need to throw a tantrum.

    In fact looking back, the only time we have tantrums is after he comes home from his grand mothers house.

  19. Amy P. says

    My 2yo daughter’s tantrums usually are because she doesn’t like the answer I just gave her (“We can have Teddy Grahams *after* lunch” etc.), and what works for us is ignoring when it’s safe and not inconsiderate to do so and using two of Dr. Karp’s methods. The “Fast Food Rule”, where I use words to describe what I think she’s feeling but is too worked up to say, and the “I wish”/distraction one, where I say something like “I wish we could go to the park right now. If we could, we would spend all day on the swings, but we can’t so why don’t we draw pictures of us playing at the park for a bit?” (This is an abbreviated version, actually.)

    This doesn’t work for the body flailing stage of the tantrum, but it does help with redirection. I think I’m going to try the candle thing to help with breathing for that part. Thanks!

  20. Patricia says

    We get down to our son’s level and say we understand his frustration (or whatever he’s upset about) and explain our reasoning simply. Then we let him do his thing for however long it takes. Luckily, we don’t get too many tantrums.

    Yesterday, however, it took especially long for him to settle down and we were actually quite amused by it. I took out my video camera and started filming. At first I was just pushed away, but then I turned the screen so he could see himself. He stopped pretty quickly and settled down. It was funny footage to watch afterwards!

  21. Anon says

    I’m sorry for the person who remembers being sprayed in the face with water but I hardly think it’s appropriate advice on how to handle a kid having a tantrum. Same goes for telling a kid you’ll “give him/her something to really cry about.” Both of these acts are generally considered borderline abusive. I don’t really get how a site about effective parenting thinks it’s ok to propagate abusive treatment toward children. Free speech? Bummer.

  22. James says

    Abusive? No not in the least bit, but teaching the child that actions have consequences, I can be assured that when he is older and no longer under my watchful eye he will not be the one out there breaking into cars.
    He has learned form an early age that actions have consequences.

    I don’t think I have actually had to whip him since he turned 2. THat was nearly a year ago, he turns 3 the 26th of this month.

    This site is not about teaching children in one specific way, it is about teaching them, plain and simple, if there is a direction you do not like, then don’t use it, no one is forcing you too. However I do not go rip the ciggarette out of a parent mouth at the diner, I may want to, but I don’t, it is their child and their life to live.

    Free speech, it is a great thing, however in this case it isn’t about free speech, its about freedom of expression, I expressed my views, they were just written down.

  23. Parent Hacks Editor says

    Kat: Sorry for the confusion. I’ll write to you personally explaining my decision.

    Anon, James: This site is a clearinghouse for parents’ real experiences. Obviously not all will work or apply to all (or even most) readers. Also, I’m clear in the terms of service that because something appears on Parent Hacks, in the posts or comments, it doesn’t constitute our “support.” While I exercise editorial control here, I also believe in the importance of open discussion about how we parent. I don’t filter the discussion with what I personally practice or believe. As long as the discussion is respectful it’s worthwhile, and we can all learn from it.

    Strong feelings are bound to come out around this stuff. It’s our kids we’re talking about, after all. Honesty and civility are what make Parent Hacks the valuable resource it is.

  24. James says

    Agreed, and I for one welcome many different ideas. While I may not find them all useful, or even suitable to the parenting style I have chosen, I feel that there is no need to bash on the ones that do not fit my beliefs.

    I believe that is what I was trying to get across in my last post.

  25. Pete says

    That 5-finger candles idea seems to work quite well for my 3 year old. When she’s crying uncontrollably, I get her to focus on blowing out the candles. A few deep breaths later, she’s at least able to listen. THANKS!!! :)

  26. hedra says

    Several things for us:

    1) Kids are brilliant at ‘passing on the feelings they don’t know how to cope with’ (normal process in development) – They’ll do whatever they need to do to get you to understand how they feel. In early childhood, that means they’ll act out until *you* react the way *they* feel. Trantrum, therefore, is a quick and effective way to make you feel: powerless, angry, and frustrated. Ta-da! it works! Answering how they feel (the cause), instead of the tantrum (the result), often helps. Hence speech therapy or sign language for the ones who can’t communicate, etc.

