How to Turn a Temper Tantrum Into a Teachable Moment
Temper tantrums. Meltdowns. Angry outbursts.
Whatever you call it, when your kid throws a temper tantrum – whether they’re a toddler or a teenager – it’s absolutely zero fun.
And when the dust settles, my first instinct is to put it behind me and pretend it never happened.
But when I don’t circle back with my kid after a tantrum, I’m missing out on a huge opportunity for a teachable moment.
Let’s suppose my husband and I acted like that with each other.
Maybe I forgot to run the dishwasher before bedtime, and now it’s the next morning and he realizes my mistake. Oatmeal is kinda hard to make without a clean bowl, and he’s already running late. He might lose his temper, raise his voice, and stomp off to the shower without eating breakfast.
It doesn’t take a marriage counselor to know that if we never spoke of the incident again – if we just pretended it didn’t happen – that wouldn’t make for a healthy, long-lasting relationship.
And yet, I find myself wanting to just shove my kids’ temper tantrums under the rug and move on.
Unfortunately for me, that’s not a wise parenting move.
Why a Temper Tantrum Ain’t Over When It’s Over
When kids learn how to deal with conflict in a positive way, research shows that kids’ confidence and self-esteem increase, they become creative problem-solvers, and they have stronger friendships. Just like in a healthy marriage, an important part of kids dealing with conflict in a positive way is waiting until everyone is calm and then talking about what happened.
And all this leads to happier kids.
But let’s say you’re ready to revisit the cause of the tantrum, but your kid isn’t.
Instead of calmly resolving a disagreement, she runs away and pouts.
What do you do when you’re ready to lecture her about what went wrong, and she flat-out refuses to talk about what happened?
An Embarrassing Memory
One night this week, I was flipping through my journal where I record the cute things our kids say and do. The entries are short, and my handwriting messy.
For example, here’s an entry from the beginning of last summer about a conversation between me and our then 6-year-old Abby:
Me: “What do you wanna learn about this summer? Dinosaurs? Outer space?”
Abby: “Yeah!” Pause. “What’s history?”
But as I was flipping through and chuckling to myself, I came across an entry that was a couple pages long. So I stopped to read it.
And I was reminded of one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done as a parent. Here’s what happened.
One weekend afternoon a few months ago, we took the kids out for ice cream.
We had SUCH a good time that from there, we decided to take them to the toy store and let them pick out a new jigsaw puzzle. Just because.
Only we didn’t tell them we were going in to pick out a puzzle. We just drove there.
When we got out of the car in the toy store parking lot, Abby’s eyes got wide. (Our toddler Bailey was oblivious.)
We walked into the toy store and let Abby run off to explore, and Ty and I walked over to the puzzle area with Bailey on my hip.
A couple minutes later, Abby came running up to us with some plastic monstrosity designed for two-year-olds. “Mommy! Can I have this?”
“No,” I said. “That’s for kids Bailey’s age.”
She hung her head and walked away.
Then after another couple minutes, she was back with another toy. “I want this! Can we get it?”
I was staring at a puzzle of Positano, Italy, and daydreaming of Mediterranean beaches and gelato and wine.
“No,” I snapped. “We’re just getting a puzzle.”
Which would be the first time we explained to Abby our intentions in coming to the toy store.
She kept picking out toys, I kept saying no, and she got increasingly frustrated and upset until it happened.
A full-blown temper tantrum.
But That Wasn’t the Hard Part
Abby was beyond reason.
Crying. Stomping her feet. Whining.
Extracting her from the store squeezed every last drop of patience out of this mama.
She cried most of the way home, but the further we got from the store, the calmer she got.
Within 30 minutes of getting home, she was back to her regular, happy self.
We played LEGOs for a while and had dinner, then it was time for bed.
With her pajamas on and teeth brushed, Abby jumped into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. I sat down in the chair next to her bed.
“So,” I said. And I hesitated. I was bone tired, and she was calm and ready for bed. I still had a toddler to coax into sleep after I was done with Abby’s bedtime.
But I took a deep breath and kept going.
“We need to talk about what happened at the toy store today. Do you want to talk about it now, or after bedtime story?”
“Now,” she said, frowning.
She pulled the covers up over her head.
Oh boy, I thought.
“Can I hold your hand while we talk about it?” I asked.
“Can I hold your foot?”
“Can I hold your nose?”
The tiniest hint of a giggle. “No.”
“What can I hold?”
“You can hold one finger,” she said. And she peeked out from the covers and offered me an index finger, which I grabbed onto.
“I know you don’t want to talk about this,” I said. And then I stopped.
Exactly how was I going to convince her to talk about a tough subject? An image flashed through my mind of an adult Abby having a disagreement with her boyfriend about who should walk the dog in the rain – and Abby running off to hide under the covers.
Then I had an idea. “Here’s the thing, Abby. When something happens like what happened at the toy store, it gives you a little boo-boo on your heart. And me too.”
Her eyes got wide.
“And when you get a boo-boo – any kind of boo-boo – you have to clean it out so it doesn’t get infected and swollen and itchy and red and puffy,” I said. “But…is it fun to clean out a boo-boo?”
“No,” she said.
“Right. Cleaning it out is the hard part and it’s no fun, but you have to do that before you can put a band-aid on it so it can heal.”
I leaned closer to her and lowered my voice to just above a whisper. “Do you know the way you clean out a heart boo-boo?”
She shook her head.
“By talking about what happened.” I leaned back again. “Why don’t you go pick out some band-aids for us and come back, and we’ll clean out the boo-boos.”
“For real?” she asked.
“Yes, for real.”
She got up out of bed, disappeared into her bathroom, and came back with two unicorn band-aids†.
