Read our tips to help you understand why tantrums happen & what you can do about them.

Screaming comes out of nowhere. Sobs. Hitting. Irrational demands. Your toddler is inconsolable and efforts to ease the situation seem to make it worse. And you reach for the handy “tried and true” device. And it works. She calms down and unintentionally the two of you have created a habitual dependency that is hard to shake.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents find a variety of ways to help a child calm down a tantrum. Relying on technology as the only method prevents a child from learning other ways to regulate their emotions. Helping a child learn to self-regulate means that their parents need to understand the tantrum first and then consider some new and creative ideas before resorting to a device.

Although tantrums seem to come out of nowhere, most kids have started their meltdown before we finally notice that it’s out of control. I encourage parents to look at the acronym “HALT” to help shed light on the tantrum and then to create ways to help prevent the meltdown.


How H.A.L.T. Can Help With Tantrums

H-Hungry: 

As toddlers and kids go through their day, they may opt to play rather than eat. Many toddlers are also finicky eaters. They are growing physically and developmentally and without sufficient food intake they are apt to be cranky. A starving and cranky kid is ripe for a tantrum. Using empathy and understanding for their misery is far more helpful than pointing out that they should just “stop it!” “I wonder if you’re a little hungry. You’ve worked so hard today and maybe a little snack will be helpful.” Easy grab snacks are helpful to keep in the car, backpack, or home. And if your child throws the snack at you, perhaps you’ve waited too long to intervene or maybe they aren’t hungry. It could be something else.

A-Angry: 

Kids don’t typically like hearing the word “no” unless they are saying it themselves! A boundary may ignite a tantrum and sometimes they know that a tantrum will make you relent, giving them what they have been demanding. Trying to prevent these angry tantrums keeps parents on their toes but prevention is key here! As you see your child beginning to get frustrated, offer to help, seek an alternative activity, find a distraction. These ideas work much better before the anger becomes irrational and much better before the toddler reaches adolescence!

L-Lonely:

In the midst of a parent’s busy day, a quiet toddler can often be taken for granted and ignored. A parent spending time on their own device, on the phone with a friend, or getting work done can translate into a child who just feels lonely and resorts to a meltdown in order to get their parent’s attention. 

The prevention here is managing your own schedule, finding ways to involve your child in your activities, and providing them some company. In a lonely tantrum, explaining to your child that you’re busy and have things to get done will not help. Instead, use empathy to express your understanding. “I know you’ve been by yourself a lot today and you seem sad. I am sorry I’ve been so busy. Let’s spend some time reading a story or going for a walk.” 

Offer to play a game with your child before the tantrum begins. Your offering to spend time with them will make them feel included—even if they turn you down. Older kids might come home from their day at school with a lonely tantrum brewing. Perhaps they were left out, teased or bullied. Maybe it was just a sad day. Somewhere in the tantrum, be available without demanding or hovering. 

T-Tired: 

A tired toddler paired with an exhausted parent is a difficult combination. When a parent has had little rest, they are less resilient in dealing with the tired tantruming child. Managing your own self-care and rest is crucial. Kids have a much shorter attention span than adults and perhaps part of the meltdown is that you have pushed the limit in their ability to be patient. We’ve all seen the grocery store meltdown—parents carrying out a child with limbs flailing and a full grocery cart left behind. 

Perhaps that child was only up for a short grocery run, not a weeks’ worth. Or the parents who think their toddler is up for “dining” only to be mortified when having to take their child out of a restaurant before the meal arrives. Parents’ expectations of toddlers’ stamina need to be at the toddler level rather than just trying to squeeze in one more errand, one more chore, one more adult activity. The tired tantrum is begging for a rest together.


Patience is a Virtue

When we “HALT” long enough to think about what is contributing to our child’s tantrum (or to our own meltdown), we might be able to offer solutions that actually meet the need rather than pulling out something like technology that is perhaps overly used. Be patient; don’t yell or criticize, don’t threaten. Talk about your own feelings with your child during the tantrum. Be empathetic and understanding. And ride out the storm. 

It won’t end right away and it won’t end permanently. Tantrums are nonverbal ways of expressing situations and feelings that just might not have words. And when all else fails, it might not be so bad to suggest that your child watch a favorite program—but suggest you do it together. You need the rest too.


About Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD is a psychotherapist in Southern California with private practices in Santa Monica and Malibu. She helps parents, children, couples and individuals. A graduate of UCLA and Fuller School of Psychology, Dr. Miller also is involved in school-based education and consultation, an adjunct faculty member of the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Psychology, a wife, mother, and stepmother. 

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