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5 Words that Will Stop a Tantrum in Its Tracks

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5-words-that-will-stop-a-tantrum-in-its-tracksPhoto credit: mdanys via photopin cc

Picture the scene:

My daughter A stands in the hallway, stomping her feet, fists clenched, tears rolling down her blood-red cheeks. Her screams go from let’s-remind-our-neighbors-we-have-a-three-year-old loud to should-someone-be-calling-child-services? loud. She’s dialed to 11 in full tantrum mode, as Baby J and I look on.

*          *         *

The day started nicely enough.

I had spent the morning dangling a carrot over A’s head: the new trampoline park. We had been once before, and she’d been talking about it ever since like it was the promised land. I told her that if we were able to get out of the house without a lot of fuss that morning, we could go back to her new favorite place.

As we pulled up to the trampoline park, I reminded her that we could only go inside if she was sure that when it was time to go, she wouldn’t make a scene, like we’ve all seen kids do at the end of some monumentally fun activity. She promised me she would comply.

So I paid the $10 for her to have an hour of uninterrupted fun. She jumped, she bounced, she climbed. And when one of the attendants announced that our jump time was up, A maturely returned to find her shoes. We gathered our things and returned to the car. Mission accomplished, right?


I could tell things were going south when I heard A start to cry about a scrape on her ankle during the short drive home. That’s out of character, I thought to myself. She’s not usually this temperamental, but there’s been a lot of this lately: whining and fussing about things that aren’t really a big deal.

And of course, I wonder if this fussiness has anything to do with all the changes in her life right now. Things that wouldn’t ordinarily be upsetting are now, just because.

trampoline park

I try to be patient. I insist it’s just a small injury that we can easily tend to with a Hello Kitty bandaid when we get inside our house, but things snowball from there.

She doesn’t want to put her shoes on to get out of the car. She doesn’t want me to carry her from the car. She doesn’t want to go upstairs to clean off her scrape, and she insists I’m not supposed to go up either.

I try to offer a diversion: lunch.

Aren’t you hungry? It’s lunchtime. Your sister is going to eat now. Look at these yummy strawberries!

Nope. She’s not having it. In that moment, everything is just wrong to her, and she’s having no trouble expressing her disgust with the world.

I try my normal tactic: ignore the tantrum. That’s what’s been working for us for about a year now. Are you upset about something? Is there a reasonable solution? If not, go ahead and be angry, and let me know when you’re done. She usually comes around really quickly once I stop paying attention to all the drama.

But not lately. In recent weeks, ignoring A’s tantrum tactics just makes her more irate. What now?

Well, a few weeks ago, in the middle of one of her rages, I could just sense how powerless A felt. Defeated. Unheard. And it got to me.

Instead of feeling aggravated with her, as I’m ashamed to say I usually do, I got down on my knees and asked her,

Would you like a hug?

She looked at me, a little shocked, and paused for just a moment before accepting my offer. And the whole tantrum unraveled from there.

Had I just disarmed her with kindness and understanding? Did this actually work?? Yup.

After that incident, we had a little talk about expressing ourselves constructively: requesting affection before getting to the point of having one of these explosions. Since then, there have been a whole bunch of times when A has been on the brink of a tantrum and requested a hug. And then things just…stopped—the fussing, the screaming, all of it—and instead, she’s been able to tell me what’s really bothering her.

Because it’s never the poor positioning of her sock seam across her toes or the fact that I’ve selected the wrong children’s vitamin flavor for her. Lately, the real issue usually has something to do with not feeling heard. And haven’t we all been there?

It’s got to be tough to be three and learn that you’re leaving your life, your friends, your school, your home. You have no choice in the matter. It’s just happening.

The more I think about things from A’s perspective, the more I realize she has good reason to feel frustrated. So right now, I pray for patience, and I offer up lots of hugs.

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9 comments… add one
  • Amy S June 12, 2014, 1:07 pm

    Great trick – this one totally works for us as well. Just used it Tuesday night!

    • Evanthia Evanthia June 12, 2014, 1:09 pm

      That’s so interesting to hear, Amy! I have a tendency to take a hard line against tantrums, but I’m learning that a softer approach may do the trick right now.

      • Amy S June 12, 2014, 2:14 pm

        I think the trick is identifying when to leave it alone and when the hug is warranted. I also am an ignorer (which also works well with my daughter) but the first thing i do when that isn’t working is the hug.

  • Leah June 12, 2014, 1:30 pm

    I have been doing this for years! I started when my son was about two, and it does occasionally work (depending on the situation, of course). He’s 4.5 and it still works some of the time, but hasn’t worked yet for my daughter, who is two. When I ask her, it actually just makes her more mad and ramps her up. What usually works with her is if I ask her if she wants a drink of water. I suppose throwing a tantrum is a thirsty job. :) I said it kind of as a joke during a tantrum one time, “Your throat must be getting sore from all that screaming, do you want a drink of water?” and she said yes. And you can’t scream while you’re drinking, so it usually pauses her long enough for me to talk to or redirect her.

    • Evanthia Evanthia June 12, 2014, 2:11 pm

      I love the water idea, Leah!! Great redirection! I’m chuckling to myself thinking of a child pausing in the middle of having a tantrum to have a sip of water :)

      I’m interested to hear that you’ve been using this “do you want a hug?” technique and it doesn’t yet work with your two-year-old. I guess there must be a certain age at which a child has an emotional awareness despite being horribly worked up about something inane. I’ll be experimenting with Baby J in the coming months!

  • Michelle Brooks June 12, 2014, 3:45 pm

    We also use the “hug it out” method which works most of the time, or “take a break” as well. Cass will be overwhelmed either w/ friends or any wild situation and she’ll simply state, “I’m taking a break,” and go in another room where it’s quiet. I think it’s healthy for a child to recognize if they’re uncomfortable in a situation and be able to remove themlves before it escalates! I definitely do the ignore and let me know when you’re calmed down technique though as well! But as soon as she comes back to me, I greet her immediately w/ a hug and we talk about what went wrong. I love the water idea though!! You never know what age will bring to their temperaments so it’s nice to have various tools in our back pockets. :)

    • Evanthia Evanthia June 12, 2014, 9:31 pm

      I’m with you, Michelle! Teaching kids when they need to duck out of a social situation is so, so important! It’s easy for them to get overwhelmed, and it’s great once they have the awareness to recognize their own triggers.

      With A, I know that if she’s had a busy day and I don’t force her to take some time to sit down and eat, she goes into meltdown mode. She’s getting better now about knowing that about herself, too. Bottom line: always carry snacks!

  • PRC June 17, 2014, 6:34 am

    You’re such a wonderful caring mother, this post warmed my heart. Miss you Evie!!!

    • Evanthia Evanthia June 17, 2014, 2:29 pm

      Thanks, old friend :)

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