The Best Way to Deal with Intense Tantrums

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent says she feels like a failure when dealing with her two-year-old’s tantrums. She writes: “We’ve been great at heading them off before they begin and recognizing why they’re happening, but we are completely at a loss what to do once we’re stuck with one.” She’s tried several different strategies without success.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email from a parent who has said that her strategy toward her two-year-old’s tantrums has been to patiently ride them out, since she feels from experience that there’s nothing she can say or do in that moment to make it better. But she feels like she’s failing, so she’s wondering if there’s something more affirmative or proactive that she could be doing for her toddler.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet. Thank you for your wonderful books, podcast, and advice. Like a lot of your followers, my family has benefited immensely from the wisdom we’ve learned from you, and I admit I often hear your voice in my head. I was listening to one of your podcasts, and it prompted me to write about my own problems with toddler tantrums. We’ve been great at heading them off before they begin, and recognizing why they’re happening with our two-year-old, but we are completely at a loss as to what to do once we’re stuck with one.

I call it ‘yes, no, and nothing I do is right.’ He will simply scream at me with half-intelligible demands. I’ve long since learned not to try to go along with these requests since fulfilling them leads to him immediately demanding the opposite. For example, screaming for his bunny then results in her being thrown across the room. A request for a cuddle will lead to him throwing a fit and saying no cuddles. I don’t like ignoring him, it doesn’t feel right when he is clearly in distress, but even patiently sitting nearby is equally fraught with danger as he’ll tell me to go away or not sit there. I just can’t win.

I know it’s developmentally appropriate and so normal to have a tantrum or two, especially when he’s tired or sick, but I seem to fail each time it happens. I’ll sit patiently, but when I feel like I’m losing my cool, this can be half an hour or more. I leave him in his bed and tell him to relax while I go elsewhere to listen to his cries from a distance. Do I need to ride it out? It doesn’t happen often enough for me to be concerned about his development, but it is intense at times, and I feel like I’m failing when we could be having a positive connecting time. I always err on the side of less is more. But maybe there’s something more I can be doing for him, apart from the obvious like getting him into bed when he needs to go to sleep. Thanks in advance.”

Okay. Well, like so many of the messages I receive, this one is from a parent who knows the answers to a lot of her questions and is already on the right track in so many ways. But it sounds like she just needs a little more encouragement to go all the way with the direction that she’s going.

When she says things like, “I’m being patient,” “I’m waiting,” even, “I’m riding it out,” those are indicators that she’s investing in the tantrum in some way, she feels responsible for getting him through this. She’s feeling like she maybe has a little bit of control. And I’d like to suggest that she doesn’t at all.

It’s a very, very common scenario. I’ve been through it many times with my own children, with other people’s children. It is a tantrum, and the dialogue that children are having when they have expressive language saying, “I want this, I need this.” And then she offers him the bunny and he doesn’t want the bunny. He wants her to leave, but then he doesn’t want her to leave. Those are all part of a tantrum, and as this parent has realized, it’s important not to get caught up in the specifics, perceiving this kind of flailing of, “I need this. I want that. Do this. Do that,” as reasonable requests for things that he really does want that would change this whole tantrum for him.

And maybe we do fall for that first request, but then when we see that the bunny didn’t help, he threw the bunny or whatever, it is, by then, we’ll ideally let go and realize, Oops, this guy’s gone at this moment. He’s in it. He needs to move this out of his system. And at that point, it’s as if we’re not even there. Our child is just in the middle of a storm. He’s inside himself, and he’s letting go of something that’s really important for him to let go of.

When we can really understand the experience and how healthy and positive it is for our child to be able to get through it all the way, we can start to let go even more, and that’s what I would advise this parent to do. Let go of this all the way. Trust it all the way. Avoid getting caught up in that feeling that if she just did something, she could change the course of this. We can’t. It’s got a life of its own, these meltdowns, these rebalancing episodes that children have. They are not ours to do anything with or even try to wait out, because even that can be felt by our children as discomfort coming from us that then sort of juices up their meltdown. It makes it harder for them to really let it go all the way.

