The Myth of the Temper Tantrum

Temper tantrums don't help you. Temper tantrums don't help your baby. Temper Tantrums don't help your toddler. Feel free to quote me on that. We live in a world where temper tantrums are often seen as a means of expression and I totally disagree. Here's why:

The Myth of the Temper Tantrum

Tantrums Can Indicate Emotional Overwhelm

I won't argue that temper tantrums can happen when a little one gets overwhelmed emotionally. Anyone can look a flailing, screaming child and see that he or she is past the point of meltdown.

It's good to realize that, and be sensitive that tantrums have a root in being overwhelmed. They often have other roots, too. Being overtired is a big thing (especially for a baby and the modern toddler). You could argue, of course, that babies don't actually have tantrums. I don't think that young babies do – they are only expressing needs. But there's no doubt that older babies and toddlers can have a complete meltdown because something didn't go right.

If your baby or toddler is tired or overwhelmed, it's time to get home (or to the car or even a quiet corner somewhere) and help him or her calm down. But many tantrums don't happen because a child is tired…

Frustration is on the Anger Continuum

The most frequent argument in favor of tantrums is that the child is frustrated with something and just “doesn't know how to express himself.” Tantrums usually happen because a little one is not getting what he or she wanted: either from a plaything (a toy they can't make work right, for instance), or because somebody won't give him or her something he/she wanted.

Frustration sums up either one of these situations. The problem with frustration is that it is an initial indication of anger. It's on the continuum from “mild irritation” to “uncontrollable rage.”

We don't handle anger by blowing up. You can dialogue about your feelings, such as when you're upset at your husband or kids and let them know how their actions are impacting you. But if you've ever gotten into a yelling and screaming match with your kids or husband, you probably didn't feel better at the end. And screaming into your pillow or beating up on a punching bag you were pretending was somebody's face probably didn't help either. Exercise can help you take that energy and dispel it – but you feel better at the end because it gave you time to calm down… not because you were pretending your equipment was “your enemy.” In the end that usually just makes us feel sick – not better.

And, please, think for a minute about a grown man who totally “loses it” and sits there screaming at his wife or his kids – or the driver who pulled out in front of him, or his employees. You know what I'm talking about – red-faced, blustering, with everyone terrified but also thinking that he's a complete ass. You could also think of a grown woman acting in a similar way – and society has a word for her too. We don't think well on these outbursts.

We Don't Deal With Our Problems By Screaming

When we're upset, we take a minute (or 10 minutes, or even a day or two) and calm down. We think about the issue, and why we're upset. Then we deal with the issue. That's the real core here – handling the problem.

We may not be the cause of the problem – often problems are totally outside of our control. But we still have to handle them in a constructive way. Again, we have to think about the situation and then decide on the right action. And usually that means talking about what has us upset.

This might be a challenging subject because you may be used to ignoring irritation and frustration until something is really getting to you – until you're yelling and screaming. I know that's been a big problem for me. Nobody bothered to teach me that I needed to stop as soon as I started to get irritation/frustrated and either take a break or take some action to try and solve the problem. I did sometimes hear “count to 10” – but I also learned that beating pillows and things to “calm down” was OK. That's not really okay because that's not teaching someone to solve a problem – it's not taking away the frustration!

In Other Words, We Use Words

We use words to solve our problems.

This is why, I believe, we do a disservice to our little ones. We assume that because they can't talk or articulate, they must handle their problems by screaming about them.

But that's not the case. We (as adults) can show our children how to handle their problems without screaming. And we can help them learn that screaming is not how you handle frustration. Again, I know this might be challenging. It was a revelation to me that irritation and frustration are the early stages of anger. But think about it – if something your kid is doing is bothering you, and you don't get up to handle it, you end up getting angry. Any parent knows this.

Just as you can learn that you need to get up and handle an issue with your child before you become angry at your child, you can help your little one learn not to have a fit.

Tolerance Does NOT Equal Dignity and Self-Respect

One more point before we move into the “how to” of tantrum time.

Tolerating a tantrum does not give your child dignity or self-respect. It's really popular in many “gentle” or “conscious” or “aware” parenting circles to equate tantrums with emotional expression. The conclusion then drawn is that you are empowering your child's freedom of expression when you stand aside while they tantrum.

