Tantrums and Meltdowns – My Secret For Staying Calm When My Kids Aren’t

I’ve hesitated to share this secret because I worry it seems silly.  Then it occurred to me that if I’m really striving to provide a complete parenting “toolbox” on this blog, I can’t not include a practice, however inane, that has been essential to my own sanity and to raising three kids who are healthier and better adjusted than I could ever have hoped.

I’m the kind of person who absorbs and is affected by everyone’s feelings. But I also know that staying calm and centered in the face of even the darkest of my children’s emotions is imperative to their well-being. My boat is easily rocked, and when that happens I can lose perspective, and rather than giving my kids the solid support for their feelings or the behavior limits they need during a tantrum, I can end up losing patience, melting, second-guessing myself, getting mad or frustrated, yelling, doing things that not only don’t work, but also create problems that make matters worse.

When we lose our cool most of what we say or do is completely lost on our children. All they learn when we’re flailing is that they have the power to hurt us or ignite our rage, which unsettles them, creates an unsafe atmosphere, and usually causes them to repeat their difficult behaviors until or unless we find some control.

Or perhaps we say things like, “You’re hurting my feelings!”  Our vulnerability creates guilt and insecurity, burdening children with an inordinate amount of power and leaving them bereft of the confident, gentle leadership they desperately need.

But we’re human. We’re never going to like it when our kids are upset, and we’re going to lose our cool sometimes — more than sometimes during the toddler years.  How can we control our feelings and responses?

I appreciate the wonderful suggestions offered by parenting bloggers and advisers for helping parents temper their emotional reactions — healthy things to do instead of yelling or spanking when we’re triggered. A few of my favorites are breathe, call a friend, do jumping jacks and eat dark chocolate (preferably all at once). But in the frenzy of a difficult moment, I know I need something more immediate, powerful and proactive.

So when my kids are angry, sad, frustrated, winding up or melting down, I imagine myself donning a superhero suit equipped with a protective shield that deflects even the fiercest, most irritating emotional outbursts. It makes me feel confident and capable and inspires me to rise above the fray.  Just reaching for my superhero suit helps me to take a step out of myself and gain a clearer perspective.  I realize:

This is a VIPM (very important parenting moment). Releasing these feelings is so good for my child. This explosion will clear the air and lift my child’s spirits.  Staying present and calm, sticking with whatever limits I’ve set and being a safe channel for these emotions is the very best thing I could ever do.

Some of the superhuman parenting powers my suit provides:

1. I understand that difficult behavior is a request for help — the best my child can do in that particular moment.

2. I remember to acknowledge my child’s feelings and point of view. The importance of this can’t be overemphasized.

3. I have the confidence to set and hold limits early (before I get annoyed or resentful) and do so calmly, directly, honestly, non-punitively.

4. I know that my words are often not enough – I must follow through by intervening to help my child stop the behavior.

5. I’m not afraid of what others think when I need to pick up and carry my crying, screaming child out of a problematic situation. My child comes first.

6. I have the courage to allow feelings to run their full course, without trying to calm, rush, fix, shush or talk my child out of them.  I might say, “You have some very strong feelings about that” rather than yelling “enough!”

7. I move on without the slightest resentment, once my child’s storm has passed.

8. Rather than feeling angry, guilty or dejected for the rest of the day, I hold my head high and congratulate myself for being an awesome, heroic parent.

Occasionally (though it’s pretty rare) my superhero perspective even allows me to recognize the romance in these moments. I’m able to time travel at hyper-speed into the future, look back and realize that this was prime time together.  It didn’t look pretty, but we were close. I’ll remember how hard it was to love my child when she was at her very worst and feel super proud that I did it anyway.


I offer a guide to gentle leadership in my book: NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame 

And now, finally! All my discipline advice in one place for you to make your own: http://nobadkidscourse.com

I also highly recommend this podcast I recorded with Tasha, Challenging Moments With Kids: How To Keep Your Cool:




(Photo by TheodoreWLee on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi, Janet.
    First and foremost, I’ve been listening to your podcasts at home, in the car all the time and I love it. It’s beyond helpful and I admit it is sometimes very hard to follow everything you say but I’m trying and that’s what matters the most.

    I have a 21 month old daughter who is like any other toddler, maybe a bit more fearful of new surroundings, and objects than her friends, but she’s a loving, happy toddler.

    After listening to your podcasts, and reading your posts, there’s a recurring theme of letting the child express their emotions to let their feelings out in a healthy way.
    I do understand logically, as I, too, agree that there are many emotions inside of you that are natural and should be allowed to be expressed in appropriate ways.

    But every time I let my daughter cry out her emotion and not trying to soothe her is extremely hard for me, because of my own childhood experience.

    My mother was not a very responsive mother, meaning if she didn’t care about what I said or she felt that it was too trivial to gain her interests, or my words upset her in the slightest way, she never responded, and acted as if she didn’t hear anything. Same goes for in times of discipline, if my mother had to discipline me she would take something away from me and maybe or maybe not with a brief explanation. We never really communicated and when we did it was ‘one-way’, she mostly complained, and I listened.

    I was an angry and resentful child because of this and also physical punishment(although quite common in our culture). I remember always yelling and screaming at her when she never budged an inch or opened her mouth and went about her day.

