How to Handle Tantrums?

How to Handle Tantrums // jessconnell.com // step-by-step walkthrough of dealing with (rather than ignoring) temper tantrums
Q: My 2.5 year old son is having tantrums, laying on the floor, thrashing and screaming. I feel like something is wrong! Is this normal? What do I do?

A: Yes, this is something “normal.” Tantrums are without a doubt something you will face as mom, and every single one of my children has tried to pitch a fit, throw a tantrum, scream and fuss, whine and holler, stomp, and/or lay down and thrash on the ground (well, not Theo yet, but he’s only 8 months old… give him time, and –sadly– he will too)


It’s part of living with a little sinner who wants to go his own way. 

He thinks he knows better than you, but needs you to be firm and not let him do things like ignoring what you say, screaming, and throwing tantrums. 

EVERYTHING STOPS

The very *SECOND* something like that happens, everything in his world should come to a screeching halt until he adjusts to mom’s way of thinking and acting. However long that takes. No more playing, no snack, no “first let me ____,” no psychobabble/excuses. Definitely no bribing him to stop.

First things first. Use a firm voice: “Stand up and stop acting that way.” See to it that he stops. When he realizes that you mean business and will not allow anything else in life to happen until he complies, he’ll muster up some self-control. 

Really. So keep at it however long it takes, until he stands up (on his own two feet– don’t allow any of this pull-up-the-feet-and-refuse-to-stand business) and stops. 

Many women I encounter stop me at this point and say, “but you don’t understand. My child is so stubborn/strong-willed/angry/physically strong.” Yes. Yes, I understand. (See the comments for more specifics on this point.) But yes, I mean you. And yes, I mean your child, no matter how willful, difficult, or strong-willed. 

Persevere and do not let your child do anything else happen until the tantrum stops. 

[The only time I do this differently is if we are out in public, and thus subjecting others to the drama. At that point, I stop whatever I’m doing– yes, even grocery shopping– and either move to an out of the way place where we can talk face to face (me kneeled down at face level, or out to the car) without distractions. Do not subject others to your child’s foolish, annoying, loud shenanigans. Regardless though, everything stops and we deal with the tantrum, UNTIL. Until normality of attitude is resumed.]

At that point, life goes on, pleasantly. 

COACH WITH SHORT, OBEY-ABLE SENTENCES

You coach him to do whatever it was that frustrated him, but in the way he *ought* to do it- “Ask mommy nicely for your snack,” or “Ask mommy to help you put the train track together,” or, “We are not leaving the store right now. You need to wait just a little longer until we finish shopping,” or “You may not go outside right now. Sit here and snuggle by mom and look at books.” 

Do not get into long explanations or psychoanalytical feelings-type language. If he’s throwing a fit because he wanted a particular book on the store shelf, it’s OK to say, “I know you wanted that book.” But then move on.

Use short, obey-able sentences, like:

  • Look in mommy’s eyes.” (Wait for him to look. Boys can be particularly bad about this, and work fiercely to look anywhere else but your eyes. Outlast him. Block out other perspectives and direct his chin to where his face is looking at you. Do not do anything else until he looks and holds your gaze.)
  • You must not fuss that way, yes ma’am?” (I’m from the south. We say “yes ma’am.” Insert the phrase of your choosing, but something where he is affirming your authority and his intention to obey. “Yes mom,” “Ok, mommy,” etc. are fine alternatives.)
  • Now, stop fussing.” (Expect that he does. You are his right and loving authority, and he can stop himself, truly.) 
  • Sometimes follow-up sentences about posture/facial expressions are necessary with this… “Pick up your head. Open your eyes. Uncross your arms.” Etc. Many children display physical characteristics that let you see exactly what is going on in their hearts. Coach them to physically change their posture or facial expression from a state of grumping and slumping to an attitude and appearance of facing the world cheerfully. 

Then I help them wipe their eyes/nose/face if they need it, encourage them to take a deep breath, and then I sometimes redirect their attention to something pleasant (“Look at that kitty cat!”). Not at all in a coaxing way, but in order to help reset their minds. 

Any HINT of the return of fussiness merits the same response. Everything stops until the grumping stops. 

BE AUTHORITATIVE AND FIRM

Honestly, if you are firm and direct, every single time he does this, these outbursts will almost entirely end very soon. While my kids continue to try to have tantrums from time to time, they are shut down very quickly, and we move on to pleasant things.