Just standing there while your child completely loses it doesn't give your child any dignity, self-respect, or empowerment. It teaches him or her that it's okay to have a total meltdown – a lesson you certainly aren't going to like as your child gets bigger… and a lesson that will not help them at all as they make their way in the world.

Dignity and respect for your child means honoring his or her innate intelligence and ability to learn how to interact with his/her society.

Handling a Tantrum

Okay so all the theory is well and good, but how do you actually handle a tantrum?

The real key is realizing that if you teach your child not to tantrum, tantrums won't happen. Therefore you only have to deal with a couple from a given child (maybe more if that child has learned tantrums are the way to handle anger).

Here's how to handle a tantrum:

Determine the cause. Is your child overwhelmed by the environment or overtired?

  • Remove child from the situation. Take notes and work to prevent such a situation (don't got out at naptime, for instance).

Did your child find a toy/book/craft/whatever wouldn't do what he/she wanted?

  • Get down on your child's level (usually on the floor).
  • Physically stop your child if hitting, throwing, smashing, etc. of the object is occurring
  • Hold your child if necessary to help him/her calm down
  • Use simple words. “We use words. We calm down. We try again. We take a break when we're upset”
  • If you cannot understand what your child is trying to do, it's OK to apologize “Mama's sorry, I don't understand what you need. Lets calm down and try again.”
  • If your child is continually upset by the toy/book/etc. it may be best to remove him/her from the situation. An older toddler may realize at this point that it's better to calm down than to lose the ability to play with the object.

Is child upset that you won't give him/her food, go somewhere, do something, buy something, etc.?

  • Tell your child, firmly but gently, that “we use words” You may also say “there are times that we cannot eat” or “this is Mama's phone, don't touch” or something similar for the situation.
  • Then stop. That's enough. Do not give the child what he/she wants. Be gentle, but firm.
  • If you are in a public place and your child does not calm down, remove your child. Pick your child up and leave. If you're somewhere you cannot leave (say, a doctor's appointment), hold your child firmly, but gently, in your lap until he/she calms down. If your child is hitting/kicking/biting you, physically restrain him/her – gently, but firmly say “you're having some time in Mama's lap. We do not hit/bite/kick.”
  • If you are at home, you may try ignoring. Don't acknowledge unless you need to move your child somewhere safe. Then do so wordlessly. Then go about your day, stepping over your child if needed. Do not give your child what he/she wanted.
  • You may also try “time in” (this is my preference) – as above, holding the child gently but firmly.
  • Don't coddle the child – it's best to simply ignore (even if the child is in your lap). Read Facebook on your computer, look out the window, etc.
  • Essentially you want to be completely impassive, even apathetic and bored, about the situation. If you're getting upset or stressed (this is why I recommend leaving a public situation) be sure your child is safe and walk away until you can calm down. You can't teach your child to be calm if you're not calm. It's okay if you need to walk away. You're both human.
  • Don't give your child what he/she wanted until your child is calm. For an older baby/toddler, have them be calm and use gestures, signs, or words. Remember, you need to be calm too.  With an older toddler, you may choose to explain that because they had a tantrum, they won't get what they wanted, and that they need to act nicely next time

Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get a child to stop having tantrums, screaming, etc. when something doesn't go his or her way.  You need to be calm and consistent – and do not give the child what he or she wants until the tantrum is done.  Parents often “give in” just to make it stop, which teaches a child that tantrums are effective.

Don't feel bad if your child has developed a tantrum habit (and don't feel bad if it takes consistency – and time – to change it).  Don't feel bad if your little one is still very “little” – even babies have opinions on the way they want their life to go.  And if it's their opinion that it's going poorly, tantrums can result!  Use signs and simple language to help your older baby or toddler discover how to ask for his or her needs.  Take the time to show your child how to handle frustration.

As parents, we need to teach our children many, many things.  Your little one will face frustration throughout his or her life.  Now is a great time to show him or her how to handle it well.

The Myth of the Temper Tantrum

About the author 


Kristen is a pregnancy coach, student midwife, and a mama to 8 - all born naturally! I've spent nearly two decades helping mamas have healthy babies, give birth naturally, and enjoy the adventure of motherhood. Does complete support for a sacred birth and beautiful beginning for your baby resonate with you? Contact me today to chat about how powerful guidance and coaching can transform your pregnancy, birth, and mothering journey <3

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