So going over this bit by bit… this mother mentions that “he will simply scream at me with these half-intelligible demands.” Yes, it’s great that she’s seeing it that way, and she says she’s long since learned not to try to go along with these requests since fulfilling them leads to him immediately demanding the opposite. Yes, that’s right, and that should indicate to us very clearly these aren’t real requests of things that he really wants, much less needs. And that can be hard when children throw things at us like, “I need a hug.”

One time I was working with a child who was having a full-on meltdown, three-and-a-half years old, and had a lot of stress in his life at that time, and he was saying he needed water. He needed water.nThat was a very scary one for me to not try to fulfill at that moment. But if you were there, if you were in it with this guy, you could see that even if I had brought him water, he couldn’t have swallowed it at that point. He was so in another dimension. He was in his release of his feelings. So I had to trust and just allow that to be because I wanted him to be able to get these feelings out of his body so he would feel better.

And we can see when we do allow this and allow it all the way and let go of it, don’t try to work it or do anything with the feelings besides letting them happen, we see the difference in our child afterwards. We’ll see how they feel relaxed, how they feel calm, how they almost don’t remember what happened, and then we can offer them the snuggle or the water or something that they can receive that will help them feel supported instead of interfered with.

That’s the tough thing, because here’s our child on the surface saying, “Do this, do that,” and we have to be able to see beyond to what’s really happening. This is tough stuff. And children will tend to say those things that get to us. I’m not sure why that is, because I know it’s not conscious manipulation or anything like that, but they seem to know those soft spots in us, something that will maybe shake our belief in their right to release their tantrum and just let that be. It’s quite challenging, but this parent is already three quarters there, at least.

So then she says he would scream for his bunny, and then he would throw the bunny across the room. Yes, very clear. I’m in it. I’m flailing. I’m in the middle of this. I’m in the eye of the storm. Just stay clear of me and trust me. Let me feel this, let me get it out of my system.

She says, “I don’t like ignoring him. It doesn’t feel right when he is clearly in distress.” Yes, that’s the big challenge right there.

Our child seems in distress, and everything in us, most of us, will tell us that we need to make this better, we need to let him know that we love him, that we will try to fix it if we can. That’s what gets in our way, those wonderful loving intentions that we have. It’s so hard to see our children in distress and to trust that that’s a safe place for them to go and be.

But I would try to reframe what ignoring a child is in this situation. Trusting a child to move through those feelings themselves is far from ignoring. It’s actually one of the most loving acts between us, that we don’t judge, that we don’t fear, that we allow and we let go. We don’t try to fix it or change it or shorten it. We just let it be. That’s not ignoring. Ignoring would be turning away and blocking it out, and that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. I’m suggesting letting our shoulders drop, relaxing. If we do have to get up, we maybe say briefly to our child who probably can’t hear us anyway, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to the bathroom. I’m going to the stove,” and we do what we have to do.

She says, “Even patiently, sitting nearby is equally fraught with danger as he’ll tell me to go away or not sit there. I just can’t win.” This one gets kind of controversial, this part about when children tell us to go away. I hear a lot of people say that we should go away when a child says that, and what I’ve experienced and what I strongly believe is that we should not go away, especially with a child this age. Maybe with an older child, a six or seven. But I would see this as yet another expression, release, lashing out. “Go away!” is one of them, and in my view, it’s much more loving to be the big person there who doesn’t take that personally, doesn’t feel rejected, and doesn’t feel worried that my child really needs to be alone here. I would see through that as a child lashing out at me, just like when children hit in the middle of a tantrum or kick. It’s a feeling that our child has, and again, I think the most loving thing we can do is see that for what it is, to understand our child in that situation, and allow them to verbally lash out at me knowing that this really isn’t about me at all. It’s about my child who’s in the middle of some really uncomfortable feelings, and he will feel better when he gets to the end of them.

This parent says, “I can’t win.” I would let go of the fight or the game or whatever it is that she wants to win there, because I think that’s a sign that she’s invested, she’s engaged, she’s trying to make something happen even though she’s doing it in a very restrained manner. And when we are invested that way, there’s a much greater chance we are going to start to get triggered, get uncomfortable because we feel so out of control, we feel so powerless. That’s a scary place for us to go, and we can avoid that if we trust and let go, don’t try to work it, don’t even try to say anything, let it be.

