Dealing with Tantrums

By Brittany Carlson

When my oldest son, Adam*, turned 4, it was like someone had flipped a switch. It seemed like he argued with everything I asked him to do, questioned everything I said, and worst of all, started throwing temper tantrums when he didn’t want to do something, especially put on clothes or wash his hands. So, we started having these huge confrontations multiple times a day. He would start screaming and crying, throw himself on the floor, and even lash out at me.

My husband and I struggled to deal with this new behavior. We tried many different methods to encourage good behavior and discourage the tantrums: counting, taking away privileges, earning stickers on a chart.

But what I struggled with more than trying to teach my son was trying to control my own angry reactions. I knew I was losing my temper on my son, but I struggled to find a way through the daily power struggles and stay calm.

I realized that I wouldn’t be able to teach my son to manage his emotions if I couldn’t learn to manage my own.  

I received some clarity on this at a recent parenting group meeting I attended, where my mentor mom, Margie Harryman, spoke on this exact topic.

She encouraged moms to expect to deal with temper tantrums, sibling rivalry or other bad behavior, sort of like a “poopy diaper.”

“They slow you down, they’re at the most inconvenient time. I don’t know when they’re going to happen, but they will happen,” she said.

However, instead of getting mad at children when they are losing control, Harryman suggested first listening to them describe the problem.

“If you listen to them, it takes less time than if you don’t listen to them and try to make them shut up,” she said.

Harryman also advised moms to focus on showing kindness and compassion in dealing with these situations, especially since toddlers and preschoolers do need extra help in navigating the life skills we want them to master.

“Sometimes things are too hard for them. They don’t know how to speak to one another and they don’t know how to share. You are setting an example and you are training. Training takes a long time. Be gentle with yourself as well as your kids and train them,” she said.

Finally, she offered some tips on how to change a negative atmosphere at home to a more positive one, which I have been trying to implement in my home. These include:

-Counting blessings as a family. Whining and complaining children can benefit from learning to train their thoughts on things that are good, as can parents, Harryman said.

“Remind yourself of your blessings and your connections; these little 2-year-olds that can just make you see red, how you prayed for their lives and how bereft you would be if they were taken from you,” she said.

- Speak kindly and slowly. “Slowly is the key here,” she said. This includes being more flexible and being willing to stop during the day and deal with issues as they come up.

-Admit to being angry, calmly and out loud. This helps clue children in to how mom is feeling before an explosion happens, Harryman said.

-Give it some space. “Take a breath,” Harryman said. “When naptime or bedtime comes, sit down, write down, and then seek reconciliation at your soonest convenience.”

-Don’t take toddler on in argument. When it’s time to go, don’t enter into a discussion about why or when you have to leave with your child, Harryman said. Instead, offer to help them with their coat and shoes if they can’t or won’t put them on by themselves.

Finally, Harryman said moms should give themselves a healthy dose of grace in this period of life.

“We do get angry. It’s what we do with that anger that’s important,” Harryman said. “When you lose it, you need to confess it, you need to ask for forgiveness, and you need to forgive yourself as well."

*names changes for privacy


Brittany Carlson is a lifelong lover of words and all things chocolate. She is an Army wife and now has two sons, Adam (4) and James (18 months). She has written for several Army community newspapers, including the Stuttgart Citizen (Germany), Fort Leonard Wood Guidon (Missouri) and Fort Belvoir Eagle (Virginia). Brittany holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She and her family live in upstate NY. 

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