    2) Take a walk in their shoes. Karp’s reflection of their state is something my mom did, decades ago. Just reciting a litany of how challenging it is to be 2 is enough to gain YOU some compassion, too. (“You don’t get to run when you want to, mommy says stop! You don’t get to paint the wall with your pasta sauce, even though it looks like so much fun! You’re too short to reach the counter for those shiny things up there, but when you bring in the chair so you can, daddy yells at you! Your brother won’t let you play with his toys, you don’t get to pick where we go in the car, and you can’t even tell anyone what you want!”) It stops them in their tracks, and if you can really describe their life in detail without finding yourself saying ‘wow, that really SUCKS!’, you’re likely missing something. ;)

    3) Prevention is 99% of the cure. Watch for patterns. They may have changed developmentally or physically, and need food more often, or nap, etc. Our oldest at one point needed food VERY regularly and often, then crash and burn. We eventually saw the pattern, put out snacks near where he played, and the tantrums cut back a lot. A behavioral diary with either food or events/schedules can really help. (This is especially important for kids with reflux, who may suppress their hunger cues because ‘eating hurts’. This was the case with our eldest – he still does not feel hunger cues normally, at almost 9 years old.)

    4) Become an advocate for what they want. Really. Older kids and those with disabilities (even small ones) may throw fits because they ‘know’ that the answer is going to be ‘No’, so they just jump to pissed off right away. Once we went from being ‘those-who-say-no’ to ‘those-who-say-yes-or-at-least-really-try’, we got a lot more cooperation and a lot less screaming fit. The ‘collaborative problem solving method’ in the book “The Explosive Child” works very well for any child that can’t yet communicate well (that is, the tantrum-prone years!), which means any child under 3, IMHO. Teaches them that you’re there to help them get to their goals (and honestly, most of the time their goals aren’t as out there as they seem when they throw the fit – and once they start problem-solving with you, they’re working on YOUR problem as well as theirs, like this: “We have a problem, how can we work together to solve this? You want ice-cream now, and I need you to eat a good meal so you can grow. What should we do so both problems are solved?” Often, for us, once both problems are presented, our kids are very good at either relenting on their part or coming up with creative win-win solutions. And once we were seen as advocates, our kids actively would calm THEMSELVES down, so they could work with us toward their goal. (It took all of three days of playing ‘advocate’ for our then-3-yr-old to stop in mid-fit, take a breath, and calmly ask me for help solving his problem. WHOA. And that’s WITH the problems outlined in item 5 below…)

    5) Check health or development issues if the tantrums are extreme. One of our kids has both a speech delay, and a growth delay that turned out to be small-bowel-bacterial-overgrowth syndrome. When he has sugar at all, expecially high fructose corn syrup, he goes completely out of control (even his good behavior is ‘out there’, then). When the bacterial overgrowth is in remission, he can have sweets (though still not HFCS), without an outburst (or rather, days on end of outbursts all the time). Food allergies and sensitivities, and/or other health issues, may be to blame for the really extreme issues. Also, ADHD can show up as problems learning how to problem-solve, or as low social inhibition (no thinking ‘kids won’t like me if I do that, so I won’t do that’).

    6) Related to the above: Research out of the UK showed that while preservatives and colorings in processed foods don’t affect ‘good’ behavior, they show indications of making bad behavior worse. A dietary change may make a world of difference. We didn’t find out about the HFCS and red dye (40 and 3) issues with our son until we had to do a 6-week food-and-reactions diary while trying to track down the growth delay cause. But there it was – for 3 days after red dye, and a day and a half after processed foods of certain types, he was absolute hell – could not listen, was violent without triggers we could find (no social inhibition – he’d think it and do it, and damn the consequences!), would start screaming and be unable to stop even when he was hoarse, had a hair-trigger reaction to frustration, etc. Cut out the dye, preservatives (forgot BHA/BHT also sets him off), etc., and we had a totally different child.

    7) For the very young tantrumers (under 2, say), we just focus on how to properly express feelings. After all, they just are doing what they feel. They don’t automatically know how to do it without repercussions, and they may not even know how to go about calming themselves down. We taught a sign for angry (along with foot stomping to get the energy of the feeling expressed). It takes a while for them to learn to do it, but they’ll often stop and laugh at me ‘showing them how to be angry’, which is good enough. (“When we’re angry, we don’t scream and hit. We sign ‘I’m ANGRY’ and we stomp our feet! Like this!”)

    8) Wait 20 minutes. Our family is always ‘different’ in 20 minutes. If I can manage the problem as lightly as possible, and put off my own reaction until then (or ‘pretend to be patient’ – I pretend a LOT with four kids including 2-year-old twins…), in 20 minutes, the problem is usually over and done with.

    Now, if the breathing thing would only help with my kids… so far, I’ve had two in a row that screamed “I DON’T WANT TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH!” in the middle of a fit… Sigh.

