Another playdate disaster.
Sarah’s son, Jared, is screaming and writhing on the floor, while the other mom and kid stare.
When Sarah tries to move him to another room the screaming gets louder and the kicking starts. “What happened? What’s going on?” she demands in her best unflappable-mom voice.
Then she attempts to soothe. And plead. Finally she threatens through clenched teeth. But everything she does makes the tantrum worse.
Jared is going big.
The other mom apologizes, and implores her kid to reverse the damage: “What happened? Did you take the robot from him?”
It’s an uncomfortable situation. For sure.
Parenting is hard enough without an audience. Throw in the awkwardness of a new playdate and it’s almost too much. She packed Goldfish and a change of clothes for Jared. She changed her own shirt twice and had to go back into the house for an Autobot.
Just as she’s starting to relax… INCOMING!
Tantrum in 3… 2… 1…
What Can You Do When a Kid’s Having a Full-Blown Tantrum?
You can wait for it to end.
Sadly, the time for talking is over. In the throes of a temper tantrum, a kid can’t really hear you.
But when you understand the phases of a tantrum, you can ride it out more confidently, and debrief effectively afterward. You can take actions to reduce the intensity and frequency of tantrums, and perhaps even avoid them altogether.
That’s what we’re working towards—a world with no tantrums!
In previous articles in this series we analyzed children’s behaviors from a safe distance. This is where the rubber meets the road.
I want to share with you what’s going on in your kid’s brain during distinct phases of a tantrum. And I can offer you strategies to minimize the nuclear fallout.
Once you know how and when to intervene in an escalating behavior situation, you can help your child master self-management. It takes finesse, but you can do it because you’re a Boss Parent.
A quick word on tantrums vs. meltdowns. In my mind, these are two different animals, though we address them similarly.
The antecedent that comes before a tantrum is “I wanted ______, and I didn’t get it. Now SOMEONE’S GOING TO PAY!” The antecedent of a meltdown is often related to overstimulation and exhaustion.
I respond to tantrums and meltdowns similarly, but I wanted to clarify that they are different in nature, so I approach them with a slightly different mindset. Meltdowns tend to be much more pitiful. With meltdowns, I always feel like I want to put a band-aid on their little hearts while still maintaining parameters for safety and respect for people and property.
Tantrums require a little tougher love. But as Boss Parents, we always show empathy to our people.
First, Let’s Discuss Your Kid’s Brain
Kids aren’t just small adults with bad taste in music and food.
They are fundamentally different from us because their brains are still developing. In particular, the pre-frontal cortex, which allows executive functioning, is still taking shape.
Executive function is what keeps us cool (most days), as we pass through annoying situations and varying levels of vexation.
A well-developed pre-frontal cortex enables emotional regulation, impulse control, planning, working memory, and mental and physical self-organization. It’s super important. And they ain’t got it yet.
Young kids, especially, live completely in the moment. They’re not weighing consequences, controlling impulses, or scaling responses to undesired stimuli. That’s why my daughter completely lost it when she accidentally tore a page in her coloring book. You should have seen the tears…
Different kids lose control in different ways. Some, like Jared, are kickers and screamers. Some fume and slam doors. Some sob uncontrollably. And others shut down good and tight.
Even if your kid doesn’t have dramatic tantrums (lucky you!), all problematic behaviors occur along an escalating continuum of agitation that you can learn to recognize.
Kids typically move through the phases of escalation and de-escalation much more frequently and fluidly than adults. They don’t yet have the skill to manage frustration.
One of our tasks as Boss Parents is to help them gain and practice this vital social-emotional skill.
7 Phases of a Temper Tantrum
If your kid has reached the demonic-possession phase of a temper tantrum, there’s little you can do. (This goes for meltdowns as well.)
But there are earlier phases of escalation during which you can successfully intervene to teach self-management and keep tantrums from becoming a strategy as a child becomes older (and bigger).
First we must learn to recognize the phases of escalation.
Depending on the kid, these phases could lead to aggression, verbal outbursts, bolting or other escalated behaviors. In short, regardless of what the peak undesired behavior is, the trajectory is likely the same.
The following trajectory was taught to me by professor Pat Red* at the University of Southern Maine.
Phase 1: Calm
This is the normal, content state for your kid. Just chillin’ with some toys.
Phase 2: The Trigger
Uh oh! Something happened. An unwanted stimulus (a.k.a. trigger event or antecedent) has been administered.
Somebody knocked over a block tower, or changed the TV channel, or took away the hammer that’s not a toy, or one of a thousand other annoyances.
