Taming Tantrums at Every Age

We've got calming strategies guaranteed to defuse (almost!) any tantrum, freakout, or meltdown.

By Shaun Dreisbach



Taming Tantrums at Every Age

The first day of kindergarten, my easygoing daughter — the girl who couldn’t wait to hop on the school bus — came home a completely different kid. As I peppered her with questions (“How was your teacher? What did you do at recess?”), she lost it. She flung herself on the floor, backpack still on, and began sobbing, kicking, and screaming, “Mommy, stop talking, stop talking, stop talking!”

Turns out, tantrums like my daughter’s come down to simple emotional math: “Stress plus a trigger equals a meltdown,” says Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D., author of Managing Emotional Mayhem. Identifying kid stressors is pretty easy, because they’re so universal: Being tired (tell me about it!), being hungry, or having problems at home or school can all prime kids for a freak-out. Figuring out the actual triggers, though, is trickier, because they vary depending on age and stage of development — but once you know them, sidestepping the hissy fits becomes much easier. 

Does that mean you’ll never endure another tantrum? No. But that’s okay. “Tantrums are an opportunity to teach your child how to regulate strong emotions like anger,” says Bailey. “You can only do that when she’s upset because those brain pathways need to be activated before you can change them.” How’s that for a silver lining? So: Take a deep, calming breath, and get ready to master any monster meltdown.


Step 1

ID the triggers.

You already know how to make sure your child is properly fed, watered, rested, and feeling generally happy — now find out what can push him over the edge when he’s not.

At 3 to 5, they struggle with . . .

Unexpected changes. Kids this age crave predictability, so a sudden switch in their daily routine can cause a meltdown.

Their own limits. This is also the stage where kids want to do everything themselves — even though, developmentally, they’re not quite ready. Result: frustration and (you guessed it) freak-outs.

Overloaded brains. Learning new responsibilities is stressful for preschoolers. By the time they come home, even a run-of-the-mill reminder can set them off.

At 6 to 7, they can’t deal with . . .

Comparisons. By now, kids have the ability to categorize and compare, and the focus on who is better/prettier/taller/whatever makes children super-sensitive to criticism, says Bailey. Contrasting your kiddo’s manners to his sister’s, say, is a surefire tantrumtrigger. Ditto comments (even if well meant) about another kid’s slam-dunk basketball skills. Battles over limits. Young grade-schoolers have gained some independence, like being able to tie their own shoes, but still need guidance — which can cause blowups over how far your kid is allowed to bike alone or what his bedtime should be. 

At 8 to 10, they lose it over . . .

Things being unfair. Kids have sharpened their reasoning and debating skills — and will test them out on you at every turn. If you don’t agree with your budding lawyer’s logic about why you should let him have an iPhone, you could face an “It’s not fair!” meltdown.

Taking the rap. Since your kiddo’s sense of fairness is razor sharp, getting blamed for something he didn’t do — like snooping in his sister’s room — is sure to provoke anger.

Red-faced moments. Tweenagers are easily embarrassed about social stuff, like being judged uncool when Mom greets you at school with “Hi, cutiekins!” (Mortifying.) “Do anything to fluster your kid publicly and you’re in for it!” says Joni Levine, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Tantrums.


Step 2

Read the signs.

Kids really do have a “tell.” Pay close attention and experts say you can see a tantrum start to build and take steps to defuse it. Crisis averted!

At 3 to 5

Watch your preschooler’s face — the warning signs show up there first. That sweet little face will go from happy to furious (or sad) instantly, says Bailey. 

Sidestep the fit! Explain to your kid that you can tell she’s getting upset, so you want her to take a few deep breaths with you (they’ll help calm you down, too). Drawing attention to her angry feelings will, over time, help her recognize those emotions as they rise up. Once she’s quieted down, encourage her to talk about why she’s upset. “Say, ‘I’m listening, and I’d like us to solve this problem together.’ Don’t just jump in and solve it for her,” explains Levine. For example, if your child is frustrated with a certain task — like being told to get ready for bed, which can feel overwhelming — break it into more manageable pieces: Ask her to start by putting away her toys. Then have her get into her pjs, and so on.

