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My 5-year-old daughter is generally a pleasant and balanced girl, but sometimes she will get really, really mad and throw a major tantrum. This usually happens when something does not go her way (even something trivial) while she is tired or otherwise in a bad mood. Sometimes it is because I refuse to give her something (such as watching a video when it's already bedtime), sometimes something else which annoys her (such as bad weather or a friend who cannot come to play).

Then she will sit down somewhere, or even lie on the ground, be angry, cry without pause and generally look quite miserable. She will not accept being touched, held, comforted or sometimes even being spoken to. This can go on for over twenty minutes before she calms down.

I am still a bit unsure how to best handle this. I don't want to punish her for the tantrum, as I think she does it because she cannot (yet) control her emotions. At the same time, I do want it to stop, both for my sanity and for hers.

In particular, I tried leaving her alone and going to a different room, so she can cool off. However, it seems to me the tantrums take even longer then. On the other hand, she refuses to interact with me even if I am there, and it feels silly to sit there, watch and do nothing.

Should I stay and wait for the tantrum to go away? Should I leave her alone? Sometimes when I tell her I will go away, she objects, sometimes she does not react at all.

  • Can you give us some info on your relationship with her and family situation? Evolutionarily speaking, she is screaming for help. Something isn't going quite right. This is a call to the parents for help, although I cannot theorize what's going on when the tantrums are being described. What's the environment? – Craig Jul 30 '17 at 1:46
  • I don't recommend leaving her alone. You can try engaging with her peacefully and reason out that we can't control weather and people can't play all the time. – Craig Jul 30 '17 at 1:57
  • @Craig: Normally we have a good relationship. I try to give her freedom to decide where it's possible, but sometimes I need to put my foot down, such as when she's is tired but does not want to sleep. Engaging peacefully and reasoning with her are things I usually do, it's just that that does not work in these situations - she does not want to talk. – sleske Jul 30 '17 at 7:43
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Tantrums are tricky, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Partly it depends on how often she throws tantrums, why she does it, how she treats people when she is doing so, etc.

The best way to handle tantrums (imo) is to avoid them. You already know she's prone to tantrums when she's tired. To have a routine to follow at bedtime is important. If videos at bedtime are never allowed, it would be odd for her to ask for one.

The other times are unpredictable. In every case, the child is having difficulty expressing her feelings in a socially acceptable manner, and helping her towards being able to do this is one of your jobs as a parent. To express her emotions, she needs to have a rich emotional vocabulary. "I'm mad" isn't sufficient. Why is she mad? Does she feel isolated/lonely/unloved/unvalued/unheard/(etc.)? When she can recognize the feelings that underlie her anger, then she will be able to deal with them (with your help). When she experiences both negative and positive emotions, practice discussing her feelings using an emotional vocabulary. With time and practice, you might even be able to prevent a tantrum this way.

Should I stay and wait for the tantrum to go away? Should I leave her alone? Sometimes when I tell her I will go away, she objects, sometimes she does not react at all.

Personally, If she's not treating you unkindly (screaming, name-calling, etc.) I would stay. She's having a hard time, and your presence lets her know you care about her even if nothing else is going her way at that moment. It's fine to do something else in her presence, and let her know that any time she wants to talk to you, you'll stop what you're doing and talk to her. When she calms down, talk about what she felt before and during the tantrum. As I said, recognizing an emotion - being able to name it - is the first step in being able to deal with it.

If she's treating you unkindly (which doesn't sound like the case), that's a different story altogether. Taking her anger out on you is never acceptable. But I'll leave it here unless you edit new information into your question.

