You’re well familiar with the scene of the crime – the supermarket lolly aisle… the park at the end of a playdate… grandma’s house after a sleepover… even the kids’ own bedroom at bedtime. Whether your strategy is to tread lightly like a calm-inducing fairy skipping over child-sized landmines or to show no mercy, Terminator-style, we’ve all been there.


Tantrums. We’re told they are par for the course for toddlerhood, and we grit our teeth and bear it through public embarrassment, flailing arms, tears (theirs and ours) and bottled-up frustration. But the drama doesn’t end in childhood. So common are teen tantrums that they’ve become a cliché for Hollywood, with sulky high schoolers the anti-heroes of movies for decades.


And tantrums don’t end as we supposedly mature and become more successful. Witness The Office, a cult hit based entirely around a bratty boss. Or our sports superstars, for whom a fiery outburst can be played out on the world stage. Think Nick Kyrgios, who just last month made international news with his Wimbledon wobbly. So what’s the best plan of attack when faced with a tantrum – either pint-sized or adult?


Tanya Curtis of FABIC says, “The cause of a tantrum is always the same – there is always an aspect of life that the person does not feel equipped to respond to.  Not feeling equipped means they do not feel they have developed the skills to change their own experience of that situation to one they feel more equipped to respond to.


“For example, when a child makes a request and they are met with ‘no’, they are presented with a part of life (i.e. their request not being met) that they don’t feel like they have the skills to change (e.g, how do they make that ‘no’ a ‘yes’?).


“When an expectation is not met, it is likely a tantrum will occur – whether that be hearing the word ‘no’,  someone taking a toy they wanted to play with, not being able to express what they truly feel,   or being asked to do something they don’t want to do.”


Tanya says understanding a tantrum is a form of communication can help us remove judgement, and see the situation for what it is – a situation where the person having the tantrum simply needs support to develop the skills to deal with this part of life.  This is especially true for kids, who may not be able to articulate their feelings, or may not have mastered the impulse control to self-calm and problem solve through the challenging situation.


Dr Deberea Sherlock and Aisling Mulvihill of the MASTER Institute say, “Anger is a normal human response to real, threatened or imagined situations. It is what we do with our anger that matters!


“If managed well, anger can be constructive in that it lets us know there is a problem and that we need to take calm action to fix it. Children and adults alike experience difficulty managing intense feelings of anger. In these moments we may feel and act at the same time and not always think about the consequences of our angry actions. Feeling and acting at the same time or ‘tantruming’ is more commonly seen in younger children, as they may not distinguish the difference between feeling angry and acting angry.  Young children’s understanding of the world of emotions is developing and they may not have the language skills to express complex emotions. Their bodies, however, do this very well!”


We’re all familiar with the physical symptoms of anger – pounding heart, clenched jaw or fists, fast breathing, flushed face, tense or shaking body. It can be helpful to educate children to recognise these ‘warning signs’ before a tantrum explodes, as the MASTER Institute teaches: “We may be aware of our body signals before we become aware of our thinking. Our body signals act like a personal alarm, alerting us to a problem and preparing our body for action.”


The MASTER Institute recommends a six-step process to help children to calm down in the heat of anger, and defuse a tantrum in its tracks:

  1. Set up a special calming place at home where your child can take time to calm.
  2. Help your child identify the first signs of anger in describing ‘what you see’, ‘what you hear’, and ‘what you understand’. For example, ‘John, I see your tight body, I hear your loud voice, I understand you are upset’.
  3. Encourage your child to walk away and disengage from the ‘heat of the moment’.
  4. Deep belly breathing calms the body to help think clearly before acting. Encourage your child to breathe slowly in through the nose and slowly out through the mouth, and to do this at the first sign of emotional arousal.
  5. Engage your child in a distracting activity that is safe and easy – perhaps throwing a ball against a wall, scribbling on a page, listening to calming music or jumping on the trampoline.
  6. Wait until your child has completely calmed before entering into discussion about the situation that fired them up.


And it’s not just kids who benefit from these tantrum-defusing tactics. When faced with a flailing three year old or a super-charged teen, it can be challenging to keep your own cool. Fighting a tantrum with a tantrum of your own? Destined for failure. Instead, try these Wise Parent Behaviours from the MASTER Institute:

  • Defuse anger by connecting with your child’s emotion. For example, “I can see you are very upset because you got called out. I understand how frustrating that must feel. Let’s calm and get ready for the next game.”
  • Remain mindful of your own emotional responses. Maintain a high degree of rational calm and a low degree of emotionality.
  • Avoid confrontational language (e.g. “Stop acting like a baby”).
  • Use a disarming technique for hurtful words -“I’m sorry you feel the need to say hurtful things because I really love you very much.”


A final tip from Tanya Curtis on facing the fire of a tantrum? Understanding. “Understanding and judgement cannot exist together,” she says.  “When we judge a behaviour to be wrong, naughty or inappropriate, we fail to see that this tantrum behaviour is simply showing us that skill development is required in this part of life.” Tanya says our key role as parents is not to critique our kids’ behaviour choices, but to teach them the skills to ‘master life’.   And in applying these techniques, we might just teach ourselves some tantrum-taming tips too.






Courtney Robinson

Courtney Robinson  

Courtney Robinson is a Gold Coast mum, passionate foodie, whole foods recipe creator and personal trainer certified in holistic digestive health and nutrition. Follow @athletist_ or visit athletist.com.au for recipes, workout tips and training hacks.