Tantrums: What’s Really Going On & What You Can Do

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Tantrums are overwhelming – for the child, for us, and even for complete strangers (especially plane passengers).  

When my oldest son started having tantrums shortly after his first birthday, my inclination was to MAKE IT STOP!!! 

I thought to myself,

  • “What am I doing wrong that’s making him act like such a tyrant?!?!”
  • “He’s just a baby – why is he so angry?!?!?”
  • “Why won’t he listen to me when he’s flipping out?!?!”
  • “Dude! If you hit me again, I swear….!!!!!!”

And then, as I do, I turned to science for some perspective.  Ahhhhhhh, the warm comfort of science.  

My buddy Zo shared this wonderful NPR story with me, which explains what is going on with tantrums, and what I should do about them.  Hooray!!!! 

Here’s the low down: 

Tantrums are Adaptive: Children – and adults!!! – throw tantrums when feeling powerless.  In the animal kingdom, when feeling powerless it is adaptive to get really big, fiery, intimidating, and overwhelming to your opponent.  Look, if the sh*t goes down and we’re walking the streets in a zombie apocalypse, you might want to up your tantrum game. Just sayin’.

Tantrums Build Emotional Intelligence: Through tantruming, children and parents learn about anger, sadness, aggression, what situations make us more vulnerable to these big feelings, and what works to help soothe these big feelings. 

Tantrums Have a Reliable Life Cycle:  A tantrum is like a fever.  When the body is infected with a virus, there is a set cycle through which the body fights and processes the virus, resulting in increase immunity to it.  WIth a tantrum, the brain, body and soul is trying to deal with big feelings, and goes through a predictable cycle to process the feeling and build the capacity to deal with it better next time.

Here’s the cycle, followed by some practical tips for parenting through a tantrum.  

Parenting Through a Tantrum

Phase One: Sadness and Anger.

Characterized by Whining, Fussing, Protesting, Demanding.

This is like the initial sore throat phase of a flu. With a flu virus, the virus takes hold and starts infecting your system.  The more tired, hungry or stressed you are, the more vulnerable you will be to getting sick. In this phase, you might be able to prevent the illness from escalating, but if the virus has taken hold, it needs to run it’s course and you can’t stop it.  

With a tantrum, the child is upset about something she perceives has she has no power over, which makes her both sad and angry.  The more tired, hungry, or overstimulated she is, the more upset she will be.  She is young and illogical, so often what triggers the upset seems silly or irrational to you – it’s not silly to her because she’s an immature kid.  

You might be able to prevent an escalation to a full blow tantrum at this whining, fussing phase by distracting or responding in a specific way, but if the tantrum needs to run it’s course, there’s nothing you can do to stop it

Phase Two: Peak of Anger.

This is the fever phase of a flu. The body has to kick into high gear, put all other functions on the back burner, so it can effectively fight and process the virus.  The fever is painful and overwhelming, but at the same time it’s the best and most effective way to work through the infection. 

With a tantrum, anger is a B.I.G. feeling that is only effectively processed by being fully expressed. Anger is adaptive because it gives us the energy we need to fight or flee from danger.  This energy needs to be discharged or else it gets stuck and causes all kinds of weird dysfunctions. So your child is discharging the energy of anger.  

You cannot stop the peak of anger – just like you can’t stop a fever once it’s in motion. Instead of trying to stop it – with talking, threatening, bribing, etc – get out of the way and let it do it’s work.  The tantrum will not stop until your child is able to get to the peak of his anger. 

If your child can express this anger peak with his voice and body without harming anyone or anything, this is an awesome, civilized achievement!  

Sometimes he will be driven to hurt others or stuff in this peak of anger, in which case your responsibility is to minimize damage by placing him in a space where he can’t hurt or destroy. 

Phase Three: Sadness, Exhaustion, Need for Comfort.

This is the discharge phase of a flu.  The fever has broken, the virus has been defeated, and now it needs to be flushed so the body can return to health.  There is a lot of snot that needs to come out.  You can help provide comfort during the discharge process by clearing the mucus, and acknowledge how hard it was to have a fever and how great it is that health is on the way.   Now the body is better able to fight this virus, and you might realize things you need to do to prevent infection in the future and boost your immunity when exposed. 

With a tantrum, the child has just worked sooooo hard to work the anger out.  Now she needs you to comfort her, give physical comfort, let her get the tears out, acknowledge how scary it was to be so upset, and, when all is calm, think about what needs to happen to build the capacity to handle it better next time through emotional intelligence.  

Things to say during phase three to help process and build greater emotional intelligence:

“That was a big upset.”  

“You got so sad and mad. That feels really scary.”  

“Mama’s right here.”  

Once your child is old enough to talk and reflect,  think together about the tantrum together when she’s fully calm and some time has passed.  Think as a team, taking responsibility when appropriate. 

Say things like:

“What do you think was going on that made you soooo upset?”

“You know what, you were really tired on Wednesday.  I shouldn’t have brought you to the grocery store after school when you were that tired.”  

 “You were so mad and you kicked Mama.  What are some other things you could do to get the upset out that won’t hurt anyone?  Maybe punch your pillow?”


Whew!!! That’s a lot, but it has revolutionized my parenting.  Now, I don’t feel like a tantrum has anything to do with a failure on my part, a problem with my child, or anything else bad.   

I hope this model helps you get some distance and perpective as your child melts down, and perhaps you may even apply it to understanding yourself or your partner (I’ve learned a lot about myself through learning this model!) ??? 

How can this knowledge help you today?  Leave a comment letting us know about your experience with tantrums and what you commit to doing differently now. 

Also, I believe this information can help a lot of families, so please share with anyone you know struggling with tantrums… 

And if you want some personal support while dealing with your child’s tantrums, get in touch and we can talk about how coaching might be right for you. 

With love and optimism,

Dr. Jessica


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