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How to De-Escalate a Tantrum

by Karen LoBello, studioD

Temper tantrums might not be the most pleasant part of child rearing, but at some point almost all children experience episodes of inconsolable screaming, yelling, kicking or worse. Age and temperament factor into tantrums. Children are most prone to temper tantrums between the ages of two and four, according to Dr Rita Eichenstein, a developmental neuropsychologist in Los Angeles. Parents can’t always prevent tantrums, but they can take steps to defuse them.

Anticipate when your child is most likely to have a tantrum. Children need predictability, sleep and food at the right times. If you’re going to an amusement park for the day, and you know your child will have a meltdown if he doesn’t take a nap by 2 p.m., figure out ahead of time where to rest.

Talk to your child early in the day to plan what you’ll be doing later. If Sally asks for ice cream each day when she hears the ice cream truck, explain what’s going to happen. “Remember how you wanted ice cream yesterday, Sally? You can’t have it every day. Today we’re going to make play dough.” This priming should be repeated often during the day, advises Eichenstein.

Gain control of your own emotions and then help your child calm his breathing when he’s having a tantrum. Practice breathing in and out, focusing on each breath, advises Dr. Julieta Macias, psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Rockville, Maryland. Teach your child to practice taking deep breaths during casual playtime. Without prior experience, this technique won’t work.

Get down to your child’s eye level. This focuses his attention on your eyes and face and lessens potential distractions, Macias says. When you are physically on your child’s level, you’re nonverbally saying, “I am here with you.”

Talk in a soothing manner to your little one when he is having a tantrum -- even if you feel like raising your voice. Use self-talk, “I am calm. I am able to calm myself and my child,” recommends Macias. Remind your child that you love him. Offer a hug. Tell him it’s time to rest.

Distract your child by singing or engaging him in an activity he enjoys. Begin to sing his favorite song and ask him to join you. Sensory activities relax a child and help refocus his attention from whatever was bringing about the tantrum to a new, pleasurable state of being, Macias says.

Remove your child from the environment, if possible, when the situation escalates. His reasoning skills are shut down, so you won’t be able to reason with him, no matter how hard you try. Instead, think about what caused the tantrum. If it’s fatigue, put him in his bedroom. If he’s just upset over not getting his way, don't give in and reward his behavior, giving him what he wants, warns Eichenstein.


  • The most important time for learning is after the tantrum. A few hours after the episode, talk to your child about what happened. Plan together what to do next time.


  • Stay aware of safety issues. Some children get quite active during a tantrum. Make sure your child can’t hurt himself. Put him in a safe place or hold him gently to make sure he’s safe.
  • If you are concerned about the level or frequency of your child's tantrums, consult with your physician. There are issues related to atypical development and other things, such as illness or anxiety, that can prolong the temper tantrum stage beyond what is expected.

About the Author

Karen LoBello is coauthor of “The Great PJ Elf Chase: A Christmas Eve Tradition.” She began writing in 2009, following a career as a Nevada teacher. LoBello holds a bachelor's degree in K-8 education, a secondary degree in early childhood education and a master's degree in computer education.

Photo Credits

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