In my opinion, advice like “ignore it” or “put them in their room” allows these miserable emotional (not to mention LOUD) displays to go on and on indefinitely… for minutes, or even hours at a time… and then for days upon days of walking around on eggshells, waiting for the next episode of emotional volatility or dramatic eruptions. All the while the child is developing a habit of raging about the things they want, and an unhealthy, emotional fixation on the things that irritate and bother them. These are not attitudes I want to be reinforced or unaddressed in my children’s hearts and lives.

Just stop the whole thing as soon as it starts. Train your child in the way he should go– not at all in an ugly way– just straightforwardly. Teach him how to behave. Show him what he ought to do and do not allow dramatic nonsense to carry on and on. Within a second or two of the eruption, stop him. See that he stops. Then move on pleasantly and enjoy the day together. You may even find that by watching your children carefully, you can begin to tell when a tantrum is oncoming, and help them to stop it before it starts by coaching them through how to handle disappointment or frustration.

This is all about having firm, no-nonsense consistency. Our culture has a real authority problem, but kids recognize when someone in the room knows they are the authority. We’ve all seen and experienced it, where the kid who’s a real pill pushes everyone around until he meets the hard-nosed teacher who won’t put up with it. She’s the authority and they both know it. 

So, be the authority. Not in a bullying, ugly, angry way, but in a firm, “I’m 5000% serious, and there is absolutely zero chance of this continuing to happen.” sort of way.

AFTER you deal with the immediate issue of the tantrum, then you go on and parent as usual. No grumping, shock, or bitterness on your part. Be pleasant and enjoy him.

He is still your sweet boy, but he is (like the rest of us) a sinner who will fight tooth and nail to have things his own way if he possibly can. Some children absolutely put up more of a fight than others, but make no mistake– they all want to have their own way, regardless of personality. 

Galatians 6:9 tells us not to grow weary in well doing because there is a harvest to be reaped in due time if we don’t give up. You are doing well to your son when you take time to stop him, require that he stand up, stop lashing around like a foolish child, look you in the eye, be respectful, and obey your voice. You are teaching him, by the way you follow through and see that he listens to you, how he should respond to the authority and voice of God.

REMEMBER: IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY

Instead of seeing tantrums as a horrible, embarrassing thing, see it as an opportunity to address something in your child’s heart that desperately needs to be dealt with. 

When your child erupts into a tantrum, God has given you a BIG moment where you can teach your child to listen to you, to trust your instructions over his/her feelings, and to have self-control in the midst of disappointment, frustration, rage, or uncertainty. This is an investment in your child’s future– you are teaching him/her to be emotionally stable and not fly off the handle into rages or controlling emotions because of life’s disappointments. You are training him/her how to respond to challenges and difficulties. 

This is a golden and rich opportunity for you as the parent!

Every kid tries it. 

But it doesn’t have to continue. 

It’s a learning opportunity for you both, and an opportunity for him to grow in maturity and self-control. It’s one of the many ways that God has put you as an influence and authority in your child’s life in order for you to guide him in the way he should go.


Click here for more specifics on how to handle tantrums.

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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38 Responses

  1. Jess Connell says:

    And, because I know it will come up (it always does), for anyone who’s wondering if I’ve ever had a stubborn child:

    Yes yes yes. I have had some incredibly stubborn, crazy strong-willed, horribly emotional, nonsense-filled, hard-nosed, screaming, fighting, kicking, biting, angry, tearful, dramatic, noisy, embarrassing, awful, slapping, resentful, furious, stomping, HORRIFYINGLY stubborn children.

    Yes.

    The key is to outlast, to be more strong-willed than they are, to “out-stubborn” them… every time. I often remind myself, “I only have to be stubborn one time longer than him/her.” Mom should be like an impassable wall that cannot be climbed, dug under, walked around, parachuted over. When mom says something must happen or must not happen, there should be no way of getting around mom’s iron will.

    Of course this means that you must be very careful in what you require. :) You should not be a jerk about it. But once you determine that something is best for them to do, or not to do, then they are to obey you.

    A child who is allowed to rage in her bed, or disobey mom, most likely feels: “you might be able to physically put me in my bed but you can not make me obey you from my heart.” That might sting, but it is truly what is happening- there is a disconnect between the child’s heart & the child’s actions, and it is being reinforced every time he/she meets frustration. The child is being trained to rage and carry on in an emotional fit, and becoming convinced that no one (not even he/she) can control these outrageous emotions, rather than being taught to exercise self-control, stop the madness, and listen to the wisdom of mom and dad instead of her own foolish inner monologue. (“The heart is deceitful above all things.”)

    Mom and Dad need to be convinced of their own authority, and willing to see things through to completion. On top of that, you need to be filled with God’s Word so that the counsel and direction you give your children is WISDOM gleaned from God, for their benefit.

