First Friday Q&A — Tantrums: Emotional Regulation or Pure Manipulation?

A great question came up on my Facebook page (if you’re not following me yet, you can start that here).  It was essentially this:

How do you recognize the difference between when a child is ‘acting out’ and when a child has lost complete control of his emotions and can’t self regulate their actions, and how do you navigate them in both cases?

Here’s what I had to say:

(Video can also be viewed on YouTube here.)

I hate to use the phrase “it doesn’t matter”.  Details always matter to the overanalyzers like myself.  But for the most part, it doesn’t matter if your child is having a tantrum because his emotions are on overload or because he’s using the tantrum as an intentional tool.  In both cases, there are skills that need to be developed.  You want to help him calm down, label and validate emotions, teach improved skills, and monitor to make sure you aren’t reinforcing the tantrum with a payoff.

So here are my tips:

Find Calm

Often that means removing the child from the situation and reducing stimulation.  For some children it means more physical proximity — hugging/holding/etc.  For others it means giving them space.

Validate and Label Emotions

Even if you think your child is having a tantrum by choice, there are still valid feelings at play.  “I know you’re disappointed…..”, “I can tell you’re angry about…”

Teach New Skills

In both situations (intentional/unintentional) , the child is showing that he needs communication skills.  Regardless of the motivation or spark, this child needs to learn new tools for healthy expression.  Coach him through the process and give him some practice, once he’s in a calm state of mind.

Watch Out for Reinforcements

Find out what the payoff is for the tantrum.  Does he get what he wants by using this tool?  Then he’s more likely to keep using it!  Watch for less obvious payoffs to make certain that communicating effectively becomes his new favorite tool!


Hours after recording, I came across this excerpt from Twin Coach, Gina Osher’s interview of Ross W. Greene PhD for the Mother Co (The full post is a great resource and can be found here: Parenting Children with Explosive Temperaments):

“We all want what we want. Kids who are not behaviorally challenging can get what they want in an adaptive fashion. But not all children have those skills, thus they try to get what they want in maladaptive ways. As a parent, assuming your child is not using their skills on purpose is a losing place to operate from. But if you assume a child doesn’t have the skills to get what they need in an appropriate way, you are never going to go wrong.”

It sums up much more precisely what I was getting at.  Whether you think your child is having a tantrum by choice or because he’s lost control, it doesn’t really matter much.  In the end he’s not using the right skills – he’s not communicating in a socially acceptable way.  Lobbing accusations about his sincerity won’t help much.  Giving him the tools he needs will.

Great question!  Keep them coming via email ( or through Facebook.

Other good news: My Ecourse, Parenting with Positive Guidance, is open!  Learn about what Positive Guidance is and isn’t, and fill your toolbox with the same tools the experts use.  (Don’t forget to use the TEAM discount to get the registration for two of you for LESS than the cost of one! )  Get more info here!





Filed under Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Uncategorized

15 Responses to First Friday Q&A — Tantrums: Emotional Regulation or Pure Manipulation?

  1. Amanda

    Thank you for your post! It couldn’t have come at a better time for our family as I have a 22 month old who has recently started throwing aggressive tantrums. I do have a question for you. Do you have any recommendations for young toddlers who attempt responding with a correct behavior (asking politely for more time at the park) but it’s simply something they can no longer have (or ever have). They’ve replaced the initial behavior with an appropriate one, but have trouble accepting a disappointing outcome. Over time is this where the opportunity to cool down and lack of tantrum reinforcer start paying off? My son has gotten to where he will politely ask for something, label his own emotion, but still responds with a fiery (screaming “I am mad!” while kicking/throwing body backwards/etc.)

    • notjustcute

      That’s tricky, Amanda. With my own boys, I often do as you do, encourage them to ask more appropriately before they can have what they want. I make it clear that I can’t give them what they want in response to them throwing a fit. For my younger boys, if they can self-correct and try again, then they usually can have what they need. With my older boys, they know they’ll have to wait longer — try again tomorrow, etc.

      Now, as you’ve mentioned, if what they want isn’t possible, it’s hard to reinforce the positive correction. It sounds like he’s quite verbal, it may help to commend him for asking so nicely and validate his disappointment, truly showing empathy, and then problem solve with him. (Oh, you asked so nicely, and it would be fun to have a sucker right now, but we don’t have any. Bummer! What could we have instead? I have X and X, do one of those sound good?) It may be however, that he does just need that cooling off period first. Find a spot where you can stay with him and let him be angry for a moment. Let him know he can be angry and express it, but that you can’t really help until he’s calm. (I know you’re angry. I’ll sit here and when you’re calm, we’ll figure out what we can do. — Then when he’s calm talk through the alternatives — We can’t watch that movie because it has things in it that are not good for you, and I love you too much to let you get hurt by that. Can you think of a different show/activity? –If nothing, suggest choices — I thought it could be fun to build with legos. Do you want to do that?)

