Ten and a Half Ways To Stop A Tantrum (and have fun doing it)

Friday, October 03, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

I have been approached a few times about tactics for avoiding meltdowns in children. I think this happens because you assume that I am able to avoid marshmallow-throwing screaming fits on my way out the door to join the circus. And usually I am.


But my tactics tend to be quite outside the box in an era of baby training and Supernanny. I am less concerned with behavior, more concerned with underlying need, just as I am when treating other people's children. But today is not about creating a loving, respectful environment that discourages tantrums (though that is another post, so stay tuned). Today I want to look at some creative ways to diffuse a screaming fit. And, if you know me at all, you may have guessed that my first line of defense is humor.

Now, this does not mean that I make fun of the emotions, tease the children, imitate them when they are suffering or shame them for having feelings. Nope, nope, and, for the love of Pete, nope. My goal is to find a way to bring their arousal level down with empathic connection and silliness so they can look at their feelings, accept them, find a solution and move on. They don’t equate the pain with fun, they just calm down enough to see their anger or sorrow for what it is without fearing it. 

As an overview, some of my favorite tactics are the anger hug, safe words, being magical, overreacting on their behalf, unbridled sarcasm, reverse psychology, screaming it out and giving them ownership/finding solutions (and that finding solutions one should come after every other step I discuss here). These tactics are great for older kids and younger kids alike and are often used in combination, though some will be more clearly suited to the older or younger crowd.

But before I can do any of them, I need to listen. 

Ground Zero: Listen Calmly and Embrace Empathy

We all know how hard it can be to have small people screaming about godknowswhat in your ear, especially when it is the fifty-third time in the last twenty minutes. So, my first line of attack is all about ME avoiding a tantrum. Because, modeling. And because it takes a great deal of calm to be able to embrace the level of empathy and understanding that will be needed to help them move on from whatever they are screaming about.

And part of this being calm is not taking it personally. 

A child screaming is not a verbal attack by another adult. It is the effort of a small person trying desperately to find a way to calm down when they haven’t yet perfected that skill. They are showing this over-the-top side to you because they believe that you will assist them.  Congratulations, your child trusts you.

Deep breaths, yo. Then move on to them. 

1. Acknowledging Feelings, Mindfulness and Time In

My goal is never to make the kids stop having big feelings. I rarely need them to “relax”. My goal is for them to be able to understand what those feelings are, accept them as difficult but normal and get closer to being able to handle them. And sometimes that means acknowledging what is happening to begin with.

This week I have used the following statements:  

“Man, it has to be so hard learning how to handle all those huge emotions!” 

“Holy cow, it sounds like a dying opossum screeching in here! Someone must be having some pretty strong feelings! I wonder if it's anger or sadness...”

And my favorite (said while planting myself between two on-the-brink-of-a-fight children):

“It looks like you actually want to kill each other. You must be pretty upset. But seriously, you can’t hurt people. It isn’t cool, little dudes.”

Then I ask if they want to sit in my lap until they calm down, which they often do. Huggy time in. Score. After a few minutes, we talk about what triggered the crisis in a calm way so they can absorb the things I might be trying to teach them without embarrassment, shame or confrontation.

I also acknowledge my emotions when it seems pertinent (and no one is in the middle of a crisis). “Whoa, I can feel myself getting a little upset by all this nonsense going on here. I am going to go in my room for a few minutes.” And I rarely tell them about the stash of chocolate in said room. And occasionally when they are angry, they choose to walk into their rooms to calm themselves (though due to the choice element I don't call this "time out").

Sometimes this acknowledging feelings/snuggling thing works on its own. And sometimes one of them will yell, “YES! I FEEL VERY ANGRY!” and then we can talk.

I may also encourage mindfulness by asking them what their body feels like, where they feel the anger, whether their heart is racing. If they are open to it, I might ask them to picture their feelings as a color or as an image. But some days we need a little more intervention. Which bring us to…

2. The “Anger Hug”

Child: (Comes running into the room, screaming about….anything.)

Me: (Approaching) “Man, you look really upset. Do you need to give me an angry hug?”

The kids usually come up and plant a huge bear hug around my middle. (I suggest you avoid neck hugs if you want to avoid injury, because kids are strong when they're pissed off.) During the hug, I sometimes yell, “Oh no! My ribs! You must be SO angry!” 

This is a great one for younger kids especially. It tends to work not only because of the physical element and self regulation through attachment, but because they feel heard. With a tactic like this, kids are able to show how upset they are at a time when they are too upset to put it into words. As Daniel Siegel says in Mindsight, feeling “felt” is a big part of synchronizing yourself with those around you1, something children must learn to do in order to practice self regulation later.  

After the hug, I get down at eye level and make eye contact. Then we can discuss the issue at hand. (Getting down at eye level and making eye contact will be an important part of any problem solving strategy after you diffuse the situation initially.)