  • Thanks for your excellent answer (as usual). I do try to avoid tantrums (for example getting her to bed quickly if she's tired), but sometimes it does not work. The point about staying unless she is unkind is good, I'll try that. Sometimes she'll say "mean" things like "I don't like you", but usually she just cries or keeps asking for whatever she wants. – sleske Jul 31 '17 at 7:34
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    And I have heard before about helping a child express their emotions, by emphasizing and talking about how they feel. It seems similar similar to mirroring in psychology - I'll try that, too. – sleske Jul 31 '17 at 7:37
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    I would just add that if you find yourself getting triggered by her tantrum, I think it is perfectly reasonable to explain to her that her anger is making you scared?, unhappy?, worried?, etc. and that you need to take a few minutes in another room so that you can feel better. Reassure her that it doesn't mean that you don't love her, nor that she is doing anything wrong, but that it is important to you to take a few minutes alone to get control of your own feelings. – magerber Aug 1 '17 at 19:17
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If a child is sad it's important to stay and be there for them. However, it sounds like she is taking her anger out on you/otherwise trying to get her way. There is nothing at all wrong with putting a kid in their room by themselves when they're having a conniption fit. They will not be traumatized. Don't frame the "time out" as punishment - after all, it is ok to feel any way that you happen to feel. It is instead a chance for the child to calm down, and a way for you to disengage in the mean time. Because no matter how valid the feelings, it is not ok to deliberately take them out on others. This should be true for a child just as it is for an adult.

My three-year-old is at this point completely aware of the boundary between feeling angry/frustrated/disappointed and taking those feelings out in a destructive way on others. He sometimes puts himself in timeout when he needs to calm down. But he never, absolutely NEVER throws an angry tantrum that lasts more than 2 or 3 minutes (and even those are very few and far between). It's all about the expectation you create for your child's behavior. Yes, she can't "control her emotions" per se - but if she can understand the emotions she will have a much easier time controlling her behavior, and understanding requires that she be able to talk to you about it. Which first requires that she calm down and interact with you in a constructive manner. Therefore - time out.

And of course, she should never never never receive whatever "reward" she is angling for with the tantrum. In fact, if the tantrum happens because "no you cannot watch a movie before bed," you may then further reduce access to the desired reward - "you already got to watch a movie today, and if you're going to be this upset even though you got to watch a movie, maybe this means you shouldn't be allowed to watch movies anymore." Or tomorrow. Or something. Show that the tantrum will achieve the opposite of the desired effect.

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Tantrums are essentially attempts to elicit a reaction from authority figures. While babies cry to alert us when they feel that something is genuinely wrong, toddlers and preschoolers often make an emotional scene in an attempt to throw the balance of power to their side. Your task, as the parent, is to remain in control, but maintain the spirit of love.

You first of all never want to encourage this behavior by rewarding it. Instead, you want to reward the desired behavior(s). What would you rather your child do in these moments of disappointment and frustration? Talking it out calmly sounds like a much better way to handle such situations. But she has to learn that.

When she next throws a tantrum, disengage. Ignore her, but stay physically present. If you physically leave her you are demonstrating that it's okay to "run" from your problems. You want to show that you are available, but will not interact until she returns to acceptable ways of doing so. This works best if you can keep as close to a poker face as possible while she fusses about. She'll be checking or waiting for a response from you. Just patiently wait for her to reach out to you in an acceptable way. If she tries to talk with you, respond positively. If she approaches you for a hug, give it and ask her what's wrong or how she's feeling. Any attempts at verbalization should be encouraged.

Now, this doesn't mean we give in to the (likely) selfish impulse that catalyzed the tantrum. You must be firm on matters of clear principle, but not harsh. You can acknowledge and validate her feelings, but decisions should rarely be swayed by dissent and only when the child presents valid, reasonable arguments with which you actually agree. This way of dealing with her will teach her that conversation is the way to try to get things we want or to process negative emotions - not throwing a tantrum.

Sometimes you will want to explain your reasons for denying her something. During the period of emotional drama is not the right time. Wait until later when things have calmed down and the conflict has been pretty much resolved. Ask her something like "do you know why I said no to [x]?" and gently guide her toward the reasoning behind a disappointment. Try to reveal how others (including yourself) felt and thought about the situation to help her develop empathy.

Steadily following these guidelines should help her learn healthier ways to express herself over time. Be consistent, and you'll eventually gain the reward of a better behaved child.

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    Thanks for the edit - looks much better :-). I took the liberty of fixing a small but critical typo. – sleske Jul 31 '17 at 7:40

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