Tears and Tantrums

Tears and Tantrums

The Terrible Twos…and beyond

Is your easy going compliant toddler turning into a screaming landmine? Are you starting to dread any type of decision or change because it seems to set off a monster? Well…. you’re not alone. There simply comes a time as your child grows and develops that she discovers her will. She wants things, very passionately, right now! And it’s often just not possible to have them. To her, that biscuit/ snow/ toy/puddle/ extra time in the park is a matter of life or death! To you, it’s utterly trivial. Why won’t she see reason?

The Emotional Brain
We have all seen that when small children get overexcited or upset, they react in an immediate, extreme, almost animal way. The downside to this is that they will often lash out or scream their frustration without engaging their immature higher brain at all. A child doesn’t have the maturity and life experience to have a sense of perspective about what matters and what doesn’t. This comes gradually with time as their brains develop and build up a store of memories and experiences to compare. Until then, extreme overreactions to piddly little irritations are normal!

“She interrupted my dance!”

The upside to the immature brain is that they can easily be redirected, influenced and distracted if you catch them in time, and remember that your brain is more experienced, resourceful and mature than theirs. Once they have calmed down, the mood completely changes and spontaneous affection and relief often results.

What causes a tantrum?

In my experience, there are 3 main triggers for tantrums in young children.

These are…

1. Tiredness

2. Hunger

3. Frustration (e.g. a direct NO!)

Children don’t generally tend to have meltdowns at school – where they are in a strictly regulated formal environment with limited choices, everybody doing the same thing together, an ordered balance of stillness and active movement, and regular food intake at set times. They save their worst behaviour for home, where often, despite your best intentions to maintain a routine, life is not always so ordered. It is almost impossible to avoid meltdowns happening with under-fives at times; but for me, the trick is to stay on the ball constantly, monitoring the baseline functions. That sounds rather mechanical, but with small children, I have found these Big Three Triggers should always be borne in mind. So keep a close watch on:

  • Energy levels
  • Food intake
  • Sleep.

These things interact to keep the human brain working at an optimal level. If one of them slips out of balance, a meltdown can result in moments.


You may be one of the lucky ones whose child doesn’t do meltdowns and will happily play quietly all day, or charge around for 10 hours and wait for supper till 7pm, but with most children you need to watch them a bit more carefully. They have no clue how to manage their own energy. One child I looked after used to rampage about until she was completely run dry, then collapse, screaming. She couldn’t say to herself, “I’ve been tearing around for 3 hours now….getting a bit puffed out….time to sit down for a nice cuppa.” I had to do it for her ( and her siblings) by saying cheerfully, “OK everyone, it’s time to say bye bye to the park now”, and dragging them home for a rest and food. In time, it taught them to self-regulate and say “I’m hungry!” or “I’m tired” and take a break.
I found it often works best for the children I look after if I do something relatively high-energy in the mornings, followed by a couple of hours quiet time reading stories, doing something creative or looking through a Discovery Box (while the youngest has a nap), then some more low key activity in the afternoons. I try to wind them down after supper, unless the food intake has had the effect of causing a sudden burst of ‘borrowed energy’, in which case I have to wait for them to stop charging round the house like a herd of wildebeest and collapse in an exhausted heap in front of the TV.
Under the age of 5, if I let my high-energy children follow their urge to continue playing energetic games with their friends in the park for more than 3 hours, the invariable result was tears and meltdowns from exhaustion as we tried to leave. If I gathered them all up after an hour or two and had a picnic, they managed to keep it together quite happily. I visualised each child’s energy levels as a tank of petrol, and tried to keep an eye on how much was left. You really don’t want to run it dry before attempting the walk home!
Nobody is at their best when tired – think how irritable you feel after a night of broken sleep. The only remedy is rest.
Sometimes what works (and allows you to rest your brain a bit if you feel frazzled yourself from no sleep) is not organising anything, but just letting them roam around in the garden or play with Discovery Boxes, toys or playdough. Low-energy free play all day keeps them amused and helps them draw on their own resources, but doesn’t tire them – or you – out too much.