    Drama begets more drama. Self-control and peace beget more self-control and peace. Sow what you mean to reap, and ponder the path of your feet. Think about the future emotional situation you are currently laying the groundwork for.

    A moody, broody preschooler off in a room by himself, angry, bitter, and nursing feelings of self-righteousness and loathing his parents will most likely become a moody, broody teenager off in a room by himself, angry, bitter, and nursing feelings of self=righteousness and loathing his parents. By God’s grace he might still overcome this, but he is learning to be mastered by his own feelings, and to hold other people around him hostage to his feelings, rather than to master his feelings and do what is right regardless of how he feels.

    A disappointed preschooler who initially feels infuriated but quickly is required to stop the external manifestations, heed the wisdom of one who is his/her authority, and clearly express his/her need or request, and then go on with life, even if the answer is “no,” will, with God’s help, grow into an adult who thoughtfully, prayerfully works through difficulties in light of truth and the wisdom of his/her Authority– namely, God, rather than being captive to his/her feelings.

    This is the very reason why we are parents. To help our children learn to go in the way of wisdom, rather than according to their own foolish ways. You can do it! You really can.

    This does not mean that I never utilize time alone for my children. It just means that time alone is not the solution to an angry, bitter, tantruming child. A child who is tearful because they were up late and needs a minute to go wash off his face and change his attitude because he’s a bit too tired but it’s too late in the day for a nap and bedtime is an hour or two away may need a few minutes in his bed to collect himself and come back out to cheerfully pass the next hour or two. A child who has been arguing with one particular sibling (after asking forgiveness) may need isolation and solitude, and the bed may be a fine spot to accomplish that. But a tantruming child with an ugly attitude does not need to be left to brood and rage in his/her bed.

  2. Betsy says:

    These are great thoughts.

    Tantrums are my nemesis. I have 4 children–with 3 of them, this has worked and worked well. With one of them, this works for a while, and then the tantrums rear their ugly head again. He is much too old to tantrum, and yet he continues. We continue to love and discipline, and we pray that one day, he, too, will stop thinking that tantrums are the key to getting what he wants (I wish I could impress upon him that it. will. never. work).

  3. Kelli says:

    Thank you for writing this! Since I first read it I’ve implemented some of the ideas and I can immediately see a change in my kids! The first day was rough but honestly every day after has gotten better. They are responding to my clear directions and I believe they feel more heard even though they are not getting what they want. I’m going to continue and hopefully squash these inconvenient outburst but more importantly have a closer relationship with each of my children!

  4. Susan says:

    Thank you for this post. I absolutely agree with everything you said. My follow-up question is, what do you do when even younger children (just a little over a year–so old enough to understand “no” but not old enough to be reasoned with) throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want? Thank you!

    • Jess Connell says:

      So, with younger children, you state the rule, and then you see to it that they go along with what you say. So, “no, no” stand up. Help them stand up. If they won’t… I use a variety of methods:

      * isolation in the crib with the light on (no blankets/loveys/nothing except them and the crib sheet.
      * mirroring/helping them adjust their attitude with my facial expressions and coaching them to match what I am doing
      * distraction (helpful for the littlest ones, for example, for the baby who is crawling at 7 months old and you need to move him away from the plants but he fusses, etc.)

      Before they are able to reason, you help them (as best you can in that moment/place) to stop fussing and adjust their attitude. Sometimes that will mean, especially with younger ones, surprising them, blowing in their face, making silly faces, helping them to physically feel different (i.e., if they’re fussing over a poopy diaper, change the diaper; if they’re fussing because they’re hot, use a baby wipe to cool off their forehead, or move to the shade), etc.

      As they get older, you use more reasoning skills alongside these things, but in the early days, you are coaching, mimicking (giving an example), distracting, and assisting them to change their attitudes/stop fussing, etc. That can even look like putting them down for their nap early, or that sort of thing, if they’re just out of whack and need a cool down. Napping, nursing, quiet snuggle time with mom (perhaps in a wrap or just snuggled on the couch), or bath time can act as a physical “reset” button for those who are young and need help (especially in extreme situations– travel, extra hot, unusual schedule, etc.).

      Hope this helps. If you have a particular situation in mind, come back with that… it’s often easier for me to help you think through a particular instance, rather than broad principles.

      • Susan says:

        Thank you!!! Very helpful.

