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What to Do When Your Child Has a Tantrum

Maureen Dawn Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids, talked to dad Hank Azaria about tantrums in his new docuseries Fatherhood. But Azaria is certainly not the first parent to wonder about those emotional explosions, so we asked Healy one-on-one to give us some insight into managing tantrums.

What can parents do when their child has a tantrum?

Every individual child and experience in the context is different, but I would say tantrums are misdirected energy. Kids are intense; they're energetic. So when they're already having a tantrum, there really is no reasoning with them, necessarily. It's as if the child has jumped out of a plane with a parachute and has got to land. So you just ride it out.

The goal is before the tantrum, to begin to understand, "What are the triggers? What sets my kid off?" Is it that they want to be treated fairly, and when I do x, y, z they don't feel [as if they're being treated] fairly, so they throw a tantrum? And then when having a tantrum, how do I help him or her lessen it, navigate it? Maybe it's teaching them breathing exercises, maybe it's going outside and sitting in the fresh nature. There are things that help them get calm quicker, so I would not only figure out what the triggers are for tantrums to reduce it, but also find some tools to help when they're in the tantrum.

If sharing, say, is a trigger, how do parents work around those triggers?

I would explain to them why sharing is important and we need you to share, and if you don't want to share at this exact moment, that's OK, too, but we're going to need you to share, so can you share later? The important point is to give a child a voice and a choice.

You want to help them feel heard. My expertise and my first book is called Growing Happy Kids, and to raise a happy child they need to have choices; they need to feel like their voice matters.

Watch More Episodes of Fatherhood

You mention in Episode 2 that parents need to help kids manage their emotions and energy and bring it back to the middle. How do we do that?

Kids don't naturally come into the world, like anyone, with any sort of a book or manual that says, "When I'm sad, if I do x, y, z, I'll feel happier." So the whole point is that we start to raise emotionally intelligent children from the get-go. We don't sort of (just say), "Good luck." And even modeling behavior, that's not enough. We can't just be good, happy, because we're not perfect. We have to actually direct these situations head-on (and say), "When you're sad, let's make a list of things to help you feel better." We need to begin to teach children—even if they're 2 or they're 3—they have it within their ability to make choices.

Is there an age when parents can say goodbye to tantrums forever?

I know plenty of adults who still have tantrums. The hope is yes, it's an age and it's a stage and you outgrow it. But parents and adults need to teach their kids early on how to manage their energy and emotions, and we can learn together, whether it's meditation, whether it's nature walks, jumping on a trampoline. [Kids] will get to a point where they'll realize, "Oh, I'm in school now (if they're not homeschooled), I can pull this together. I really want to smack the kid next to me, but you know what? I'm not gonna do that." ... I would say by 7 years old, the tantrums should be greatly reduced.

You talk a lot about confidence in your books and on your Web site. How can parents keep their children confident when we seem to be saying "no" all the time?

You want them to know that you're trying to keep them safe. You're their partner, and then if you say no, it's for their best interest. That needs to be the foundation. From my book, I talk about outer and inner confidence. You can have those conversations that there's a power within them—they can create anything they want in the world. That's the truth; that's inner confidence. Outer confidence is when they learn how to kick a soccer ball into the net, and they're like, "Oh, I can do that. I can put this puzzle piece together. Oh, I can do that." They're developing the ability to accomplish tasks. You never want it to end there. You want to lead them into inner confidence, which is, "There's a power and a strength and a capability within me to succeed no matter what, to overcome obstacles. And failures are only stepping stones, or mistakes are only stepping stones to my success."

When parents mess up or do something we second-guess, how do we get back "on track," as Hank Azaria says in Episode 2?

Let go and lighten up. You just have to let go. You're not going to get it all right. It's not about perfectionism. It's more about, "How can we as adults catch as many of those teachable moments as we can?"

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