Anything can be a trigger under the wrong circumstances.
Phase 3: Agitation
After the trigger, something makes the situation worse. It could be another kid laughing, or your refusal to give in, or even your attempts to problem solve. It could be they’re hungry or tired.
Or maybe it’s just a bad day.
Phase 4: Acceleration
With the combination of a trigger event and agitating factor(s) the escalation gains momentum towards a full-scale temper tantrum.
The child is making fight-or-flight decisions. He or she may be crying, or starting to kick, or rushing at people aggressively. All behaviors are increasing in volume, frequency, and intensity.
Phase 5: Peak
Out. Of. Control.
This is the worst part for everyone. Whatever “the worst” looks like for your kid. (This may or may not include aggression.)
Phase 6: De-escalation
The child begins “coming down.”
He may begin crying or otherwise showing appropriate emotional release. She may begin showing compliance or want to be near you to begin reconciliation or restitution by apologizing, cleaning up thrown toys, etc.
Phase 7: Recovery
Normal activity resumes. Go get yourself a drink.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Temper Tantrums
So now let’s talk about what to do in each stage.
It pretty much boils down to my favorite Kenny Rogers song: You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, and know when to run.
Ok, we can’t run. We’re the adults here…
Even considering the difference between tantrums and meltdowns, the recommended interventions are the same. As Boss Parents, we just want to be aware of the antecedents so we can have the appropriate level of compassion.
Always compassion. But sometimes a bit more than others.
Kids escalate in minutes, or even seconds. Intervening at the right time depends on knowing your child and being aware of the circumstances.
It’s always a bit of a gamble, but it’s good to have a plan. Here’s what I suggest for each phase.
Phase 1: Congratulations!
Your child is calm.
I recognize “calm” is a relative term when it comes to little kids. Try to relax and enjoy life.
Phase 2: Take the Wheel
When you recognize that your kid’s been triggered, step in with some redirection and optimistic encouragement.
This is the time to remind him or her of the benefits of using words to express emotions. Give examples of appropriate language. (“Honey, you can say, ‘I don’t like when you take my truck,’” or “It’s OK to say, ‘I wish I didn’t have to turn off the TV!’”)
If another child is involved, this is the time to let both kids know you can support their communication to resolution. The promise of adult-assured fairness can be appealing to many kids.
If you choose to stand back and let them try to work it out, that’s fine, too. But just understand that in the life of a tantrum, now is the time to intervene with calm, positive energy.
Phase 3: Change Courses
If your kid is growing agitated, increase your calm involvement.
Offer concrete options and strategies to your child, but use simple language. Don’t over-talk and don’t blame (“Well, I told you that would happen.”) This is time for damage control.
If you have a reward system in place, remind your kid in as few words as possible. (“You can earn a token right now for taking deep breaths and walking away.” Or, “If you make safe choices all day, you get to visit the prize box.”)
Also, remove the audience, if possible. This can reduce agitating emotions like shame or anger.
Many times a change of scenery can help de-escalate a child. This is another instance where it helps to know your kid. Don’t try to snatch him up into a quiet room if you know that will escalate him further. But if you think he’ll be relieved to come with you, give it a try.
If you’re with just a few friends or family, it might be easier to say, “Could you all give us a minute alone?”
And remember, stay calm.
Phase 4: Batten Down the Hatches
The storm is growing fast.
It’s time to check your surroundings and do what you need to do to keep everyone safe. (Put your newborn in her crib, send older kids away, etc.)
Don’t move the escalating child or interact physically at all, if possible.
Further simplify the language you use and the options you’re giving. You might just say: “Safe hands, safe feet,” or “Tokens for safe choices.”
Phase 5: Ride It Out
Managing the peak of a temper tantrum is about safety only.
If you need to engage physically a child or yourself safe, go ahead. For example, you may need to hold a child’s arm to keep him from running into a busy street, or pick him up and move him to a safer place to stop him from hurling a bocce ball at his brother. But keep your interaction simple, calm, and matter-of-fact. (“I have to hold you now to keep you safe. When you’re in control, I will let you go.”)
Don’t talk about what happened. And try not to waste energy being angry or embarrassed.
This is your little human, he loves you and trusts you. But right now, he’s out of his head, and he can’t really hear you.
So just keep him safe, keep other kids safe, and let this part run its course.
And of course, stay calm. Model self control.
Phase 6: The Wind Shifts
This is when you can feel the energy beginning to change.
