When your little one's in the throes of a serious tantrum, bringing them back down isn't always easy. And the worst part is that sometimes (despite our best intentions), our attempts to deescalate the situation only throw fuel in the fire.
"Tantrums generally occur for a few different reasons, and usually between the ages of 2 and 5," says Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, who works with children and families at The Center for Well-Being.
According to Mihalas, understanding why a tantrum is happening is key to putting it out. For example, if your child is kicking and screaming for your attention—and then you give it to them by soothing and consoling them—you've just taught them to use negative behavior to get what they want.
"If the child has been reinforced for negative behavior that worked in the past, they implicitly learned that tantruming gets them what they need," says Mihalas.
Other common tantrum triggers include being overwhelmed by too much stimuli, feeling frustrated by lack of language, or wanting to escape a demand you've put on them.
Regardless of the cause, Mihalas says there are a handful of things you should never do during a tantrum.
DON'T MAKE THREATS
Ever catch yourself threatening your child during a tantrum? (My go-to is saying that I'll take away dessert if behavior doesn't improve.) According to Mihalas, this is actually a big-time mistake.
"They may really not have the skills to come out of the tantrum," she says. "Self-soothing is actually a skill that is acquired, and it often needs to be taught to children."
In other words, simply telling them to calm down can be way easier said than done for some kids. Demanding that they chill out may actually end up putting more stress on the child and, in turn, escalating the tantrum.
DON'T REMOVE THEM FROM THE SITUATION
If at all possible, try not to remove the child from whatever the situation is. For example, if telling your little one that you're going to the library triggers a monster tantrum, don't modify your plans to accommodate the behavior.
"Unless you really can't, follow through with going to the library," says Mihalas. "If you don't, it empowers the tantrum. Ride it out, and eventually it will subside. A lot of parents get into this fear-based place where they're afraid that the tantrum will never end."
DON'T CROWD THEM
Whether I'm with my own kids or babysitting nieces or nephews, my knee-jerk reaction to tantrums is usually to swoop in and console the screaming kid. (I'm a softy.) But Mihalas says that doing so often causes more harm than good.
"Try to give the child space; swooping in to soothe them and talk them down can actually backfire," she says.
This is especially true if the goal of the tantrum is to get your attention. If they're seeking your affection, don't give it to them while they're kicking and screaming. Instead, Mihalas says that backing off helps them learn how to self-soothe.
The truth is that there are no hard and fast rules for quelling problem behavior—every child and tantrum is unique. But mastering some of the basics might help you stop your kid's next tantrum in its tracks.