Did It Work?
After Abby climbed back into bed, I reached for her index finger again. “I’m sorry for not explaining to you why we were going to the toy store. We were there to pick out a new puzzle, and that’s it. But I didn’t tell you that before we got there, and I should have.”
She stared at me.
“Is there anything you’re sorry for?” I asked.
“Anything you wish you hadn’t done?”
“I don’t know.” She looked down. “Did I do anything bad?”
“Well…” I hesitated, scared to set off a pouting episode. “When you stomped your feet and talked to me in that tone, it felt like you didn’t respect me.”
She ducked her head down. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Sorry for what, hon?”
“Sorry for stomping my feet and talking cranky.”
Not the most heartfelt apology, but it was better than her hiding under the covers again.
We came up with a plan for how to handle going into a toy store. Before we walk in, we’ll talk about what we’re there to buy.
If she sees something really cool, she can ask me to add it to her wish list, which I keep in Evernote on my phone.
We talked – not for the first time – about how we can’t get everything that looks cool because we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for our house and food and car.
When we were all talked out, I said: “Is your heart boo-boo clean?”
She closed her eyes tight, then opened them again. “Yes, I think so.”
“Are you sure? Is there any dirt or anything left in it?”
She giggled. “No.” Then, quietly: “Is your heart boo-boo clean too?”
I smiled. “Yes, it is. Are you ready to put the band-aids on?”
We each opened a band-aid.
I reached over and put a band-aid over her heart, on top of her pajamas.
She reached up and put a band-aid over my heart, on top of my shirt. As it turns out, my heart is pretty close to my shoulder. Who knew?
Abby sealed my band-aid with a kiss. So I did the same.
5 Steps to Turn a Temper Tantrum Into a Teachable Moment
Since that conversation months ago, we’ve referred back to the concept of “heart boo-boos” on at least a weekly basis. The metaphor helped Abby understand why it’s important to talk about arguments or tantrums, even if it’s a tough conversation to have.
If you’d like to use the concept of heart boo-boos with your kid, please let me know how it goes! Just keep these principles in mind to increase your chance of success.
Make sure you and your child are both calm before trying to talk about what happened. You can’t reason with a child in the middle of an emotional upheaval. Her brain just won’t compute what you’re trying to say.
And the same goes for you. When stress hormones are flooding your system, you’re not ready to have a calm, logical talk. Try taking some deep belly breaths together before you start the conversation.
Any loving touch will trigger the release of the hormone oxytocin, which helps bring the body into a calm, relaxed state. You could give your kid a hug, rub their shoulder, or hold hands – or even index fingers, apparently. Anything to show that you still love him, even though you experienced conflict.
3. Be Playful
You can diffuse a lot of tension with humor or acting silly. For example, when Abby resisted holding my hand, I asked if I could hold her foot or her nose. Not super creative, but it got the job done. You can tickle your child (if they like that), make a funny face, or turn on music and have a family dance party. Whatever works for your child and your family.
This conversation isn’t a time for you to unload a lecture. It needs to be a two-way conversation, which means you should listen to your child’s feelings, too.
You can prompt your child to start talking with a question like, “How did you feel about what happened?” Then reflect back what your child says to show her you empathize with her feelings.
5. Stay Neutral
If you start off the conversation by calling your kid names like a “brat” or “whiny,” your child will likely shut right down. I love these tips from Dr. Laura Markham.
- Use “I” statements to describe your feelings. Example: “When you talked in that tone, I felt like you didn’t respect me.” instead of “You’re so disrespectful.”
- Describe the facts of the situation and avoid making judgments. Example: “You stomped your feet, crossed your arms, and yelled.” instead of “You acted like a total brat.”
- Share information instead of making accusations. Example: “I saw the iPad on the kitchen counter, after we said no more iPad today.” instead of “Did you use the iPad when I told you not to?”
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
Check out How to Handle Your Kid’s Temper Tantrums Like a Ninja Mom for more tricks to survive temper tantrums.
How do you circle back after a temper tantrum to create a teachable moment? Share your tip in a comment below!
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
Thank you for this post. I always try to reconnect with my daughter, but now I will start using the “cleaning out the bad stuff” line! She will love the whole concept of using bandaids!
This is a beautiful post and hits on the importance of helping resolve the underlying issue and helping to prevent future tantrums. I’m a child therapist and I’d love to incorporate this into my practice. Thank you.
Thank you for your article on heart boo boos. After a particularly terrible day of tantrums (Seriously, I cant pick what is going to be next) my daughter, nearly 3, and i have big heart booboos today, mine bigger! I don’t know how i found your site, but it is totally speaking to me and i love this analogy of the heart boo boos. I always struggle to explain to my children in a way they can understand and i will definitely be doing this after the next tantrum. So thank you, I just subscribed!
Such a great post!
Never give your child what they always want to cut off their bad habit,
Wow! What a powerful post. I’ll be using this approach with my children from now on.
A great post and thank you it does help especially as we are going through the temper tantrums quite a lot recently. We have started acknowledging feelings but this will now be the next step up so will definitely use your ideas. Thank you!
Hi Kelly, I know this post is a couple of years old, but I’m a mom of 4 also and still found myself Googling, “how to handle toddler tantrums” that landed me on your page. I read a couple of your posts but this post in particular helped put the calm back into view. I really appreciate your honesty and totally agree that parenting is hard. I don’t have a large group of mom-friends, but the ones that I do have, would never admit to the demanding nature of parenthood and how much it can wear you out sometimes. So it’s refreshing to finally read from another mom that offers clear, precise, and honest advice from your own personal experience. I commend you for being open and sharing your experiences and concrete advice. Now excuse me, I have to go read every post you’ve ever written.