Maintain your calm presence. Be emotionally and physically available on their level. Sit nearby on the floor with open body language. Don’t push in, let him come to you if he’s ready.
This part requires a delicate touch. Kids can easily be re-agitated at this point. So give them space to come down.
Phase 7: Ease Them Back Into Port
It’s usually pretty obvious when a kid is back in control.
But a great way to check is to ask him to do something simple. Super simple. “Touch your nose” is one of my favorites.
The idea is to gain compliance. It shows that he’s ready to hear you and follow directions. (This is also a great strategy to use before a kid exits a time-out situation. I’ll write more on time-outs another day.)
Whatever the trigger was, it’s likely still right there, so it’s useful to check your kid’s state before talking about what happened. Now is the time for a calm discussion about restitution (apologies), reassurance and reconnecting.
If your daughter threw her sister’s Polly Pocket’s all over the room in a blind rage, now is the time for her to pick them up.
Kids don’t like being out of control. It’s scary to them as well. So remember to stay calm.
If you saw a reduction in the intensity of the tantrum compared to earlier episodes, mention it in a genuine, supportive way. “I can tell you’re working really hard these days to stay in control and make safe choices. I’m proud of you.”
We’re the most important teachers our kids will ever have. So it’s important that we give positive feedback when it’s earned. (Even if it was still a tantrum.)
Why Not Engage During the Peak?
We take for granted how easy it is to make simple decisions.
But we’ve all had those days where every little annoyance feels unbearable. Too many choices, too many decisions, too many tasks (PMS on a cold, rainy Monday, anyone?).
Kids also get overwhelmed, and it can happen to them with greater frequency and intensity.
As they become increasingly escalated, their access to language is reduced. That means they neither verbalize their feelings to you, nor can they process your consolations, threats or promises as efficiently as when they’re in a “normal” state.
That’s why, as a kid moves up the escalation continuum, we talk less. We want our interactions and interventions to have the maximum opportunity for de-escalation.
Allow your kid to respond nonverbally, if possible. (“If you sit down, I’ll know you’re ready to make a safe choice,” or “Touch your nose if you want to go sit outside.”)
There’s always the chance that you’ll add to the agitation, but you can reduce the likelihood by staying mindful of your child’s limited, but aroused mental state.
Some things you might try saying calmly include:
- Make a safe choice
- I can help you
- We can make this OK
- You are in control
In my experience, kids who have explosive temper tantrums have particular triggers.
Feelings of injustice and helplessness, as well as attempts to control people and situations are common triggers. For this reason, I usually frame my de-escalating language around regaining control and taking charge of his or her own behavior.
No One Likes “I Told You So”
Agitation, acceleration, and peak phases are NOT the time to remind a child of past transgressions, punitive consequences, or the need to apologize.
This is the time to pump the brakes.
Get things back in control, THEN address the facts of the case once things have calmed down.
And for that matter, when you do begin the process of apologies and restitution, remember that you are teaching your child how to behave differently and make a better choice.
We can demonstrate what that looks like by avoiding finger-pointing, excessive blaming, and insults. Instead we can focus on connection, empathy, and logical, natural consequences for out-of-bounds behavior.
Keeping a Cool Head Is So Boss
So let’s talk Sarah through Jared’s playdate meltdown.
She can calmly and politely ask the other mom and kid to leave the room. Assuming Jared is safely isolated, removing the audience (and likely the trigger) will probably bring the tantrum to a halt very quickly. It’s like taking air away from a fire.
If he’s escalated into a peak state, she can take a calming breath, move to the side, and monitor his safety (and the safety of any expensive objects).
She can’t go back and make the tantrum not happen. But she can keep her calm and confidently navigate the situation in a way that puts everyone at ease.
She can be the no-nonsense, in-control, cool mom.
Other parents know that sometimes shit just happens with kids. It’s how we react to those situations that makes it bearable for everyone. Instead of a disaster, we can make it a bump in the road.
And if your playdate isn’t cool with that, maybe they just aren’t your tribe.
If you have questions about handling tantrums, leave me a comment. And if you found this information useful, please share it with friends. There’s just one more article in this series.
*In her adaptation of the phases of escalating behavior, Pat Red credits Hill Walker, Geoff Colvin and George Sugai.
Colvin, Geoffrey, George Sugai, and Bill Patching. “Precorrection: An Instructional Approach for Managing Predictable Problem Behaviors.” pp. 143-150. Intervention in School and Clinic v 28, n 3, January 1993.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents around the world with child behavior consulting.