Let’s Talk Tantrums

By Polly Conner

I used to think that tantrums were a result of incompetent parenting. When I would hear those piercing toddler screams from three isles away at a store, my childless self declared that I would have control over my children unlike that mother who has lost all authority over her 3 year old.

Then I had a girl. A very passionate young girl. And then she turned two.


I realized I “knew” a lot more about parenting before I had kids than I do now. I was full of opinions and judgement before my little people. Now I am almost daily perplexed on what the right parenting move is.

We are in tantrum city, people. I recently found myself in the middle of the airport with a thrashing 2.5 year old on the ground getting the same looks from people that I once gave. I wanted to yell out “Don’t judge us until you’ve had your own!” That probably would have made us look more crazy then we already appeared but it would have made me feel better.

Or do I dare share about the 45 minute tantrum my little gal had a few nights ago? Yes, 45 minutes. Half of that time was when my 20-somethings small group was at my house too. It was lovely. I kid you not, at one point during it she was screaming, “I can’t calm down! I can’t calm down!!!!” It makes me chuckle a little now but in the moment it was anything but funny to me.

I don’t consider myself an angry person. In fact I’m an anger-supressing type of person. I’m not a yeller. I’m not a verbalized fighter.

Then I had a child. A very passionate young girl. And then she turned two.

I need help people. I had no idea so much sin lived in me or how much I would need God’s Word, wisdom and grace in parenting.

Lets be honest, I’m writing this post more for myself than for others. It helps me process and I also appreciate when people are REAL about their struggles and sin. So why not process my toddler troubles with thousands of moms?

Although there are times that I have no idea what to do with the toddler losing her mind due to a request not granted, I wanted to share some things that have actually helped me navigate these past few months. Some apply to me and my own heart issues and some are simply practical ideas on how to unwind a toddler.

Helpful Tips for When You Find Yourself in Tantrum City

 Start with yourself.

After a few rough days with my little gal I was at my wit’s end. In desperation I told myself I would get up before the kids and simply pray for my toddler. I wish I could say I did this more but to be honest, it was a last resort. I had nothing left. I’m sure God got me to this point on purpose because what I didn’t expect was for him to show me that a lot of the problem was with ME. Before I could even tackle my toddler’s sin issues, God wanted me to deal with my own issues of comparison, envy, bitterness and anger. After a few early mornings spent with the Lord I wish I could say my toddler’s behavior did a 180. It was a little better but what DID change was my heart towards her and towards God. I often forget that I am as much a child of God as my daughter is. He is using her to do his work in me.


Read this post on How to Deal with a Whiny Insolent Child.

One thing that has helped me is reading through this post that Rachel wrote a while back. It not only normalized my feelings but it gave me some practical tracks to run on. It’s for sure worth the read.

Articulate out loud what they are feeling and saying.

This seems silly at first but it really does work. I find that when I clearly articulate what my child is feeling or even saying, she is diffused a bit. Saying things like, “Are you mad because mommy said we can’t watch another show?” or “Are you angry because Tyler is playing with your toy?” really does help a toddler feel understood. It doesn’t always work but I can say from experience that it does often help navigate through strong emotions.

Don’t take it personally.

We shouldn’t be surprised by tantrums. Some kids for sure have more than others but they are a normal part of development for any child. On the BabyCenter website, I found this to be helpful in understanding why my toddler is thrashing on the floor:

Claire B. Kopp, professor of applied developmental psychology at California’s Claremont Graduate University, attributes much of the problem to uneven language skills. “Toddlers are beginning to understand a lot more of the words they hear, yet their ability to produce language is so limited,” she says. When your child can’t express how she feels or what she wants, frustration mounts.

This is probably why articulating what they are feeling works to effectively disarm a tantrum.


Every child is different so this isn’t a one size fits all solution. One thing that has worked well for my gal is to send her to her room or a place where no one else is and tell her to come out when she has calmed down. We found that her timeout spot in our kitchen wasn’t working- probably because she could see and hear us. We’ve found that when she can be in a safe place alone, she comes out quickly saying, “I’m happy now, Mommy!” The quick change in emotions is actually quite humorous.