At 6 to 7

By now, your child has learned that it’s not cool to act out at school, so he’ll unload as soon as he steps into the car or the house. You can see the signs in his face still, but pay attention to his body language, too. A kid who’s feeling blue or mad will slump his shoulders or fling his backpack across the floor.

Sidestep the fit! Six- and seven-year-olds are much better at explaining their feelings, so after those all-important deep, calming breaths, talk through what’s upsetting your kid and help him think of solutions. If you slip and make a negative comparison, try to explain what you meant in a more positive way. For instance, if you mention that Jack scored the most goals at soccer, and you notice that your child’s body language changes, follow up with an offer to kick the ball around together or with praise for a skill he does well when he plays.

At 8 to 10

Don’t bother glancing at your kid’s face or asking what’s wrong (she’ll mutter, “Nothing”). The warning signs are the way she clenches her fists or shuffles her feet, says Bailey. 

Sidestep the fit! As long as you’re willing to lend an ear and give them prompts, many kids at this stage can calm themselves down. But if yours still needs a nudge, ask her to think of some things she can do to let off steam, like listening to music. Levine recommends coming up with a “cool-down” playlist and reminding your child to use it when you notice she’s on the verge of melting down.


Step 3

Launch crisis maneuvers.

You can do everything right and still find yourself face-to-face with a total freak-out. Sometimes walking away — so as not to escalate the tantrum by shouting over it or giving it more attention — can be a smart move. But Bailey suggests another tactic: the “DNA” approach, which helps kids feel less out of control and abandoned. First, describe what you see: “Your face just scrunched up.” Next, notice the feelings: “You seem angry.” Finally, acknowledge what your kid was hoping for and talk through alternate solutions: “You wanted a Snickers bar and I said no. If you’re hungry, you can have a granola bar or yogurt.” This approach works because you’re showing your child empathy — which is soothing — while at the same time teaching self-awareness and coping skills. As with any method, you’ll tweak it as your kid gets older. Here’s how:

At 3 to 5

Show what’s happening. 

Preschoolers can’t calm down from their zero-to-60 screaming fit — they need you to be the inner voice that tells them it’ll be okay. Start by saying to him, “You’re safe. You can handle this.” Then, describe your child’s actions (“Your hands just balled into fists, like this”) and mimic his body language so he knows what he looks like. Next, while he’s watching you, take a deep breath. “Kids’ brains are hardwired to mirror you, which means your child will automatically take a big, calming breath as well,” says Bailey. Keep doing it until he’s able to talk through solutions.

At 6 to 7

Don’t baby them. 

Since 6- and 7-year-olds are super-sensitive about being treated like babies, drop the “describing” part as well as the physical mimicry — your child might think you’re making fun of him. And since so many battles at this age are about your child’s budding independence, focus your explanations on things other than your child’s age. So, for instance, if he blows up when you tell him he can’t bike around the ’hood solo, wait until he calms down and then explain that your job is to keep him safe — and that even though he’s a careful biker, people drive like maniacs. Then offer a couple of options: Either you can go with him, or he can ride from his house to the one down the street.

At 8 to 10

Hear ’em out. 

Say your child has a fit because you won’t let her dye her hair. Acknowledge her reasons without shooting them down. When she’s done, say you realize that this is something she really wants, but your answer is still no. This won’t make everything better, but it is comforting for kids to know that you care about their feelings (though they may not act that way). Then ask: “Why do you think I’m saying no?” Even if she’s off base, you’re prepping her to think in an adult way — and giving her problem-solving skills a workout, says Bailey. Just try to stay calm. Getting mouthy is how tweenagers melt down, and your child is savvy enough to know how to push your buttons. Leave the room if you need a breather. No need to deal with two freak-outs!

Illustration Credit: Mike Reddy

Raising Kids
Age 13
Age 10
Age 12
Age 11
Age 9
Age 8
Age 7
Age 6
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3