      • Dusty says:

        First, I love your posts. I read, re-read, and emailed this to my husband. I have a 3 year old daughter, who I think should just be re-named “stubborn”. I know I am going to have to put my foot down and insist, always, that what I say is followed through with. My problem has been, being out-numbered. I have 4 kids, ages, 8 months, 2,3, and 4. When my daughter is raging, and refusing, do you just stand there as long as it takes, and insist that they stand up and cut out the attitude? Eventually, it will take less time? Like, hours at first? We have been putting her in her room or time-out on the stairs when she is refusing to obey, but I can see how that doesn’t get compliance. One thing we are having trouble with is bed. She won’t stay in her room. She wanders around, waking the other kids, or downstairs to us in the living room. I tried cutting out her nap (which makes the late afternoons awful!), in the hopes that she would be so tired, she would go to sleep. But after one time of coming out, we lock her door and she kicks and screams, and wakes throughout the night mad and will do it when she wakes up, hollering out the name of whoever was the one to lock the door. We tried rewarding her for staying in there, removing benefits if she didn’t stay in there, spanks, standing at her door and not letting her leave, sleeping in the empty bunk bed of a brother in case she was lonely, sleeping on our bedroom floor. It’s turned into such a charade and I hate bedtime. Anytime you tell her “no”, she just gets this grunting-attitude, and it is infuriating. I feel like she’s in charge!

        • Jess Connell says:

          Hey Dusty,
          First– let me say, you have it exactly right in your third sentence:

          “I know I am going to have to put my foot down and insist, always, that what I say is followed through with.”

          Yes.

          Then you asked:
          “When my daughter is raging, and refusing, do you just stand there as long as it takes, and insist that they stand up and cut out the attitude? Eventually, it will take less time? Like, hours at first?”

          Yes. And you enforce it by doing whatever it is you do for discipline. Swat on the bottom, stand against the wall, loss of privilege, whatever.

          Yes, they will fight back fiercely (increasing in stubbornness for however stubborn/strong-willed the child is) the first few times. The older the child is, the longer this initial fight-back will take, and the fiercer it will be.

          But once she gives in (essentially, recognizing your authority and responsibility over her) in one area, it will carry over into other areas. The goal is not just to attack it in one area (i.e., bedtime), but to see to it that she’s obeying you ALL the time… meals, toy-pick-up, time-to-leave-friend’s-house, whatever. Once she realizes that you really mean for her to obey at all times, then bedtime becomes less of a challenge, because you’ve learned to mean what you say and she’s learned that you really mean it. It’s a win-win for everyone.

          As far as bedtime, what I would do is this:
          (1) Talk with your husband and determine what really is reasonable.

          If you’re not sure, run it by a friend that you respect whose children are obedient and well-cared for. (i.e., questions like, “Is it reasonable, do you think, for her to go to bed at 8:30 and stay there? Or do I need to do something different?”)

          (2) Certain that what you’re asking is reasonable, see to it that she does what you decide.

          It’s that simple.

          That said, I do not recommend cutting out naps until the child can make it all the way until bedtime with a decent, obedient attitude. That has never happened here in our home before age 4. Many have needed naps (almost daily) clear to 6 years old. Sleep is a MAJOR REASON why kids get fussy. So, possibly, you might want to rethink that.

          What you want to do is find a reasonable way to see to it that she gets the rest she needs. So, as you talk with your husband, consider things like:

          * Letting her listen to Bible songs while she falls asleep
          * Audio book while she falls asleep (“You must turn over and quietly go to sleep when the story ends.”)
          * You sit with her, with your hand on her leg, while she falls asleep, insisting (and enforcing) that she do three things: 1- close her eyes, 2-close her mouth, 3- stop wiggling (I say this because this is how we do it with extra-wiggly ones… they need those 3 specific instructions and typically fall asleep very quickly (within 3-5 minutes) of laying down, once they do those 3 things.
          * Put her back in a crib and tell her that she must not climb out or she will get X as her consequence. (An enforceable, painful consequence that she does not like… whatever it is you do– from a spanking, to a concrete thing like “you lose one Polly Pocket for 3 days”)

          I would not ever lock the door– you are right, it sounds like she is in charge. You need to patiently, firmly, diligently, consistently, every-day-no-matter-what, with every-instruction-no-matter-what, keep showing her that she is the one who is following you, and not vice-versa.

          I’d highly recommend you read these articles, especially #1:

          (1) Authority– http://jessconnell.com/do-your-kids-recognize-your-authority/
          (2) 10 Bible Truths to Help You Understand Your Child — http://jessconnell.com/10-bible-truths-to-help-you-understand-your-child/
          (3) When Your Kid Needs YOU To Be Stubborn — http://jessconnell.com/kids-need-stubborn/
          (4) Are You Letting Your Kids Walk All Over You? — http://jessconnell.com/are-you-letting-your-kids-walk-all-over-you/

          Hang in there, and don’t give up. She needs you to be more patient, more firm, and more for-her-good right now than ever. You can do this.

