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What to Say (Or Not Say) When Your Child Is Having a Tantrum

Photograph by Twenty20

A 3-year-old bursts into tears because her striped pants are in the wash and she’s forced to wear her star ones, or a school-aged child fails a test, throws his backpack in anger and says something mean to his sister. These are the moments, big and small, when kids become overwhelmed by their feelings and, as a result, their behavior can seem unreasonable and out of control.

Common advice focuses on what the parent says to the kid in the midst of a tantrum or difficult moment. But in our practice, we’ve learned the power of backing up one step. For many moms and dads, adding this pre-step changes everything. It shifts the dynamic and turns power struggles and escalating tension into successful communication.

This is the pre-step: Even before you open your mouth to say something to your child, notice what you say to yourself. What goes through your mind during moments like the pants tragedy or the failed test outburst?

Parents tell us they usually have thoughts like:

“Here we go again.”

“I need to nip this in the bud.”

“Something is wrong with my child.”

“I need to fix this and make her feel better.”

“I’m not doing this right. It’s my fault.”

“She’s manipulating me.”

“He needs to know I’m the boss here.”

All of these thoughts are normal and understandable. We’re parents, so we want our kids to feel good. It’s our job to teach them, and we need to get on with the day. But the key to helping kids develop emotional skills (and the key to a close relationship) is for us to acknowledge not just the positive emotions, but the tough, messy ones, too. When you attune—before setting a limit or problem-solving—a child’s feelings are heard and have a place to go.

It’s hard to attune with the above thoughts swimming around in your head, so changing your self-talk is the first step to changing what you do and say next. Practice turning these automatic negative thoughts into statements that keep your mind open and receptive.

For example:

“I’m OK with these big feelings. It’s not my job to fix it.”

“I wonder what he’s telling me. What is beneath the surface?”

“Take a deep breath so you have time to choose what to do next.”

“Tantrums are normal.”

“This is not my fault.”

“It’s OK to feel panicked and anxious. Everybody does in these moments.”

“I’m doing my best, and so is she.”

“She’s telling me what she needs in the only way she can in this moment.”

“Let these feelings flow around me. They are like waves in the ocean and they will pass.”

Starting this way will help you respond first with empathy. The next steps—when you set a limit and problem-solve—are only effective once she is calmer and able to hear you.

This is extra important to remember when you’re in public or in a rush—when the panic and dread are most likely to surface for us as parents. Out in the world, many of us act harshly because we feel pressure to make it stop. Instead, say one of the statements above to yourself, attune to your child’s feelings, gently move her outside if you need to and continuing talking when she’s ready.

A dad we worked with recently shared his self-talk turnaround with us. When his son Charlie had a tantrum, Dad’s first thoughts were, "What am I doing wrong? I better be stern. He’s gotta know that this won’t fly." He realized that these were automatic thoughts that were informed by how he was spoken to as a child and his embarrassment in the moment. When he thought about what he really wanted from his relationship with his son, it was to understand him and to be on his side.

We worked with him to consciously change his self-talk to:

Take three deep breaths and clear your mind.

Give him space to have his feelings.

I can be kind while also holding the limit.

I want to be the dad I’m choosing to be.

Over time, their relationship changed in amazing ways: He saw Charlie turning to him more often, making more eye contact and becoming better able to accept his help through life’s little bumps. The tantrums still happened, but they didn’t escalate and Dad learned not to dread them. Now he knew what to do and saw them as opportunities. He felt closer to Charlie and to himself.

(Heather Turgeon, MFT, and Julie Wright, MFT, are the authors of the new book "Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma" (TarcherPerigee/Penguin RandomHouse), as well as the popular sleep book, "The Happy Sleeper." Based in New York City and Los Angeles, they frequently speak and offer parenting consultations to families on communication, setting limits with empathy, sleep and more. You can follow them on Instagram @TheHappySleeper.)

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