How to stay calm when your child is having a tantrum – Most children will have a tantrum at some point or another.  Some parents seem to cope better with them than others. How can we learn their secret?

Why are tantrums ‘threatening’?

When dealing with a tantrum at home we might not find it too difficult to remain calm. However, when a tantrum happens in a supermarket or at a toddler group, we usually feel far more exposed and embarrassed.

Our self-esteem is threatened because we are fearful of being judged or criticized by those around us.  We are often also internally judging and criticizing ourselves at the same time. This is because we might be saying to ourselves, “I can’t believe my child is behaving like this. Why can’t I make them behave…maybe it’s my fault…”.

Our brain immediately responds to this threat to our self-esteem by triggering our ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This causes a physiological and hormonal response. Our heart beats faster, our mouth goes dry, or we feel shaky, or hot. We will describe these feelings as negative emotions; such as embarrassment, anger, anxiety or frustration.

Why do we react as we do?

If we are unaware of what causes our emotions, then we will also be unaware that our subsequent actions are attempts to protect or repair our self-esteem. We do what makes ourselves feel ‘better’ in some way. Maybe scream at our child in order to try to regain control, or punish them. Then later we think, “I wish I hadn’t done that, I wish I could have stayed calm”.

Cat's book
Cat’s book

How can we stay calm?

Remaining calm when our child has a tantrum can be difficult. However, the best way we can help ourselves is to maintain our confidence as a parent at that most potentially stressful of moments.

Most of us feel like a terrible parent at one time or another. It is easy to perceive other parents as doing a better job than we are.  Only by accepting ourselves as good enough. Maintaining our own self-esteem, will we be able to remain calm in a greater number of situations.

What is a tantrum about?

Young children are not experienced in managing their feelings and emotions. Their budding independence brings with it intense frustration and confusion. They are unable to articulate what they feel and so their anger or sadness becomes all-consuming and can sometimes break out as a tantrum.

06 Oct 2005 --- Babies Crying --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Tantrums tend to occur when a child is hungry, tired or already upset. They often coincide with moments when we as parents are distracted, stressed or trying to accomplish something that interferes with being ‘child-centred’, such as supermarket shopping.

If we can see the tantrum through the eyes of our child, we have a much greater chance of helping them, and ourselves.  We can often see a tantrum brewing. Sometimes we can quickly provide the rest, change of scene, snack, focused attention, or distraction our child needs, so that a full-blown tantrum can be avoided.

What to do ‘at the time’:

–     If a tantrum does occur we must first of all say only positive things to ourselves under our breath. Say something like “it’s ok, this happens to everyone. It doesn’t mean I have a terrible child, or that I am a terrible parent, this is just one of those things, I’m okay, I can stay calm, it will pass…”

–          Don’t bribe your child to stop by saying they can get what they want. Additionally giving them a different ‘reward’. The aim is not to encourage more tantrums by rewarding them, but to teach your child how to calm themselves down and understand their emotions, so that they can learn to handle them better as they grow.

–           Punishing your child, criticising them for their behaviour, or isolating them in         ‘time out’ are often not helpful as they often increase and prolong a tantrum.            If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed then remove yourself, or both of    you, for as long as it takes to regain your own calm; count to ten, speak      positive words to yourself, and take some deep breaths, then focus on your child again..

“Children need love most when they deserve it least”

–          Speak quietly and soothingly.  Empathise with your child and accept their extreme emotions, say “I know you feel angry, it’s okay, I’m here to help you calm down”. It may take a while for your child to allow you a cuddle, but be patient and available. Don’t expect a child to “use words” when in the middle of a tantrum.

–           Once your child has calmed a little show understanding of his or her feelings         by identifying and explaining what just happened.  Use simple language such   as “I could see you really didn’t want to share your ball with your brother” or “I          know you really wanted that toy”.  Accepting their emotion, validating their             feelings, and explaining why they need to share, or why they will not get the         toy they want,             can go a long way toward instilling a sense of well-being, trust   and emotional stability.


A tantrum can be a learning opportunity for both of you if it is handled right,        but if handled insensitively your child’s trust in you             can be damaged and   therefore their burgeoning self-worth and self-confidence can be affected.    Our children will feel a greater sense of trust and love for us if we can provide             support, kindness and guidance during their most trying moments.

What if we ‘lose it’.

We will not always be calm.  As parents there will be times when we are particularly tired or stressed, and when we act towards our children in a way which we later regret.  This is understandable and to be expected, we are only human, nobody is  perfect.

The most important thing we can do after we have ‘lost it’ is to talk this through later on with our child.  If we can explain our own emotions, and apologise for times when we are angry or thoughtless, then we will be teaching our child how to evaluate and understand their own behaviour, and how to make amends.

Being able to apologise shows healthy self-esteem because we are showing that we don’t always need to be ‘right’ and to try to appear ‘perfect’ in order to feel okay about ourselves.  If we can explain our emotions and behaviour and admit our mistakes then our children will learn to handle their own emotions and mistakes in a calmer and more accepting way.

By Cat Williams