She says, “I know it’s developmentally appropriate and so normal.” Yes it is. “I seem to fail each time it happens.” There’s no failing unless we’re trying to achieve something. Instead, be passive to these feelings. You’re not ignoring him.

She says, “I sit patiently, but when I feel like I’m losing my cool, this can be half an hour or more.” So patiently, again, means that she’s waiting. She’s maybe counting the minutes and I understand that, too. I do. These episodes can seem like they’re lasting for days and days on end, but if it’s a half an hour more, that would be an indication to me that my child isn’t feeling a clear space that’s open for him. He maybe feels my stress. He maybe feels me holding on to uncomfortable feelings myself. My child is feeling some pushback. He doesn’t feel entirely comfortable to let go. If we can do this, if we can do what I’m suggesting, it shouldn’t take that long.

It will feel, again, very, very long, but will probably not last more than 10 to 15 minutes and I hasten to even say that because I don’t want anyone to be looking at their watches. That’s just not going to help us.

If we feel like we’re losing our cool, yes, I would leave, but I wouldn’t tell him what to do. She says, “I tell him to relax.” I would actually want him to keep venting, knowing that that’s the way he will rebalance and feel better. So I would leave, just not even saying anything, just nodding your head and saying, “I will be right back,” and looking at him with empathy and welcoming him to feel what he feels. That openness, that trust.

She says, “Do I need to ride it out?” No. Get off whatever you’re riding and let him ride it out. Children don’t need us to ride with them, and riding with them again can lead us to losing our cool, and also make our child feel pressured or pushed back on when they need that space to be clear.

So don’t ride it out, and I wouldn’t ride out children’s feelings at all day-to-day. Their feelings will be a rollercoaster. Young children have intense feelings, and they’ll be joyful, they’ll be down, they’ll be scared, they’ll be happy. We won’t survive parenting in these early years if we ride these with them. We’ve got to trust them to do the ride, and we’re there for safety.

She said “it doesn’t happen often enough for her to be concerned about his development.” Great. “But it is intense at times.” Yes, young children are. That’s why toddlers tend to get such bad press. It’s an intense time of development, an emotionally volatile time. So I would like to reassure this mother and anyone else listening that feels like they’re failing, that this is how they develop emotional health and self-regulation… by learning through us that their feelings are normal, their feelings are okay, and they don’t need us to ride with them. They’ve got this.

She says, “I always err on the side of less is more, but maybe there’s something more I can be doing for him.”

I’m with her on erring on the side of less is more. Less doing, more trusting.

“Maybe there’s something more I can be doing for him apart from the obvious.” Nope. She said she’s been great at heading these tantrums off and being preventative, so she knows that part, and what I’m offering today is this other little piece of the puzzle that will complete it for her. It’s very freeing to trust.

So I really hope some of this helps.

Also, please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and categories, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in.

And both my books are available on audio, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or, you can go to the Books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.

Also my exclusive audio series Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents discussing their specific parenting issues, and these are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio.com. You can read a description of each episode and order them individually, or get them all, about three hours of audio for just under $20. sessionsaudio.com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

7 Comments

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

  1. Hi Janet, This podcast comes at a heavy-tantrum time for our family. My daughter is about to turn four and something’s going on for her. I’m curious about how we can be respectful of her process and the rest of our family (my husband, her 18 month old brother, and myself). Is it appropriate to move a child to her room for a tantrum? Do we need to sit with the child as this parent does, for the duration? And if so, how does that work when a tantrum comes at mealtime or in the mornings when we all have to get ready to go? I’m all for letting her get out her emotions and creating space for her to fully release them. However, what does that look like in the context of family life when there’s other things going on? Any help would be appreciated!