          It will take time to get this ship going in the right direction, but you really can change directions and make a huge difference in her attitude and your relationship in just a few weeks’ time, if you persevere and do not give in or give up. YOU CAN DO IT!
          ~Jess

          • DUSTY SESSIONS says:

            You can see, it’s been five days since I wrote. I have tightened the expectation of compliance, always. She seems to buck at everything she possibly can, but she isn’t lasting as long. And bedtime, she tries repeatedly to come out, with whining, but no screaming and kicking. She has lost a lot of fun activities, but she is in her room, sleeping, with the door closed, peacefully. Thank you for your thoughts, I really appreciate them!

  5. KB says:

    Is it too late to getting back to the basics of handling the tantrums? I have a 2 1/2+ year old boy who is so strong willed and stubborn and who has probably been having tantrums for all of his second year, and maybe even the last part of his first. He’s had me in tears more times than I can count. With my son, I started with some of the concepts above that I gleaned from reading “Raising Godly Tomatoes” years ago, but the author always made it sound like she would handle something, in this case, tantrums, a few times and then they would never rear their ugly head again. Because I was handling the tantrums the way she suggested and which seemed to be the right way, when I found that the violent tantrums were still happening, I assumed it wasn’t going to work for my child and I was a failure :) I actually set the book aside in disgust and tried other various options: ignoring, letting him calm down first on his own and then go over to him to work with him on it, putting him in his crib, coming back to the right way – but not applying it consistently and giving up on it again, etc. Basically I was desperate for anything to work, yet I still had/have this nagging feeling that I knew the right way and needed to pursue it. However, I just had in my head that since the author seemed to get it under control right away, and when it didn’t work quickly for me that I wasn’t apparently going to reach that outcome and gave up on the steps. Your post has given me hope again and I’m going to go back to square one with the steps you list. And the detail you have given about what you’ve encountered with some of your kids has brought peace to my mind and that I’m not the only one in this situation and has given me a renewed confidence to try this again the right way. I hope it’s not too late for me to embark on the correct way of handling tantrums again. Thanks so much for posting this!

    • Jess Connell says:

      I’m so glad it’s helpful for you.

      No, it’s not too late at all to dig in and deal with tantrums firmly! Be consistent, firm, loving, and hang in there. Fiercely hold the line now so you don’t have such a fight later.

  6. Amber says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m really struggling with my about to turn 2 year old’s behavior. He is extremely strong willed and stubborn. His emotions are so overwhelming to him. When he gets upset he screams at the top of his lungs, thrashes around, hits people/things randomly… if I’m holding him he will thrash so violently I can barely hold onto him and sometimes he’ll throw himself backwards or sideways so quick and hard I almost drop him. He’s actually hurt himself and me a few times during his tantrums. I’ve seen other kids at our church throw “tantrums” that are so quiet and calm compared to what my son does. When I talk to other moms about my son’s behavior they say “oh yeah, my child is like that… my child gets pretty loud…” etc. But when I see their child pitching a fit it’s NOTHING compared to what my son does. A few times my son has screamed during church events and everyone commented on how loud he was (not in a mean way). So I know that my son is beyond what most other kids are like.

    So anyway, I’ve been following your method for dealing with tantrums for quite a while and I’m not sure how to make it work for my son. When he’s throwing a fit he is just SO worked up he can’t even listen to what I’m saying. And since he’s still pretty little, he doesn’t understand me when I try to coach him on what to do. He does stand up when I tell him to, but he doesn’t understand if I tell him to close his mouth, be quiet, stop frowning, etc. Also, at a certain point during his tantrums he goes from being defiant/angry to being just plain sad/upset. I can actually see the moment when this happens. At that point he just wants me to hold him, so I will, but when I try to lean back and look in his eyes and talk to him he gets upset all over again. I think your method works in theory, but my son just gets SO overwhelmed he can’t even handle it. Since using this method his tantrums haven’t decreased at all.

    I feel at a loss. Your parenting methods sound so good and I really believe they are biblical and wise, but the process doesn’t play out with my son the way it seems to for other kids. We’ve been spanking him consistently for disobedience, never giving up and allowing him to disobey, following through with consequences, etc. There are a few areas where we see progress, but many areas where there’s been no effect on his behavior. What am I doing wrong?