3. Combating Name Calling With Misunderstanding and Spelling Tests

Okay, so purposefully not listening is the antithesis of most therapeutic advice, but hear me out (once you can get past the hypocrisy in that statement). While I tell my children that name calling is not an okay thing, there are times that they get really angry and the intention is to hurt. Hell, some parents have moments where they have to put the brakes on themselves before they call their own kid a "jerk face". So if I hear someone screaming, "Idiot!" my response tends to be, "Thank you, I'd love a cookie," "You're right, I am a fantastic dancer," or something equally nonsensical, followed by, "But, you sound mad. What's wrong?"  This diffuses the situation, because the words don't have the desired effect, and because they are actually seeking understanding. Kids don't mean, "You're an actual idiot," though all bets are off if you're Rush Limbaugh. Most of the time they mean they're angry and want someone to feel it too. If the name calling doesn't get others to empathize--AKA get pissed the fuck off with them--they have little reason to keep it up, particularly if people don't understand what they are saying when they do it. And even in the adult arena, name calling is a pretty effective way to get people to misunderstand or stop listening to you. 

When everyone is calm we talk about what led to the anger in the first place, discuss how using mean words makes those around us feel and brainstorm ideas on how to make things right again. And they usually apologize spontaneously if they are actually sorry (which they almost always are after they calm down).

But if you find yourself in a place where the kids are name-calling as a game, to see what crazy thing you will come up with, STOP! You've gone too far! Balance, people. Try making them spell it instead. "I'm sorry, I'm an igloo?" "An ice pick? You're going to have to spell that." If one thing sucks all the everloving fun out of name calling, it's spontaneous spelling tests.  Worst case scenario, they'll be better at English. 

4. Funny “Safe Words” 

Yes, I know, it’s very bondage-esque. But hey, so is parenting. 

Any word combo that diffuses an unwanted situation works. This is the main reason I rely on funny words. If children are in the  middle of a battle in the living room, yelling, “Squiggly-pants!” or, “McAllister Round-Bottom!” might serve to stop a kid in their tracks after a little practice. The trick is talking about it beforehand so that everyone knows what that word means and what they need to do when they hear it. Do you sit down wherever you are and take five deep breaths? Do you have a group hug? Do you each go into your bedrooms and squeeze a stress ball or a teddy bear? Do you engage in a funny-face-off? 

Whatever it is, having a safe word can help to diffuse the situation, particularly in older children (though my four-year-old loves it too). 

5. Be Magical

For this one it helps is you are good at slight of hand. For realz. (Also, my kids actually believe that I can do magic, so don’t tell them, okay?)

Say a kid comes running with a Lego in their hand yelling about how someone threw it at them. I might take the Lego and make it disappear. Diffusion by Copperfield (if I'm amazing enough).

But all moms are pretty magical even if you aren’t good at the magician stuff. You might put your hands on either side of their head and pretend like you are concentrating really hard. Take a few deep breaths (which they often imitate), squeeze your eyes shut and say that you are in the process of pulling all that anger out of them. Sometimes it actually works, though it might be from the ridiculous I’m-trying-to-poop faces, or maybe from the space it provides between action and reaction. But either way, more fun than screaming.

Plus, magic is just awesome. My oldest can already do the removable index finger trick, so look out world! 

Then, when they get older, you can just use trickery and slight of hand to screw with them. Around my twenty-fourth birthday, my father was helping me cut rosebushes at my new house by holding back the briars to I could chop them with shears. He started jumping up and down, holding his hand, screaming, “You cut my finger off!” I panicked. The neighbors came out of their houses. I yelled for my husband to call 9-1-1 because ,“I c-c-cut off my dad’s f-finger.” My father said, “This finger?” and held up a completely intact hand. 

Your kids will always be gullible if you do it right. 

6. Overreact On Their Behalf 

Oldest: “Moooom!! My brother hurt my arm!” 

Me: “OH DEAR GOD, WHY!? THE HUMANITY! Should we take it off? Let me get the chainsaw! Maybe it needs a tourniquet? What are we going to do?! WHY OH WHY!?”

Once they stop giggling we are usually more able to talk about what happened. The key is diffusing because no one listens in the middle of a crisis. I know I don’t. 

7. Unbridled Sarcasm

This one takes a certain kind of relationship and individuals who all like a certain type of humor. It also has to be obvious sarcasm so they know you’re joking.

The other day, my youngest got upset when I handed him a book off the floor…after he asked me to hand him a book off the floor. 

Instead of saying, “What the hell, son?” I said, “You’re super duper angry at me because I got your book for you after you asked me to get your book for you?  I’m sooo sorry that I listened to exactly what you said!”

My youngest broke out laughing and yelled, “It’s opposite day!”

My oldest smirked and gave it right back, saying, “And next time you should also be sure not to hand it to him so gently. Maybe throw it from across the room. That will make things more exciting.”

Truth, son. At any rate, we then talked about how my youngest wanted a different book and he admitted that he could have been more specific. Problem solved. 