      Your son is kind of at that prime age for tantrums. As long as you support him — help him calm down, give him new tools, and avoid giving him the payoff for the tantrum — you will very likely see an improvement as time goes on. Often in parenting, when we’re doing the “right thing” we still don’t see immediate results, because we can’t rush kids through the learning process. It will take time and experience, but if we’re giving the proper support we’ll be on the right track.

      Good luck!

      • Amanda

        I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to my question! The examples you gave (along with the words to use) were incredibly helpful. I am new to your blog and have greatly enjoyed reading all of the wonderful information you provide! Thanks again!

    • Phoebe

      I find it helpful to leave space for my son to request more time at the park. A few minutes before we need to leave, I tell him, “We need to go home. Are you ready to leave now or would you like to leave in a few more minutes?” That way, he can successfully ask for more time and I’ll be able to say yes to him.

      • notjustcute

        I’ve used the same tool, Phoebe. It works so well! They almost always choose the later time (though they surprise me now and then) but they’re much more compliant when they know the choice was theirs.

  2. I like this advice! I have a question about validating the emotion … what is the psychological importance of that? Connection, shared viewpoint? I’ve seen that advised quite a few times now and it seems “good” but not sure the purpose of that as a specific point. I suppose I should look it up myself :)

    I wrote a piece on tantrums also, after seeing some horrid advice that would result in frustrated kids, worse tantrums in the future or increased manipulative behavior. Did a couple of case studies. Really glad to see you point out the reinforcement side. And I like how you end on teaching new skills instead of just “calming” or “ignoring”.

    When I see tantrums, a lot of times someone is not being “fair” in the eyes of the child … especially parents

    • notjustcute

      I loved your focus on teaching in your piece, Alex. It really is the missing part for many “solutions” out there. Like you said, usually kids throw tantrums because it’s just the best tool they can think of. So unless we give them a better tool, they’ll continue to use it.

      To answer your question about validating and labeling emotions, it serves several purposes.

      One is that it gives the child vocabulary they can use. I’ve said many times that often what we perceive as a failure to behave properly is really the failure to communicate properly. So when we talk them through what’s going on, we’re giving them tools to use in the future to communicate in an emotional situation.

      Secondly, many children calm down when they know they’re understood. It’s part of the connection and shared viewpoint you mentioned. It lets them know that you understand and want to understand. I’ve seen many tantrums exacerbated because the child felt that they weren’t being heard/understood/validated. When we jump right in and try to tell them why they’re wrong, why they should just STOP, or why they should see things our way, it’s too much of an abrupt move. When we slow down and connect, then it’s much easier to work together from the same side, rather than butting heads.

      It also makes sure we’re on the same page. If I say, “I know you’re upset because you didn’t get to go with Grandpa” and my son replies, “No I’m not! I’m mad because the baby just ruined my Lego set!” (random example!) then I can recognize what’s actually going on at the root of it and problem solve from there, rather than just trying to put a bandaid on it to make it “stop”.

      I hope that answers your question, Alex. Thank you for being so thoughtful!

  3. Giulia

    Thank you for the post, it is very useful.
    However, where can I find the strengths to resist giving my daughter (2 yrs and half) what she wants after she has been crying for one hour or more? I guess I am reinforcing her behavior, and now that I realise it, I may find the necessary strength… But, really: she just stands in front of me crying and crying.
    She has great communication skills, but I think she is not able at all to work out the different emotions. I will try with some book and photo and game.
    I know that the best would be to avoid tantrums, and really I will put all my efforts in this. But what shall I do when she has one? Most of her tantrums are manipulative … I now know that … but still: should I ignore her? Bring her in her room (but she would run back to wherever I am crying and yelling)?
    It is all more difficult because her father and I do not agree on how to handle her tantrums. But maybe his more authoritative approach is better? He takes her in her room and tells her to stop crying and calm down; only when she settles down she is allowed to come back to me …

    • notjustcute

      Tantrums are hard. They’re emotionally draining both for the child and the parent. You’re right that tantrums can be avoided by being proactive — keeping them from getting too hungry, too tired, overstimulated, or rushed. But we do want to be sure we don’t avoid them by giving in right away.