    • Jess Connell says:

      Yes I do have some input on this. It sounds like you are letting it go wayyyyy too far. From what you’ve described here, you’re not stepping in until he’s already at full throttle. What I would encourage you to do is to watch your son for signs that he’s about to blow his top. What happens, in his posture, in his vocal patterns, in his life, before he starts to pitch a fit? I believe you probably already know some of the things that set him off, but start watching him specifically to notice, what happens RIGHT BEFORE he begins losing control. Because with this sort of explosive anger, you need to not let it get to full throttle and then try to take it down. That is WAY harder than trying to shut it down before it amps up.

      I hope that makes sense. Essentially, what you’re saying is, “well, I’ve seen other kids, and their tantrums are going from 5mph to 35 mph. My son goes from 5mph to 85mph.” And what I’m telling you, is this: notice when he gets to 6mph. Pay attention to what his triggers are, and be prepared for them. I don’t mean, don’t trigger them. I mean, be prepared to pounce on those tantrums like a lion. Stop him before they get to 10, 20, 55, 85mph.

      At 2 years old, your child may not yet absolutely know what you mean by “close your mouth” but if you show him, “don’t do this” (open/whiny mouth) “do this” (closed mouth), etc., in very short time, he will understand what you mean, and you will be able to coach him more specifically. Keep going. Don’t give up or lose heart. This is not a one-and-done thing. This is an ongoing training process, where you are (from the outside) teaching him and helping him control his emotions until he can (from the inside) do it on his own.

      I’d encourage you not to think “this doesn’t work” or “this won’t work for him.” or “he’s too strong-willed.” He’s actually being WEAK willed, because he’s giving in to his emotions without a fight. You are teaching him how to exercise self-control, how to have a strong will, and how to overcome emotions that threaten to ruin his life.

      By the way- one final motivation– if you think it’s hard NOW to hold onto him, consider how much harder it will be at 5, 7, 10 years old. Let that thought motivate you to fight this battle well and persevere NOW. Do the hard work now so that you will reap a self-controlled, emotionally stable child in 3, 5, 8 years. :) You can do it! Don’t give up. Be more stubborn than he is.

      • Amber says:

        But you see that’s my problem! He doesn’t go from 5mph to 85mph. He goes from 0mph to 85mph – instantly! I’ve heard the advice to catch him before he goes overboard, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that there is no build up with him, no warning signs. He goes from fine to full-blown, thrashing, screaming, crazy tantrum in SECONDS. And once he gets there he’s beyond the point of no return and very often nothing I do at that point will work.

        Your comment that my son is actually being “weak willed” really makes sense. The thing I pray for him the most (other than his salvation) is that he will learn self control. I know that teaching him self control is one of the most important things I can do for him, but boy is it hard!

        Don’t remind me that the bigger he gets the harder it will be to control him! :( I’m well aware of that and it’s disheartening because I feel like I’m already losing that battle. I’ve been working on his tantrums since he was smaller, and he’s already starting to get big enough that it’s hard to handle him. Like you said, I’m trying to deal with this before he gets too big, but that time is already coming and and the training I’ve been doing all this time isn’t working very well. Sorry, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, I just feel sometimes like all this advice I hear on Christian parenting blogs doesn’t take into account my son’s personality.

        • Jess Connell says:

          So you are saying there are no triggers? Nothing that sets him off? No rhyme or reason for his tantrums, whatsoever? Him hearing “no we’re not going to do that” or “honey, it’s time to leave” isn’t the type of thing that sets him off? It’s not being asked to clean up his toys, or having trouble fitting his blocks together? There are no warning signs at all?

          Because if that is true, you need to see a doctor.

          But I highly suspect there ARE indeed triggers, and there are probably subtle warning signs. They may be small. A change in breathing. A tensing of the shoulders. A flicker in the forehead.

          I wonder a couple things–
          (1) how close to you is he throughout the day?
          (2) how quickly are you getting to him to address the tantrums?

          My guess is that he’s not near close enough. What I would recommend is that you keep him within arm’s reach… literally, I mean, it should not take you longer than 1 second to reach out and touch him at any given time. This may seem like overkill, or helicopter parenting. I assure you it won’t have to stay this way forever, but for the child who is weak-willed, he needs for you to be strong on his behalf, which means you must be close and tuned in to what’s happening with him. As his will grows stronger, and he is able to control himself and his emotions more consistently, he will become more and more free to be 5 feet away, 10 feet away, eventually a room away from you, and you not worry that he’s going to fall into a puddle of uncontrollable emotions.