    1. Hi Jen! As I mention (but only briefly) in this podcast, the key is to accept, allow, normalize, and let go of the tantrum. That doesn’t mean stopping everything and waiting as if this is a special or unnatural event. Alternatively, I would not isolate the child, because that also makes a big event of the feelings. If you need to move yourself to another room to do something, let you child know you hear and accept where’s she at, and that you’ll be back to check on her. If this as mealtime, I would let it go and continue your meal as best you can, keeping the bigger picture in mind… the message that it’s truly okay to feel whatever she feels. Her parents don’t get angry and the house doesn’t fall apart. I would also look at what this is: “something’s going on for her. So that you can understand better what she’s processing. That will make it easier for you be accepting and even empathetic.

    2. Hi Jen! As I mention (but only briefly) in this podcast, the key is to accept, allow, normalize, and let go of the tantrum. That doesn’t mean stopping everything and waiting as if this is a special or unnatural event. Alternatively, I would not isolate the child, because that also makes a big event of the feelings. If you need to move yourself to another room to do something, let your child know you hear and accept where’s she at, and that you’ll be back to check on her. If this is at mealtime, I would let it go and continue your meal as best you can, keeping the bigger picture in mind… the overriding message that it’s truly okay to feel whatever she feels. Her parents don’t get angry and the house doesn’t fall apart. I would also look at what this might be: “something’s going on for her. So that you can understand better what she’s processing. That will make it easier for you be accepting and even empathetic.

      1. Hi, Janet! I’ve recently discovered you and have been bingeing on all your archived content. Thank you for providing such valuable and clear information. Your work will have an eternal impact on our family, as what we learn and implement now will be handed down through generations.
        Jen’s question is essentially mine, too. We have a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and 10-month-old. I can’t always have the iiiiiiintense screaming/wailing/gnashing of teeth happening on top of everything and everyone else. It doesn’t seem fair (or helpful for moods overall) to the others to have to endure one kid’s lashing out. I’m talking in the really disruptive, loud, prolonged instances, not the run of the mill feelings that pop up a hundred times a day that we just accept and roll with. For example, gigantic fits at bedtime I usually let go for a little bit with simple acknowledgement, empathy, and space. But there comes a point when I say, “I can see you don’t like X, and it’s OK to feel that way. But i won’t let you wake up your sister.” And then I’ll move the tantruming child to another room until she’s done or just sit and hug/rock her depending on the level of volatility. Could I handle it differently?
        Any specific tips you can give here or in a future podcast on how to approach these types of things with 3 or more small ones at the same time would be so helpful.

        1. We have this at bedtime sometimes too for the 2 & 4 yo that recently started sharing a room and keep/wake each other up. I’d love to hear more ideas on how to handle this!! Thanks!

  2. avatar Shosana Oren says:

    This is so true my 3 1/2 year old when going through his tantrums says “ your are not my friend “ I don’t even respond . Is that ok to do. I also have other 3 kids so when he is going through it I just don’t do nothing and I’m less than 5 min he is usually fine. So times it lasts longer but I guess I learn with my other 3 older ones nothing to do. I have. A fast question they say terrible 2’s but with my kids the 3’s have been the most challenging that’s normal correct ?

  3. avatar Arlin Medina says:

    Hi Janet! I’m new to your blog, this is actually the first podcast I’ve listened to. My issue with my two year old is that his tantrums happen mostly when we’re getting him dressed for School in the morning. He refuses to wear a certain sweater or sneakers. Last week was pj day and my husband insisted that our son wear a Xmas pajamas that he didn’t want to wear. Liam has a favorite pj, and we’ve allowed him to wear this every night to bed, but we’ve also allowed him to pick and choose what he wants to wear during the weekends. That pj day, Liam threw a tantrum all the way to school. He would try to take his pj off with no avail. When I dropped him off, he kept crying until the teacher had to take the pj off and change him into his regular clothes. Yesterday it was with a sweater. I get agitated, but my husband usually spanks him, which I don’t support but feel I can’t stop him from
    Doing. My son is also lagging in speech, he sings along to songs and will repeat gestures and words he hears on TV, and talk gibberish, but doesn’t really speak. It’s becoming frustrating and while your podcast gives great advise, how do I make him understand that we need to be able to dress him for school without him throwing a tantrum? Thank you!

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