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Health Information | 05/26/2022

Managing Tantrums in School-Aged Children

By  Emily Sammartino, LCSW
young boy yelling
Although tantrums are not uncommon for children under the age of three, they can be hard to witness and a challenge to handle. Once a child reaches elementary school, parents and caretakers may be concerned if tantrums continue.

In older children, tantrums can present in many ways, including difficulty adjusting to changes in expectations, extreme emotions in response to external stimuli, and the inability to handle frustrations without exploding. These unplanned outbursts of anger or frustration can be triggered as a response to anxiety or a child having trouble putting their feelings into words. Tantrums can include crying, screaming, hitting, throwing things, holding their breath, and kicking.

Difficulty With Self-Regulation

Tantrums in school-aged children typically indicate difficulty with self-regulation. Self-regulation is the capability to handle emotions and act appropriately in changing circumstances. The ability to self-regulate is twofold, coming from inherent personality traits and environmental factors. In other words, being naturally born with emotional sensitivity and being conditioned into it (e.g., through overly assisted soothing as a baby) equally contribute to self-regulation problems as the child grows older. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety can also increase a child’s vulnerability.

So you might ask, what can parents and caretakers do to help children self-regulate during tantrums?

Don't React in the Moment

Avoid acting out of frustration when a child is having a tantrum. Intense emotional responses serve to escalate an already dysregulated child. Their behavior may become more aggressive, either verbally or physically. Since one of the primary ways children learn is through imitation, they will repeat what they see and hear in the environment. In-the-moment behavior from parents and caretakers serves to model future actions expected from children.

Open interaction is more effective than yelling at one another from across the room. Respond with a calm, gentle tone and begin the conversation by acknowledging the child's feelings. If you don't know how they're feeling, ask with genuine curiosity. It is also vital to make eye contact and get face-to-face with them.

Create a Calm-Down Zone

Another important tool for self-regulation is a "calm-down zone," unique to each child. A calm-down zone is a dedicated space for safe de-escalating. Having a calm-down zone provides kids a comfortable, safe environment to process emotions and control impulses. It encourages children to communicate and express feelings, enhancing their relationship skills.

The physical space can be any area in the home or school with a little extra room. The zone should contain items aimed at helping a child relax and distract during a meltdown. Additionally, letting a child get creative with their calm-down zone will help them make it their own. You can encourage them to make a fort, hang posters, add comfy pillows and blankets, or decorate it with a bean bag chair. The more they like it, the more likely they will use it.

Some ideas for items to have in your child’s calm-down corner include:
  • Coloring books
  • Fidget gadgets
  • Bouncy balls
  • Calming music
  • Stuffed animals

Encourage a Break

A break is a short amount of time spent away from a stressful situation. Taking a break allows distraction, provides space to think, and often causes a change in emotion. As adults, we understand the need to remove ourselves from a heated situation to gain emotional clarity. Kids need to be taught and reminded of this skill. Therefore, during tantrums and other similar emotional meltdowns, it is helpful to encourage a child to step away and spend a few minutes mindfully engaging in another activity.

The break can be any safe activity the child enjoys. Some examples include:
  • Reading a book
  • Coloring a picture
  • Movement: Running, walking, jumping jacks, bear crawls
  • Drinking water
  • Listening to music
  • GoNoodle® is a free, web-based platform that provides active screen time for children. The site includes over 300+ videos, activities, and games that get kids up and moving in an engaging, safe way. Using this tool is a great way to have kids exert physical energy during tense times.
Having a family discussion of what taking a break means and looks like is helpful to set children up to use this skill successfully. Including personal examples of how you take a break as an adult is also beneficial. For example, describe how you call a friend after a challenging day at work or how you exercise when you’re angry.

You can ensure children understand how to take a break by practicing the skill when they are not actively having a tantrum. Scaffolding a child through the practice with gentle instructions or reminders can assist in building mastery. Also, it is helpful to provide praise throughout the break to boost confidence and encourage children to repeat the behavior.

Practice Emotional Self-Reflection

Parents and caretakers must facilitate open conversations about emotions with children. These conversations should happen daily and in response to tantrums.

After a tantrum, it is essential to reflect on what happened with a child. Having a conversation allows children to communicate and process their feelings in a supported way. During this time, parents and caretakers should provide feedback to children on their tantrum behavior in a non-judgmental way. The input should inform the child of a more appropriate way to handle themselves in the future. Providing clear examples will make it easier for a child to understand future behavior expectations.

As adults, we should be mindful of our emotions, especially when around children. Acknowledging their existence and opening up a conversation about it can go a long way for children who are still learning to self-regulate. For instance, if you feel anger at being cut off while driving, tell your child about it. Then, after acknowledgment, provide an example of how you will calm yourself down and feel better. This process provides a model of appropriate self-regulatory behavior for a child.

An important point to keep in mind is that just because your child has tantrums, it doesn’t mean you’re a terrible parent. If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, talk with your pediatrician. Most tantrums are a normal part of growing up and will pass, but your pediatrician can help you determine if your child’s behavior warrants additional attention.

About The Author

Emily Sammartino, LCSW

Emily Sammartino, LCSW, joined Atrius Health in 2021 and practices at our Chelmsford office. Her clinical interests include children and adolescents, trauma, and personality disorders. Emily currently helps run a teen trauma group at Atrius Health and sees clients individually. She has received training and is well-versed in cognitive processing therapy and trauma-focused behavioral therapy. Emily is a graduate of Boston College School of Social Work with a concentration in trauma and clinical mental health. Before joining Atrius Health, Emily worked at The Boston Center, a partial hospital program for children and adolescents, and in the Waltham Public Schools. In both settings, she delivered evidence-based groups and held an individual case-load of at-risk youth.

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