          Now if you really believe there are zero reasons at all that he begins thrashing around and screaming, you need to take him to the doctor and figure out what’s going on, medically.

          Otherwise, what I would do is this–

          (1) keep him super-duper close at all waking hours.
          (2) watch him like a hawk. figure out what warning signs/triggers there are (because there are almost certainly SOME signs; they may be subtle, but they are there)
          (3) be particularly poised to pounce when he starts to get frustrated with a toy, or a friend, or with his words, or whatever is frustrating to him,
          and (4) pounce and do not relent until he does. That can look like spanking, as you mention above, but actually, probably, with a child like this, it will look like physically holding him while saying firm words like, “no, NO. We DO NOT act this way. You are to control yourself and not act crazy.” until he is calm enough and relaxes his body. At which point, I’d turn him around, eye-to-eye and talk very firmly, “that is NOT ok. You are NOT to act that way. You must control yourself. WE do not scream like this (give example of how he was acting, even thrash around your arms and legs as he did to show him what he looks like); we control ourselves like this (give example of crying quietly or saying, “mama, help blocks?”).”

          What you are describing does not sound to me like it is beyond the point of no return. It is not an extreme personality issue, or something no mother has ever faced before.

          It sounds most like my two sons who have struggled with their words and understanding. They were not as verbal as my other children, and I could tell that their frustration amped up like 0-90 because they didn’t have words to express what they were saying. So I would give them the words they were looking for.

          For example, with the blocks example, they’re sitting next to me, and I notice they can’t get the blocks to fit together. I’m watching their posture start to change and can tell the fit is about to start. Instead, I say, “having trouble with the blocks? Let Mama help.” Now at this point, sometimes (depending on the child) they’ll answer a fussy “yes” or sometimes they’ll yell “no!” Either way, I correct the words they used and try to coach them into answer pleasantly. Either “yes, please” or “no, mama.” (in a pleasant voice).

          Usually, whether they answered yes or no, they will eventually relent and hold out the blocks to me, at which point, I help them with the blocks and we avert a tantrum. Essentially, at that point, I’m training them (on the front end) to ask for help and look to bigger, more capable people, when they hit frustrating moments, rather than throwing a fit.

          But this same basic example could happen in a variety of settings. The key though, is that they be close enough to you that you can pounce, and that you surprise them at the start of their tantrum with an immediate, strong correction. If not, you’re going to have to do the hold and outlast technique, which takes both strength and endurance, and then responsive teaching, rather than the proactive teaching I’m prescribing above.

          • Amber says:

            Okay I think I misunderstood you a little and I wasn’t clear and you misunderstood me a little. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. My son does have “triggers” in that there is a reason for his tantrums: he doesn’t get his way, I tell him no more snack, etc. What I meant was that his tantrums have no build up. As soon as something upsets him, within a matter of like 2 or 3 seconds, he’s on the floor thrashing/screaming. There’s no process of him starting to whine, fussing a little, getting more and more upset and THEN going into a tantrum. He skips all the whining and goes right for the grand finale. And even if I am fast enough to catch him in those milliseconds before he goes full throttle, the act of me confronting him not only doesn’t stop the tantrum before it gets worse, it actually makes him more upset.

            But I see what you’re saying about watching for the actual REASON why he goes nuts. I think I need to be more proactive about that. He will still probably go into a tantrum, but maybe the more I catch him as soon as it starts the more he’ll learn to calm down.

            My son is also behind on speech (we’re going to talk to his doctor about speech therapy at his next appointment). He can only say a few words and most of them aren’t “useful” words, so he can’t communicate what he wants most of the time. I think that is definitely contributing to his frustration.

            Thank you for answering my questions! I really enjoy your blog and it has been an encouragement and source of wisdom to me.

  7. Jess Connell says:

    Yup, I think I wasn’t clear on the triggers v. warning signs things. I think usually in almost all kids, there are both. But my first comment muddied the differences between the two and made for messy communication between you and I.

    Don’t lose heart about the speech thing. Out of our 5 boys that have past 2 years old, 2 of them have had quite delayed/muddled speech. One VERY much so. Both are introverts and both had higher levels of frustration and more emotionally out of control tantrums, and I think the two are often related. Not being able to communicate, or understand communication, is a frustrating thing.

    That’s why we have to keep going and not lose heart. Instead of thinking- “this isn’t working; this approach doesn’t work with him,” think of it more like the beginning stages of a 6-12 month process of teaching him to control himself and increasingly choose communication and understanding over his current approach of turning to emotional vomit. Each month should see improvement over the one before, and sometimes you don’t see it, and then all of a sudden you realize, “ah! Yay! We’re past that! He hasn’t thrown a fit all week.”

