Tantrums are Gifts

Published on: December 08, 2020

Tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development. Galina shares her views on managing them by following a few steps when your child throws a tantrum.

By Galina Kalinina


It might sound totally crazy, but I look at tantrums as gifts. 

Tantrums are an important and necessary part of every child’s growth and development. Nature has been very generous in giving our children an opportunity to learn how to self-regulate their emotions. It’s essential for parents to understand what that process looks like and be the child’s partner in the emotional development called “co-regulation”.

Co-regulation looks different for each age group. It changes as the child’s brain develops and has more capability for self-regulation. For example, during the first 2 years of life, our kids do not have the capability to self-regulate at all. By the time kids are 4, approximately 30% of them can self-regulate more or less independently. No matter what stage your child is at, it’s important not to interfere with the natural process TOO MUCH or TOO LITTLE. 


Tantrum or Meltdown?

Let’s clarify something important. A meltdown is not another word for a tantrum. They can look similar but a meltdown is very different from a tantrum. A tantrum is an outburst that happens when a child tries to get something he wants or needs. Meltdowns occur when kids feel overwhelmed by their feelings or surroundings. Meltdowns are triggered by hunger, tiredness and overstimulation. As you may guess, meltdowns might be easier to handle because it all boils down to meeting your child’s basic physical needs. Well-timed food, sleep, rest and a safe environment will help parents prevent, manage and reduce the number of meltdowns. It’s a slightly different story with tantrums.


The Fastest Way to Stop Tantrums 

The internet is flooded with articles that promise the fastest ways to stop tantrums. The truth is you can’t stop them!

Recently I came across a unique study conducted by James Green that gives a perfect explanation to why parents should not even try to stop tantrums. Green audio recorded toddlers while they were throwing a fit. He analyzed all the data and discovered the following:

  • Tantrums spike two key emotions: Anger and Sadness. 
  • A tantrum does not begin or end with either anger or sadness. The two emotions are deeply tangled; the anger and the sadness show up more or less simultaneously.
  • Each emotion has a predictable cycle of vocalizations and rhythm, and they are easy to identify. 

Have you ever noticed how different your child sounds through a tantrum? Angry yelling sounds quite different from sad whining. 

Green also identified that every tantrum has three phases. 

Phase 1: Yelling and Screaming 

This is the noisiest and the least pleasant part of a tantrum. It’s when the anger peaks and you hear the child’s loudest voice ever! The good news is that this phase does not last too long. Anger is a momentary emotion, and on average, it lasts 90 seconds. It’s exhausting for a young child to feel anger and the body has its natural way to move on to sadness.

Phase 2: Physical Actions 

This is when you see the child going physical: throwing, kicking, dropping on the floor, etc. Most parents believe that this is an escalation of a tantrum. From the emotional science point of view, physical actions are signals that the anger subsides. It’s the moment when the child starts feeling sadness. 

Phase 3: Crying and Whining 

By the time the child starts crying, you can be assured that the anger has passed its peak. And all is left there is sadness. James Green determined that this should be the first time that a parent intervenes in the tantrum. When the child starts feeling sadness they’ll be seeking parental comfort and will no longer show any unpleasant signs of intense anger.

But the most surprising thing that Green found was how children responded and reacted depending on the parent’s way of dealing with the tantrum. 

Green determined that there’s what he called an Anger Trap, which parents fall into very often. Asking questions, reasoning, yelling back, threatening, shouting, punishing, shaming, making jokes or distracting make the anger and the tantrum worse. The fastest way to get a tantrum to end is to do nothing at all until the child passes the peaks of anger.  Nothing helps during the anger phase except for parents setting the boundaries in a calm, kind and firm manner. When parents set boundaries, the child can reach the sadness phase of the cycle faster. 

Next time your child has a tantrum follow these steps:

  1. Observe and notice when your child peaks the anger
  2. Name the feeling (You are feeling angry…)
  3. Acknowledge why he is feeling the anger (You are feeling angry because….)
  4. Use the words ‘right now’ (it helps to teach the child that this emotion will not last forever. 
  5. Set the boundary (Right now I will…)

Here is an example of my son’s pancake tantrum. He loves helping me with pancakes but occasionally I wake up too early and start making them without him. When he gets up he starts screaming: ‘Throw them away! I want to make my own pancakes!” which follows with some physical act of grabbing the plate and aiming it at the garbage bin. 

This signals that the child has reached the peak of anger, and this is the best time to step in and set the boundaries.  Here is my usual line that allows my son to transition into the sadness phase: “You are angry because I made the pancakes without you, and you wanted to help me. I will not allow you to throw them away. Right now, I will put them on the table, and we’ll eat them for breakfast”. 

After the boundaries are set, I would usually hear the sobbing for a minute or so. And then click! Almost in one instance, the face lights up. The brain fog disappears.  And my son asks (like nothing happened) with his sweet smile: ‘Can I have jam on my pancakes?” 


About the Author

Galina is the founder of ParentUp.  Her mission is to help parents to prepare and become great in the most important job of their life — being a parent. Galina is a wife, mother of two, and a certified PCC ICF coach. galina@myparentup.com  www.myparentup.com

The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects.

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