It can be a delicate balancing act, trying to ensure they’ll be tired enough to sleep at night without tiring them so much that you get 2 hours of screaming at bedtime, or, worse, suppertime – when they’re too tired to eat. (Isn’t it weird that a totally shattered small person has enough energy to scream for so long?)
As I monitor the energy levels left in that ‘petrol tank’, I make sure I do my best to keep them topped up with regular snacks and drinks. For under-fours it can make the difference between a happy outing and a diabolical nightmare! Hunger can make a child aggressive or fretful and lead to nasty meltdowns. I’ve learned NEVER to leave the house without my Everest Expedition bag of sandwiches, snacks, drinks, wipes, towel and spare clothes and nappies. A rest and a picnic can work wonders and buy you at least another hour or two if you’re having an extended outing. I’m a firm fan of picnics. They work especially well in a tent in the rain! (Tends to stop them running around the park while eating).

With under-fives I find a little snack around 10.30am and 3pm works best to keep them going. I try not to make it too big – a cup of water with a couple of breadsticks, a piece of fruit or a muesli bar is fine – or they won’t eat lunch or tea. Gradually after the age of five, I phase out the mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack as their stomachs can cope for longer (unless they’re having a growth spurt, which makes them hungrier). Of course, at school, that’s exactly what they do with Reception class, and at Nursery, with the morning and afternoon snack breaks.

All children are different, but all babies and most toddlers will need a sleep or two during the day. I’ve met many two year olds who won’t sleep properly at night unless they get a good couple of hours’ nap in the daytime. Most toddlers can keep going for 5 hours or so before dropping asleep, and you have to make sure their naps are carefully timed so bedtime will still happen. Sometimes this means draping the pushchair with blankets to make a portable bed, as on this occasion when I was attending a school sports day at naptime. Little brother slept peacefully parked up under a tree and missed all the action!

A child will virtually never tell you he needs a nap. He doesn’t want to miss anything or be separated from you. It’s up to you to spot the signs. When watching that little tank of petrol going down, I make a note of the time, irritability, clumsiness, frustration and easily-upsetness of the child to decide when to put him to bed for a nap. Achieving sleep is fairly simple with a tired child. Simply reduce or remove stimulation by giving them darkness, a quiet room, soothing music, a horizontal cuddle, a monotonous hypnotic story or lullaby… and a little time. You press all these buttons and usually, they will switch off. If they don’t, remove yourself; your presence may be keeping them awake! Very often, if they’ve had a busy morning, they drop off in the car on the way home. Some children will awaken being carried from car to bed, but I find it usually works if I very gently place them in bed and go, with minimum fuss, or if they pop wide awake, lie down and cuddle them for a few minutes.

Prevention is Best
Prevention and diversion works far, far better than trying to halt a raging tantrum, which will run its course whatever you do. At times I feel completely helpless in the face of a total meltdown. Sometimes you can chuck everything in the book at them and then you simply have to sigh and wait for them to grow out of this painful stage. But I’ve also learned a few useful tips along the way which I’d like to share with you.

Make it Easy
Water will always flow downhill. If you make it super easy for them to be good, set them up for success, then praise them, that can be very helpful. It can seem like a lot of effort, but it will really pay dividends in the long run. Explaing in advance what’s about to happen is a great help. “We’re going to the shops! You can help mummy choose the fruit. You’ll be my Special Helper.” Then guide them through the process of spotting apples, bananas etc and putting them in the trolley. If they spot sweets instead, just say lightly, ” Oh we don’t need those today. See, they’re not on our list.” Quickly change the subject by pointing out some exciting red apples. At the end, say “I really enjoyed shopping with you! I’m so glad I had your help.”


If you develop a consistent approach to their feelings, by listening, explaining, affirming and naming their emotions, keeping an eye on the situation, coming alongside with a good example, they simply won’t have any reason to fly off the handle. You’ll also be teaching them good self worth, coping strategies and social skills. “Does he want your digger? Oh I know, but we always SHARE. Everybody shares. He won’t hurt it, will you Tom? See, he just wants to look at it. Here, you can have my watch to play with, and can I borrow your teddy? Oh thank you. That was lovely. Now let’s swap back.”

Use Action, not Words
If they get themselves worked up about something, or accidentally hurt themselves (which they will do many times a day), remonstrations and explanations are useless. If they are upset, their brain is switched off. No amount of words will work, because they literally can’t hear or understand until they calm down. Direct physical action is needed. Before the scream turns into a tantrum, lead them by the hand or carry them away from the source of the upset to a more peaceful space (distraction is great – point out the bees on the flowers, or a squirrel in a tree).