8. Reverse Psychology The Crap Out Of Them 

This usually works because the best way to make someone do something is for them to WANT to do something. 

For me, this one is more fun than all the rest combined. Am I fucking with them? Sometimes. But usually we are keeping it funny while allowing for some room to change behaviors. Take this classic gem from a few months ago: 

For the third time in three days, my oldest ran into the room yelling. 

Him: "Moooooom! He's trying to use reverse psychology on me!" 

Me: "He's four, son. Either let him practice so he can get better at it, or tell him you think it's awesome when he does that so you can get better at it. Either way, make sure you come give me updates on it every ten minutes. Five minutes if you can manage."

Him: (squints)"Are you reverse psychologizing me?"

Me: "Maybe, son."

Him: (pause)"It's funnier when you do it." 

No harm, no foul, and I got left alone. Plus, he said I was funny so I feel like it doesn’t get much better than that.

It is also effective in other areas. Because I learned this from my father as well, here is an example from his toolkit that happened last year: 

Oldest: (Throws down cards) “I don’t want to play Uno!”

Gramps: “Great! The rest of us get to have just over 33% more fun if you don’t play! WHOO HOO! I can’t wait! All my fun, PLUS yours!”

Child: “Um….can I play too?”

Gramps: “No, I don’t think I want to give the fun back.”

Child: “Please?”

Gramps: (squinting) “No.”

Child: “Pleeeeease!?”

Gramps: (huge sigh) “Well…I guess so.”

I also use it for schoolwork. “Don’t do this problem. It will probably take three hours and be WAY too hard to figure out. Plus, if you finish I will have to let you play outside and I would rather have you in here all snuggled up on the couch. No, don’t do it! Anything but that! NOOOOOO!” 

(Note: I only do this for ones I know he can do. And this only works because he happens to like a challenge. For those who don’t like  challenges quite as much, I’d make it a game. “Can we do the first problem as quickly as the second? Let’s get a timer!”)

9. Scream It Out or Make It Physical 

Are they on the verge of a crisis? You might want to get some of that energy out.  Let me give you an example.   

Child: (visibly shaking or clenching fists)“He hit me!”

Me: “OH NO!! Come with me!” 

Then I take his hand and bring him outside to the backyard, or we run around the kitchen island while screaming like banshees. 

I save this for special occasions, because encouraging yelling on the regular is not a wise move. But this tactic, when used correctly in more potentially volatile circumstances, may be able to diffuse the situation both by exerting energy and through humor if mom is good at crazy mad faces or ridiculous body movements. 

Whatever physical activity you choose, after a few minutes of running or punching a teddy bear or ridiculous angry dance partying, things are usually calm enough to talk about solutions to the problem. 

And the solutions? That’s another thing altogether. 

10. Give Them Ownership/Find Solutions 

This one is hard for some parents, myself included. Because sometimes the things that we need them to do are important and they need to happen in short order.

A few weeks ago, my four-year-old fell off his bike. He ended up with a large gash on the back of his arm, full of dirt and other grime. I asked him to let me clean it out. 

Him: “Mom, it’s my body, and I’m in charge of my body. No one else can tell me what to do with it.” 

Dammit. Bodily integrity/sex positive parenting backfire. You’ll be a good man someday son, but it won’t matter if you get gangrene. JUST LET ME CLEAN THAT SHIT OUT!!


  1. Hold him down and force it (nope, not doing that because it’s not cool to force something on someone just because you’re bigger)
  2. Tell him that his leg might fall off if I don’t clean it (which might freak him out because he was already upset and could be construed as a dick move)
  3. Provide him the tools he needs to take care of it himself. 

I chose three. I asked what he thought we should do about it to make sure it didn’t get infected. At first he said, “I think I should just leave it and eat ice cream.” I wasn’t sure that would assist with the not getting gangrene, so I asked what else he thought he could do to help himself, provided I didn’t touch it. 

He said no peroxide, but that he thought that he might try to clean it a little in the bathtub. I filled the tub, tossed in a bunch of antibacterial soap, and let him go to town. It took longer, but he got to take charge of the situation, and he did it without tears. And while he was in there, I ate the ice cream. Double score. 

Asking kids to find their own solution not only allows them to be creative problem solvers, but also tends to breed competence, self confidence, and is more likely to ensure that they will do it without as much drama, as in the above case. And really the ultimate goal is to have self directed individuals with the ability to find solutions and a way to chill. 

While this is clearly not an all-inclusive list, hopefully I have offered you something that you haven't read about in other parenting articles. Whatever ways you choose to help your kids, the vital ingredient is showing that you care enough to take the time to help them. Sometimes the simple act of asking questions and acknowledging feelings is enough to dissuade a tantrum. 

And for everything else, there’s always magic. (Preferably with all fingers intact.)

Related Posts: 


1. http://www.amazon.com/Mindsight-The-Science-Personal-Transformation/dp/0553386395

Topic-Relevant Resources

Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain
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Our Babies Ourselves
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