  27. Momx3 says

    I do my best to ignore. IF there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth, I often send (or haul) them to their rooms and say when you’re all done with that, let me know and we can talk about the problem.

    IF it’s in a store, this is harder because obnoxious people (usually women over 50) try to “help,” forgetting that they were more likely to just swat the kid and get on with it and that drawing attention was the whole point in the first place.

    If attention is the cause, feeding the fire will only make it bigger.

  28. Another Sara says

    Well, my 14 m.o. said “NONONO” for the first time yesterday, so now my interest in this thread is personal.

    It’s rather late in the game to make this request, but would the commenters mind clarifying what constitutes as a “tantrum” to them? Is it full out laying on the floor with arms flailing and voice set to “scream?” That’s what I would call a tantrum. Or, is it any negative reaction (whining, crying, yelling) to a situation that pisses the kid off?

    I’d like to know because while I don’t particularily want to reinforce the whole tantruming communication method, I also don’t feel it’s totally appropriate to turn the “ignore” on my crying child just because he’s upset about not getting his way.

    For instance, my mind has been operating under the assumption that the distraction technique is perfectly valid for the situations that we’ve been in so far. For isntance: “I know you’re upset (and crying loudly) that you can’t eat the cat litter, but you Can play with your poker chips.” If he was not just crying, but also kicking his feet, waving his arms, and screaming at the top of is lungs, then perhaps distraction would not be the right response.

    So, I guess I’d just like confirmation that the definition of “tantrum” is universal so that I can get a sense of what pot of advice I can pull from.


  29. hedra says

    I doubt you’ll get a truly universal definition…

    For us it is an episode of extreme anger and frustration, with an expression of outrage/anger/distress that is beyond either a reasonable person’s expectation of reaction (no candy? Screaming and crying and hitting is a tantrum. Favorite pet was given away without warning? Screaming, crying, and hitting is to be expected), AND is sufficient to cause disruption of the flow of life and activities.

    Whining is just using an irritating tone of voice or body language. Whining can occur while you continue what everyone was doing.

    Tantrum interferes with what was happening (stopping and refusing to move, screaming so that you cannot continue your phone call or make yourself heard, having to move yourself, others, or objects to keep child or others safe and uninjured, etc.).

    How severe it has to be to cause that level of disruption is likely to be individual.

    In our family parlance, they range from ‘fit’ (stomping, moving more slowly and with assistance, pulling away from your grip, crying but not screaming, coherent if not exactly ‘in control’, obsessive focus on unlikely goal but not reacting like a life-and-death struggle), to ‘great hairy screaming fit’ (sprawled on the floor, thrashing, kicking, screaming enough to make your ears ring, sobbing, red-faced, incoherent, babbling). That’s what my mom used to call a ‘lying down, screaming, foaming at the mouth coniption fit’.

    I’ll add in that my mom stopped my late-age tantrums (around 5 or so years old) by ‘showing me what a good fit looks like’. I threw a good rolling around on the floor screaming tantrum… and she stopped what she was doing, threw herself on the floor, and screamed, kicked her heels, banged her fists, the whole deal, WAY better than I had. I readily admit that I was shocked, and I never had another tantrum after that. I was terrified that she’d do it again, where people might SEE, and I was mortified at the idea.

    For my niece, offering to video tape her screaming bawling fits stopped them as well. Just so she could see what she looked like when she had one. No threats of showing anyone else, just her. Nipped them right out. I’d reserve that for much older kids, though (she was 8 at the time, and old enough to be able to use an appropriate manner and tone).

  30. hedra says

    ug – edit – either beyond a reasonable person’s expectation of a normal reaction (as noted), or beyond a reasonable expectation of the child’s capacity (that is, I don’t call it a ‘real’ tantrum if they’re either overtired or hungry) … and then the ‘AND disruptive to life’ part.

    Sigh. Preview is my friend…

  31. Liz says

    When I would have a rare tantrum, my parents wouldn’t ignore it, or yell, or spank, they’d simply get on their bellies, and do the same exact thing I was doing; kicking, screaming, whining, crying, and whatnot.

    They say it worked like a charm, I would stand back up, laugh at my parents, and forget about the whole thing.

  32. Autumn says

    One of my friends discovered how to stop public tantrums in a heartbeat. When her child decided to lay in the floor and kick and scream, she told her four year old son that he was embarassing her and if he didn’t stop she’d embarass him. He didn’t stop, so, in the middle of a busy store, she stepped away from her buggy and began to dance while singing, “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog” at the top of her lungs. Her son decided he didn’t like being embarassed any more than his mother did. He’s behaved himself in public ever since.