Separate warring siblings; pick up and cuddle the one who is hurt, settle everybody with a story, or even switch on the TV to quell the chaos if everyone is too tired to function rationally and you need to get supper on the table asap!

Two Types of Tantrum

It can help you get a handle on the situation to remember there are two types of tantrum:

  • Distress
  • Rage

Distress Tantrums

In a nutshell, if there are real tears and incoherent anguish, she’s likely to need comfort; she hasn’t yet acquired a sense of perspective and needs help calming down. You can try holding or sitting beside her as she screams her frustration, pain or disappointment, stroking her back or head and telling her very simply that you understand and love her no matter what, then giving a warm cuddle as the screams die down to whimpers. But you still don’t have to give in to whatever caused the outburst. That way she knows she can’t crack the walls of security around her.

If it’s just a bid for power with yells of rage, kicking and balled fists, arguing or threats, the only option is totally ignoring it and moving away. In some ways this is the easiest type to deal with. You don’t have to do anything. The child is trying to force her will on you. Under no circumstances give in, or you’ll be teaching her to be a bully. She will make your life a total misery by doing it every time she wants something. If the rage tantrum receives no audience, trust me, it will have to cease. Even if pride dictates screaming until her throat bleeds; in which case once she is calm and hoarse, just mention to her lightly in a non-judgemental tone a few hours later that screaming does hurt the throat. She’ll learn in the end! 

If it’s just a rage tantrum, walk away and take a few minutes to breathe deeply to calm yourself before you get wound up too. You may not be able to control your child’s behaviour, but the situation will rapidly get much, much worse if you lose control of yourself. Meeting rage with a boundary wall of calm or refusing to be an audience is sometimes the only way to get the message across that “screaming doesn’t work”.

Divert to Prevent
If you can catch a tantrum before it erupts, you can sometimes use humour or words of kind understanding to redirect her attention and re-engage her rational mind or imagination. Sitting beside her, holding her hand or putting a supportive arm around and empathising can be surprisingly effective.

With a small child (2 to 3) just keeping your tone light and playful and distracting them is often sufficient.

With an older child, you can give perspective by stepping away from her problem: “I bet the squirrels don’t like having to collect all those nuts! But if they don’t, they’ll starve in the long cold winter. And I bet it’s really boring being stuffed into a cocoon for weeks and weeks! But how else can the caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Hey, you’ve got a caterpillar book, haven’t you? Why don’t we read it while I help you get dressed/brush your hair/”(whatever caused the upset).
I was hoping to get the older two to outgrow the screamy stage before the little one started to copy them. This did not happen. But I did manage to swiftly divert the two year old almost every time he tried to copy his sister and throw himself to the floor yelling with outrage or disappointment. As soon as he hit the ground, I acted surprised and simply said, “Oh, but the toy you want is over here! It’s not down there on the floor. If you’re down there, you can’t reach it!” Being a bright little boy, he realised somebody else would get it while he was busy screaming, stopped and got up immediately! Then I showed him better ways to get what he wanted.

The other thing I do to try and prevent tantrums is to tune into the small person’s head so I can see where they’re headed and what they’re thinking. Listening to their feelings, letting them feel heard, and letting them do whatever they are capable of by themselves, as long as it’s allowable and safe, is a big step towards reducing tantrum frequency. Giving limited choices that still get the job done (e.g what colour trousers to wear, walk or scoot to nursery etc) helps too.

Avoiding a direct NO
Avoiding head-on confrontations is another helpful thing I’ve learned. Sidestepping with a light tone and positive choice of words can make all the difference. Instead of “No, you can’t have a lollipop”, you can try saying with a laugh, “Oh, those taste disgusting! You’ll hate them!” or, “Oh, I wish I could have one too, but those are for the children who have had an injection at the doctor’s.” (Our chemist has now thankfully taken the lollies off the front counter.) Or, “Oooh yes, that IS a wonderful idea. let’s do it tomorrow!” Or, “Yes, you can have a biscuit after dinner.” Start singing. Sing about the biscuit and the joys of anticipation and then change the words to a song about dinner, to redirect her attention. Ask her to help you make dinner or help taste the dinner. Offer an aperitif (part of dinner, e.g. a bit of grated cheese) if you think hunger might be about to set off a meltdown.

