How to Handle Temper Tantrums

Unfortunately people don’t grow out of temper tantrums the way they do shoes or car seats. Here’s how to defuse a fit of rage, whether the person throwing it is 5 or 45.

Photo by Luke Pearson

If you have a child, you have at some point peeled his red-faced self off the floor of the baking aisle because you told him no, you’re not buying sprinkles for dinner. (Was he still wearing pants when you exited the store? Congratulations.) “Tantrums are common from ages one to four because kids become frustrated when they can’t get what they want,” says Robert G. Harrington, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas who specializes in child development, behavior management, and parent education. “Younger kids may also lack the language skills to voice that frustration.” Since a two-year-old doesn’t know how to tell you exactly where to stick that gummy worm you aren’t handing over, he loses it.

As we mature, we get (somewhat) better at articulating our needs and exercising self-control. But people of all ages still boil over—because our team lost the soccer game or we just want the %*#@! DVR to work after a long day. And believe it or not, the tactics that calm a screaming toddler can apply to everybody. Here’s the classic three-point plan for managing a meltdown, followed by specific strategies for every age.

1. Anticipate

We all have temper triggers. For a toddler, it may be getting dressed for preschool; for an adult, it may be talking about the credit-card bill after three glasses of wine. If you’re aware of the triggers, you may be able to avoid the tantrum. (Allow time for multiple Croc changes; put off the budget meeting until morning.) Also, remember the acronym HALT: Tantrums often happen because the thrower is hungry, agitated, lonely, or tired, says Harrington.

2. Wait

When someone is having a tantrum, don’t throw a tantrum yourself. It will only add fuel to the fire. “Don’t yell back in the middle of the outburst,” says Harrington. “Offer choices, get out of the situation, or just take a breath. Often it will pass.”

3. Validate

One reason people throw tantrums is that they want to be heard, says Susan Orenstein, a psychologist in Cary, North Carolina, who focuses on marriage and relationships. “They grow louder and more animated as a way to get attention and show you that this issue is important to them.” So let the tantrum thrower know you feel his pain. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. A simple “I understand you’re angry” will suffice. With kids, it’s also important to let them know that it’s OK to express emotion, but in an appropriate way. You might say to a toddler, “I understand that you’re frustrated that you can’t get the refrigerator open,” and then explain a better way to react: “If you would ask me to please help you, I’d love to.”