Be consistent- someone has to give.

This was a great piece of advice that my friend Jen gave me. After what seemed like the 100th timeout of the day, I was beginning to run out of steam. Jen reminded me that if I remained consistent in discipline, someone would eventually give. It might take 50 times but eventually a toddler will obey.


“Calm. Fair. Firm.”

This was a great phrase that Rachel shared with me a while back. I often repeat it to myself when I feel “the Hulk” (as my husband likes to refer to it) coming out. It’s a helpful mantra that has kept me from saying or doing things that I regret. I actually wrote a blog post about what it looks like to live out this motto while parenting. In those heated moments, keep this phrase in your back pocket. I really does help.

Give them an alternative behavior.

So this is something that I have recently read about in a great book on discipline called, Don’t Make Me Count to Three. When your child has disobeyed or responded inappropriately, recreate the situation and have them respond in a correct manor. My daughter really responds well to this method. For example, after a timeout (or discipline of choice) for throwing herself to the floor when told it is time to go, I put her in the exact same spot and ask her to show me how she should have responded when I say it’s time to go. She (surprisingly) really enjoys doing this and getting the praise and affirmation of when responds in the correct way. I aim to end on a positive note after discipline and this is a great way to do that.

In all my disclaimers above you hopefully know by now that I am far from perfect and struggle every day in parenting. I just thought it would be helpful to share a few things that seem to be working for us in the present moment. Hopefully these are encouraging to you and can give you some helpful tips to use if you have a toddler, or todddler-to-be.



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4 replies
  1. Liz says:

    Love this Polly! And I totally agree with Devin. There have been many times where I think my kids have worked the self up so much they need help and tools to calm down. Whew, parenting is so hard. I was way smarter pre-kids too 😉

    • Devin says:

      Liz, I’m pretty sure that you were the first momma to talk to me about little girls being slightly emotional and sometimes needing help backing away from the edge :)! If only my pre-child self was around to take care of all these issues I knew the answers to then!

  2. Devin says:

    Such a great post, Polly! Our (almost) 18 month old son is just beginning his foray into the world of tantrums, and this was such a great reminder 1) that my child is NOT the only one going crazy and 2) of fantastic tactics that really do help “tame” the tantrum.

    When you mentioned your little one yelling, “I can’t calm down!” it reminded me of some wisdom passed on to me when our daughter was in this stage as well. She said that one of our often overlooked responsibilities as parents is to help our children learn to regulate their behavior…and a primary way we can do this is to teach them to calm themselves, because children don’t inherently know how to do so.

    She suggested that I watch for when our daughter was winding herself up and approaching what I like to call “the point of no return” or “when she loses her mind.” Before she gets to that point, to go to where I had sent her (because like your little girl, she was NOT allowed to “pitch a fit” in the presence of other people) and then either 1- ask her if she would needed help calming down or 2 – tell her that Momma was here to help her calm down. Then, I would either sit right in front of her, or pull her on my lap and talk her through taking deep breaths. Deep breathing helps the body to turn off the “fight or flight” response activated during a tantrum (http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever), and allows a child to come to a calm state more quickly. Once she had learned to “take a deep breath,” sometimes reminding her to do so was all that it took to break a tantrum, and there were times that she would come to me and ask for help calming down. For us, once we focused on “taming the tantrum” rather than letting it run it’s course, we noticed that they grew shorter and less frequent.

    We’ve started teaching our son to “take deep breaths,” and then we take one to show him how and much of the time he will imitate us. It’s helpful to start showing them when they aren’t upset, so that once they have learned how to do it, the response to your cue is more “muscle memory” than them “trying” to do it.

    Here’s a great article on strategies of teaching a child deep breathing techniques: https://www.realpsychsolutions.com/uploads/Young-Children-Deep-Breathing-Klipfel-rps.pdf

    Thanks again for all of the great advice! Right now, I’ll keep working on not taking it personally…because it feels so much so!

    • Polly says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Devin. I’ve tried the breathing thing once or twice with her but didn’t push it because she didn’t seem to respond to it. I’ll for sure give it another whirl though! Nobody likes a little one that’s lost control… haha!