How to Prevent Tantrums

No parent wants to live with tantrums - they're exhausting, upsetting and embarrassing too. We explain how to tame those meltdowns - before they've even started

Discipline shouldn’t always be about fixing something that's gone wrong - it can also be about changing the way you do things upfront to prevent problems from happening. While you can't stop your child from ever having a tantrum, there are many things you can do that will substantially reduce their frequency and intensity.

Nip it in the bud

Often, when a child has a tantrum, the issue that set off the behaviour has little to do with anything that requires discipline. Just as adults who are in a bad mood or have a headache might yell or grumble, children may be struggling with emotions that cause them to respond in a negative way.

In essence, the issue is not always about how to discipline children, but how to change the environment in order to help them gain control over their emotions. Some of the most common issues that cause children to act out in negative ways are hunger, tiredness, frustration, boredom or over-stimulation.

Once you identify the real reason behind your child’s actions, you can often solve this at the first sign of negative behaviour, before your child dissolves into a full-blown tantrum.

Offer choices

This is a very effective tool that can prevent tantrums from even beginning. It’s helpful as a method to move your child in the direction you need them to go, without having to deal with them digging in their heels. How this works is simple. Replace direct commands, such as “put on your pyjamas right now” (which often triggers a battle) with a choice that propels your child forward, such as “what do you want to do first - put on your pyjamas or brush your teeth?” or “do you want to hop to the bathroom like a bunny or crawl like a puppy?”

Play cooperation games

Children see life as a game – so why not take advantage of that? Nearly any task can be turned into a game. Some can be a one-time fix; others can become part of your regular routine. You know your child’s typical response when you command “pick up your toys and put them in the toybox”? Imagine the response if you said “I bet I can pick up all the blue cars before you pick up the red ones! Ready, set, go!”

Instead of “put your toy down and go to the potty now”, how about this fun alternative: “here comes the potty train. Chooo! Chooo! All aboard!” These simple games can alter your communication in an effective tantrum-preventing way.

Sing a song

Kids love it when things are put to music, so create songs to be used as cues for certain tasks: a clean-up song that takes place whenever the toys are picked up and put away, a getting-dressed song, or a song that beckons your child to the dinner table.

Tell a story

Children love stories. Stories will hold their attention and can often get them to willingly do what you want. They can be used to ward off boredom, prepare a child for an upcoming event or keep a child focused on the task at hand. Stories can be told in advance of any event to let your child know what’s about to happen, and to prevent problems and tantrums when the actual event occurs.

For example: to prepare for a visit to a grandparent's house, you can tell a tale about a boy who goes to Grandma’s house for dinner – how he says please and thank you and behaves nicely, and how he makes his grandparents proud and happy.

Be silly

Often parents are so focused on getting through the day that their rigid presentation incites easily-avoidable tantrums. Humour – like pretending to fall, exaggerated speech or funny accents - can often create a joyful moment. Being silly - such as putting your child’s sock on his hand instead of his foot while getting him dressed – often elicits a laugh, along with the desired cooperation.

Give fair warning

When children are immersed in play, they usually put their entire being into the activity. Because of this intensity, it can be very hard for a child to switch from one activity to another without first making a mental adjustment.

When a child is in the middle of a game and a parent calls him to dinner, it’s an unusual child who can immediately drop everything and run to the table. You can help your children change activities by giving them time to process the change mentally before they follow through physically. Prior to expecting action from your children, call out a five minute alert, then a three minute alert and finally a one minute alert. This forewarning can prevent a meltdown that can occur with a sudden, surprising announcement.

Use positive words

Some of the most overused words in parenting are "no", "don’t" and "stop". They are necessary, of course, but when these words are overused they can create more problems than they solve. Try to save these words for when they're necessary. When possible, choose more positive words such as "would you please..." or "I would like you to..."

Tell your child what you want, instead of what you don’t want. So, rather than “don’t jump on the furniture!” explain “furniture is for sitting on. Please sit here or go outside to jump.”

Creative parenting means fewer tantrums

All of these techniques can be used to prevent tantrums and to help fill your days with more joy and pleasant communication. They require thought and practice, but once you feel the happy results, you’ll know it is worth it!

If tantrums do happen...

With all the previous strategies in place, parents are likely to have a relatively tantrum-free life. But it makes sense to have a few ideas up your sleeve for how to deal with them.

A minor episode

Try ignoring minor tantrums by walking into another room or just carrying on with your own tasks.

Use calming techniques to lower your own stress levels – deep breathing, relaxing your muscles, positive talk inside your head: "I will keep calm".

If ignoring hasn’t worked, some children can be jollied along out of an episode. Say something like "time to stop now – I’ll count to 10" then give plenty of praise and cuddles if the tantrum stops.

In the supermarket, it is sometimes best to just pick up your child and go outside to cut down your embarrassment.

For a really major tantrum, different tactics are needed

Speak calmly, saying things like "I’m here, I won’t let you hurt yourself".

Hold your child tightly, preferably making eye contact.

Sometimes you just have to weather the storm until your child calms down.

‘Time out’ can help if you find it impossible to stay calm. Time out involves putting your child somewhere safe but boring (for example a playpen, pushchair or the bottom step) for a couple of minutes. It should never be forced in anger and is not really understood by under 3’s. It may work best for parents to take it themselves!

Related links

Tantrums - some causes and myths: Even the best-behaved children will throw a tantrum occasionally. Parenting and Child Behaviour expert Eileen Hayes shares some home truths about tantrums and the reasons behind them.

Win over the whiner - how to stop your child whinging: Every parent suffers through it: the loud, obnoxious, pull-your-hair-out whining of a child who wants his or her way, now.

Calming your kids: how do you tame a wild child? It’s common for young children to express themselves physically when they don’t have enough words to say what they want or need. But there are some things you can do to ease their aggression.

Find out more

Renowned parenting expert Elizabeth Pantley is the author of a number of books including The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, The No Cry Potty Training Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Child to Say Good-bye to Nappies and The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behaviour Without Whining, Tantrums and Tears.

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