Transmitting Peace While They Scream
If you find that despite all your best efforts they slip through the net and do lose it (which they sometimes will), the best thing you can do is stay calm while enveloping the upset child in a gentle hug. This may sound really hard when you feel totally helpless or they’re kicking you! But your mature nervous system actually has the ability to calm theirs down. They will always pick up on your emotions and mirror them back to you. If you’re stressed, they will be stressed. If you are relaxed, they will feel peace. When doing comforting, I try to breathe deeply and still my mind, visualising serenity and love pouring out of me into them while I murmur comforting noises or hum a lullaby. They literally cannot control themselves or stop themselves when they’re in full tantrum mode. But once the screams begin to lose intensity, your calm will filter through and do it for them.

Self-Calming Techniques
For you! We all get frazzled by screaming kids. You may not be able to stop them screaming, but you can decide what to do about you. If you’re calm, you’ve got a far better chance of calming the child.
If you feel yourself getting wound up, take a moment. Walk away if you have to. Shut your eyes and cup your hands over them. Breathe deeply and slowly. Count, a number for each breath. Or whisper a soothing phrase. “This…too…shall…pass.” Or visualise a windscreen wiper sweeping away the irritation. Once your heart rate has slowed down, go back and re-engage.
If you feel you want to teach these techniques to your child, wait until their brains are a lot more developed. Or you might like to try what accidentally worked for me once!
The six year old had a fall-out with her sister and cousin after a too-long morning at the park, and was unable to cope with the perceived ‘rejection’. Clasping her in a face-to-face bear hug as her screams of exhausted rage subsided into whimpers, I found myself saying to her, “As I hold you close, I can feel all the angry sadness in your heart. You feel all left out. But now… all the calmness and peace is flowing out from my heart to yours…. dissolving all that anger and sadness ….and making your heart feel safe and loved.” Not knowing if her brain had re-engaged or not. Using very simple, soothing words, I tried to convey to her the picture that had come into my head of a curving soft rainbow of coloured light washing over a jagged spiky explosion. She responded brilliantly to the imagery, a faraway look came into her eyes and she stopped crying and asked me to tell her the story.

Uncontrollable Meltdowns
I’ve been referring to a brilliant book called ‘The Science of Parenting’ lately, in a bid to understand what’s going on with tantrums. It’s all to do with brain chemistry. I’ve tried to explain some of it here. Find it in my Favourite Books, to the right of this page.
Some children are more laid-back than others; I do find the more highly-strung types are far more susceptible to tantrums. It can be incredibly frustrating when not only is your three year old kicking and screaming, but you can’t tell if it’s distress or rage, she won’t let you anywhere near her to calm her down and all your attempts just wind her up even further!

A Highly Strung Child

Some children are just born more sensitive than others. They need gentle handling. I have also witnessed children being made highly strung by living with an unpredictable, angry parent. Shouty parents get shouty children. Shouting at a child on a regular basis also alters their brain chemistry and eventually if the child gets frightened often enough, this can cause permanent changes in their brain. Any slight thing will set them off, possibly for the rest of their life!
I’m just the nanny. In moments of extreme meltdown, ONLY a parent will do. I don’t have any answers when a parent is not available to do the initial calm-down for a completely hysterical small child who just wants her mummy. All I can do is try my best to prevent the meltdown happening (see above).
So if you’re a parent reading this, you’ve got a head start!

About Cathy Owen

I have enjoyed working and playing with children for over 20 years, starting with a holiday job as mother's helper to two different families and babysitting for neighbours from the age of 17. My experience since then includes working with children from 3 months to 12 years, in schools, nurseries, toddler groups and homes, as a teacher assistant, play leader, special needs facilitator, after school and holiday club supervisor/planner, childminder, and currently as a private nanny and creative play specialist. My Discovery Boxes developed out of my observation and interaction with young children and a desire to enter and enrich their world. Children are our greatest teachers; their imagination has a magical quality that makes the world a more exciting and wondrous place. I love nothing better than to join them in this adventure that is life and see where we can journey together! To learn more about my way of working, see my posts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s