    All that to say, keep going! Don’t lose heart and don’t let him wear you down. If you don’t fight for him to learn self-control, no one else will do it for many many years. (A school teacher might, if he goes to school. I’ve seen that happen.)

    The other thing is, in a couple months, as his communication continues to multiply exponentially, you’ll start proactively teaching him, before the disappointment. “When mommy says it’s time to go, you are to say, “okay mommy” without crying or stomping or fussing. Yes mama?” (etc.) You’ll start teaching him, in advance, how to control himself, which will also help him build self-control and ready himself for disappointments.

  8. Diana says:

    Hi, Jess! Just a note that I used your method with our son the other day. It took an hour and ten minutes for him to obey the “stand up, look at mama, stop crying” commands. But I stuck with it (instead of putting him in his room) because of what you’d written, and I was happy with the results. Now, to stick with it! :)

    • Jess Connell says:

      Great! Thank you for coming back to share that with me! Yes, the key, like outlasting our kids to eat their veggies, is consistent outlasting… so definitely stick with it! :) Keep going!

  9. Erin says:

    Hi! This is a great article and very different perspective from others I have read. I have a couple questions about implementing this: 1) My twins are 18 months and currently when they throw a tantrum I use crib isolation and say “mommy will come get you when you stop crying,” and it usually does work. However, I’d like to start implementing your method- but I’m wondering if they are too young? At what age do you think it’s appropriate to drop crib isolation and expect this of our toddlers? 2)also, I’ve read that when you talk to them during a tantrum, you’re giving them attention which is what they are hoping to get by doing it. If I start telling them to stop crying and just wait for them to do it, is that giving them too much attention for the tantrum?

    Thanks for your wisdom and perspective! I’m looking forward to trying this!

    • Jess Connell says:

      18 months is not too early to start training… but I would FIRST train with the word “no” on other things… “no no” (no touching the plug/socket)… “no no” (no hitting each other)… etc. We do this, at this age, with a few light slaps on the hand (primarily, for safety or rudeness toward others).

      (i.e., train them to consistently listen to you about no-no… BEFORE you use no-no as a response to an out-of-control tantrum situation.)

      Once they are responsive to (and obedient to me with) “no no” in other contexts, then I use it with tantrums. It’s more effective that way… especially at the times when (you can tell as a mom that) they are faking it… fake crying, fake coughing, fake pathetic faces, looking over to grandma to illicit sympathy, etc.

      When you see that, you can start helping them to change their faces by using “no no” and then coaching them (modeling with your face) what they ought to look like, vs. what they DO look like.

      This is going to get easier and easier, the closer they get to 2 years old.

      I’ll confess, 18 months to (roughly) 28 months is the time that (for me) is the most challenging, because I feel like I’m constantly having to work hard to discern… what EXACTLY is happening? What EXACTLY do they understand/not understand? Can I help them understand, or is this beyond what they can do now?
      Etc.

      And when I’m not sure they understand, I too use crib isolation.

      The thing I would say is, once you KNOW there is understanding, that’s when discipline of the will needs to start, for sure. Until then, you are testing and observing and discerning, what exactly DO they know? Are they able to control themselves in other contexts? Have I seen them stop crying when there’s something they understand/want/etc.? Can they control themselves sometimes? How can I teach that? Etc.

      As for your question #2– “when you talk to them during a tantrum, you’re giving them attention which is what they are hoping to get by doing it. If I start telling them to stop crying and just wait for them to do it, is that giving them too much attention for the tantrum?”

      No. This is not giving attention; it’s not “here sweetheart, let mommy help you control your big feelings.” These are quick statements. “Stop crying.” “Now look mama in the eye.” “Your face looks like this; make it look like this…” etc. It’s not a reward to them… you are spending all day with them, loving them, snuggling, playing, watching, interacting. This correction/rebuke will not feel like a reward, but — as it should– like a painful, firm rebuke from a loving mom who’s simply not going to put up with nonsense.

      Hope this helps. :)
      ~Jess

    • Jess Connell says:

      For further consideration, Erin, read this:

      DO YOUR KIDS RECOGNIZE YOUR AUTHORITY?
      http://jessconnell.com/do-your-kids-recognize-your-authority/

      It explains the thinking about why I would teach authority first (teach them to respond to “No-No” first) in other areas… BEFORE tackling it with an all-out tantrum. It’s the same basic principle as the horse/stream reasoning given in this article: http://jessconnell.com/do-your-kids-recognize-your-authority/

      Hope this helps.

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