      Tantrums are also very individual. Different children respond to different things depending on their personalities/temperaments, triggers, relationships, etc.

      Ignoring is tricky. You don’t want to send an “emotionally unavailable” message. But it’s also OK to say, “It’s hard for me to talk with you when you’re yelling at me. I’m going to be over here. I would love to talk to you when you can speak with a kind voice.” Essentially giving a message that you want to be with them, but that they need to work within the boundaries. Make yourself available for them to come to you when they’re ready. It’s better than cold-shoulder ignoring but does the job of reinforcing boundaries and avoiding an attention payoff. It works for some. Others need more coaching and support before they can get control and that usually requires presence. Sometimes I’ll literally ask them if they would like me to stay or go. (You need to get control, would you like me to help you/hold you or do you need more space?)

      Your arrangement with your husband could work as long as it’s presented in the right way. If your child is removed from a volatile situation, that helps her to calm down. However, it’s important to validate her emotions (I know you’re angry…) and give her time and space for expression (It’s OK to be upset and to cry…) but to set boundaries too (…but I won’t let you scream at your mother that way. You and I can go back downstairs when you’re ready to speak to her with a kind voice.) You can do something similar. If you take her to her room though, I find it often works better to stay with her, or if she doesn’t want you there- or you don’t feel you can be there in the right mindset- tell her you’re stepping just outside the door and you’d like to talk to her when she’s calm. Leave the door open and be where she can see you, return to her if she needs you, but keep the boundary that she needs to be calm before the two of you leave the room. Some kids need to blow off that steam and do it in an appropriate place/way.

      Comforting a crying child isn’t something I consider a payoff. Some children calm down immensely with just a hug and a snuggle (others will need their space). Go ahead and hold her when she cries and talk her through the emotion. Label what’s going on and let her know how she can handle it. If she needs to ask appropriately for something, give her the words and let her practice before getting what she wanted.

      I hope this is helpful — Please let me know if you have more questions!

    • Rachel Young

      I think you should comfort your daughter when she cries. It’s the compassionate thing to do. It will make her feel better. You are not teaching her that “crying works”, you are teaching her that compassion works.

  4. Like Amanda, your timing was impeccable for me, too. My 3yo just threw a monster of a tantrum at his pediatrician’s office while his baby sister was having a follow-up exam. For as much as I feel I have a working technique for tantrums at home, tantrums in public are what get me every time.

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  6. Rachel Young

    Hey, I found your website from a link list on Simple Kids. I’m not one of your regular readers, but I thought I’d weigh in.

    I don’t think kids intentionally lose their tempers on purpose as a “manipulative tool” in order to get what they want. I think they lose their tempers for the same reason that adults lose their tempers: they’re frustrated and overwhelmed. You may know adults with short fuses, but have you ever known someone who would agree with the statement: “I enjoy losing my temper”? I haven’t. Whether you’re 2 or 32, losing your temper is a really unpleasant experience.

    I think we get so sucked into worrying about inadvertently “reinforcing” the tantrum, that we don’t really consider the possibility that our kid has a point. Often there’s a reason there, but a small kid can’t articulate it well. As an example, the kid who throws a tantrum because you gave him green pajamas when he wanted blue isn’t really concerned about the color of pajamas. He’s frustrated with his lack of responsibility. He thinks he’s old enough to be responsible for opening the dresser drawer and getting his pajamas out. And he’s probably right.

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  8. Lela Moore

    I found your answer very helpful but I have another question. My son is also 2 1/2 and has recently began tantrums. He wants what he wants but sometimes it’s not appropriate. My son is a snacker especially at night. The other night he wanted a sugary snack but it was late and it was almost bed time. I told him it was almost bedtime and that he could not have anymore food…so began the meltdown. The worst tantrum yet. For 30 min he screamed and cried. When he is in a tantrum I can not find anything to work. Give him space he wants mommy. Give him mommy and he just cries. If I try to talk to him he gets more upset. When he calms down and asks again I offer him a healthier choice but the tantrum starts all over. Honestly after almost an hour I just gave in. By this time it was 10:30 pm and way past bedtime. He ate the unhealthy snack and went to sleep a few minutes later happy as can be. My husband kept tell me to just give it to him and my thought was that he will continue to throw tantrums if we keep giving in. Again he wants what he wants and he will not settle for anything else and I do not feel like it is necessary for him to be so upset for so long. In the end I’m just like whatever I’ll just give him a little. I usually ask him to talk in a big boy voice and that I can not understand him when he cries but even when he doesn’t this he still can not have what he wants. I am not sure how to handle this without giving in.

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