    So with this underlying issue I have, I have a difficult time letting my child express her frustration with crying. She can’t articulate her feelings well yet so there is no yelling, but I’m sure it will come soon.

    After giving her an explanation the first time, I can’t just watch her cry and not say anything. I feel extremely guilty, it feels like I’m becoming like my mother, which since the pregnancy, I vowed to myself not to.
    Do you think there’s a softer approach than what I feel like ‘ignoring her feelings’?
    I have never succeeded at letting my daughter “cry out” her frustration. I always had to at least hold her or distract her to stop her from crying after certain time.
    Can I maybe comment on how upset she is and I understand her?

    Your insight would be very much appreciated!
    Thank you always.

    1. Erica Hughes says:

      I don’t know how Janet would respond to this. But personally I always comfort my child when she is crying, by holding her if she wants me to, by putting a hand on her back, or by just being nearby. It all depends on what she wants. Sometimes she is angry and so doesn’t want me touching her, but staying close by to show I am there for her when she is finished, it a show of comfort too. I think if we can stay calm and ake the cues from our children we are doing the right thing. Best of luck!

        1. I loved this strategy, thank you so much. I sometimes build inner alternative ways to deal with situations, like the hero suit you’re mentioning but I tell myself I’m being immature and that a grown woman shouldn’t even consider such ways of thinking. I see how I’m not validating myself so no wonder why I often fail to validate my children’s views without being aware. I had controlling parents who’s only intention was to try to model a close to perfect human being but ended up raising a super insecure person who, now as an adult, keeps gaslighting herself, not able to tell between what self conceived strategies can work and what to discard. I find it hard to discern what’s the voice of my heart and what’s just an attempt to be the perfect being the ego keeps demanding me to become, which of course is unreachable and fictional.
          I’ll try to stop ridiculing that playful voice that makes me want to try things outside what I believe are the ‘mature’ ways. I’ll try and validate that creative side of me. Perhaps that will give my kids a happier mom. Thank you for sharing a secret I have been considering as almost an unforgivable ‘sin’ in my self.

    2. I think it’s OK and even good to soothe, conmfort, and empathize with your child as they get their emotions out. This can look a lot of ways – naming feelings, offering hugs/cuddles, just sitting calmly with your child as they cry. It’s called coregulation and kids need it from their trusted adults. I think what Janet says is to not see the crying as something that needs to be stopped or fixed. We don’t want kids to see letting their emotions out as a bad thing, but it is ok to help them through the process if they need it. Sometimes my kids will scream and cry and I can ignore and they will get over it quickly. Other times, I see the crying start to distress them and I know I need to support them in getting regulated again.

  2. Harper Johnston says:

    As a mom of boys and a 25 yr veteran behavioral psychologist, some days I manage up to 8 tantrums from different kids.
    I agree with your core points 100%.
    But first, I need to calm myself down before I can remember my own rules.
    I find it useful to sing a song in my head that’s incompatible with my own escalating stress as children reach their “level 5” tantrum phase.
    Does anyone else do this?
    My old favs are “the girl from impanina” and the whistling part of GNR’s “patience”
    But top 40 songs also work (“I’ve got new rules” and “you just want attention”)

    1. Love this! I will try to remember to sing “Girl from Ipanema“ in my head to calm down from now on…

  3. I love this! I read it months ago before our daughter had reached the phase of tantrums. Now, since we’re in the phase, it is a great reminder. During a family trip our little girl threw a big tantrum. I let it happen. I didn’t feel embarrassed or try to cover it up. Afterwards, my mother-in-law questioned me and I shared my thoughts on tantrums with her. Not surprisingly, they were very different. I am not sure if it is a generational or personality difference, but it was great to have a conversation about this very topic. I now feel much more confident that when my daughter is in the care of my MIL, she may respond as I do.

  4. Hi Janet,
    We came to the RIE Center when it was in Silverlake and have a few wonderful memories of the handful of sessions w you! Unfortunately for us it moved shortly after.. I was hoping you can give some guidance for those of us (is me ) w tweens and teens during these times. I find I can „loose my cool“ more easily after months of quarantine and also let myself be pulled into my kids upsets. I desperately want to be their calm leader and have a hard time recovering/repairing after we all flood… thanks!

  5. Hi, Janet. I do all of this since she once a baby. But now I cannot pick her up, nor calm her and when we have tsntrums litterally all day long, me.working at home with her, fpr days, and single mother, I just fail the xam and just have a tantrum..and than I feel so gulty that is very hard to snap out of it..what to do else than getting help which I cannot? We are going to herapist and I read and to circle of safety and all that and I still fail 🙁

  6. Erica Kirkham says:

    Hi Janet, I know we are typically supposed to let our child’s upset feelings run their course and not rush to calm them, but what about when the child themself expresses a desire to calm down but is unable to do so by themselves? My 3.5 year old got so upset at breakfast this morning that she couldn’t stop crying to eat, and she kept saying she was hungry and wanted to eat but couldn’t calm down. I tried to help her do long breaths in and out, rubbed her back, when she left the room I gave her space but still close by, then when she came back she asked me to snuggle so I snuggled her while she continued to scream and arch her back. This was the first time she’d expressed a desire to calm down and seemed kind of freaked out that she couldn’t. Are there other strategies to try in this type of situation? What finally helped her move forward was running around the couch. (Her pretending to be the gingerbread man and my husband chasing her and pretending to eat her.)

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