Positive Discipline: How to Deal With Tantrums

Positive discipline really comes down to being firm but kind at the same time.  As parents we all feel the pressure to make sure our children don’t grow up to be “spoiled brats”, so we tend to punish them in the name of love.  But there are ways to teach our kids in an atmosphere of love without being punitive, so that we can continue to nurture a closer relationship with them.  

A child will do better when they feel better.  The concept of positive time out totally changed the way I deal with Ellie’s tantrums.  Young children have all the same feelings adults do–they feel sad, excited, frustrated but they lack the words and skills to cope with them.  Think of how hard it is for you to control your feelings sometimes, now put yourself in your frustrated toddlers shoes who has 1/1000th of your vocabulary.  Positive time out helps both you and your child cool down–it may mean lying down together and reading a book or listening to music, or just a good hug.  Contrast this with the time outs I used to dole out in anger, hoping that making Ellie feel bad will inspire her to be good (it doesn’t).  The purpose of positive time-out is to help children feel better so that they can do better.


What to Do During a Tantrum
  1. The first step is to calm down.  Research has shown that when we get super angry or frustrated, the prefrontal cortex “disconnects” and we lose our ability to think rationally or moderate our behavior.  And since all humans have mirror neurons, our anger is contagious to our kids and vice versa.  Make sure your child is safe, then take a moment to breathe and walk away if you need to.  Do what it takes for you to remain kind and firm.
  2. Provide safety and damage control.  Move your child to a safer location or a more private corner if you are in public.  Calmly move out of your child’s reach any objects that may be thrown. 
  3. Don’t give in to the tantrum or coax a child with rewards.  Remember that tantrums are normal, but giving in to them will only earn you more tantrums.  Remain kind, calm, and firm and wait for the storm to blow over.
  4. Shut your mouth and act.  But remember the attitude behind your actions: if you have to pick up your screaming child and carry her to the car, do it in a calm, kind, and firm manner (see step 1).  Avoid lectures during a tantrum because: 1. He can’t “think” when his brain is flooded with emotions. 2. Words can often throw fuel on flames. 3. Silence may prevent another meltdown–yours.
  5. Allow emotions to settle and reconnect.  Once you have cooled off, help your child do the same, because it is just as hard if not harder for them to regulate their emotions.  Talk about what happened and reassure your child that even though his behavior was inappropriate, you still love him very much.  A wordless hug may be comforting to both of you.
  6. Move on and plan ahead.  Once the event has passed, don’t dwell on it negatively or blame yourself or your child.  Tantrums are a normal part of learning how to cope with emotions.  A lot of times, a tantrum may be the result of missed naps or meals, unfamiliar surroundings or stressed out adults.  Planning ahead and learning about your child’s needs and temperament may help prevent some tantrums from happening.

Remember your child’s developmental stage and capabilities.  Toddlers see the world as a fascinating place and are wired to explore.  They also don’t understand concepts like reasonable, practical, or delayed gratification.  It’s unfair to punish a child for doing something developmentally appropriate even though it might not be situationally appropriate.  Supervision, distraction, and planning ahead will make it more likely your child will be able to behave appropriately.
Parenting is messy and imperfect, so don’t get discouraged if you feel like what you’re trying is not working.  Your child is never going to be 100% consistent day to day, so what worked with them today may not tomorrow.  Parenting requires a lot of problem-solving, but it’s about using your heart along with your head.  Let’s keep on trying our best.


All of these tips are from the book Positive Discipline: The First Three Years by Jane Nelsen, ED.D., Cheryl Erwin, M.A., and Roslyn Ann Duffy. 

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