The Fussy Baby Site

How Do I Deal With My Spirited Child’s Tantrums?

Spirited child having a tantrum

You’ve probably already figured out that parenting a spirited toddler or preschooler is MUCH different than parenting a more easygoing kid.

All those strategies that you see working with other kids (or that worked with YOUR other kids) just seem to make your child even more frustrated, upset or out of control.

This likely leaves you feeling hopeless, powerless and like a really crappy parent!

But as I’ve said before, “It’s them, not you.”

All those techniques you’re trying – the ones that aren’t working – may just not be a good fit for your child.

Which strategies don’t tend to work with spirited kids?

Take tantrums and meltdowns for example. If you work on the common belief that our toddlers or preschoolers are manipulating us, trying to get attention, or are just plain being “bad”, ignoring the tantrum makes sense. And for more easygoing kids, this strategy may actually work (did with my daughter, for instance).

However, for more intense and sensitive kids, they may get so incredibly wrapped up in their emotions that they spiral out of control. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, refers to this state as the “red zone”. If we don’t step in and help them calm down, their meltdown may just go on…and on…and on, until they stop simply because they have nothing left, physically or emotionally.

Some other examples of strategies that often don’t work with spirited toddlers and preschoolers, particularly in response to meltdowns include:

  • Time-outs: You may find your child just cries and screams when put in time out, rather than calming down.
  • Spanking: May teach a more sensitive child that her feelings are bad or wrong. Since these kids are often not developmentally able to manage their emotions (or their response to those emotions), this may leave them feeling even worse about themselves.
  • Consequences: While we often don’t mean to, many of us find ourselves actually turning consequences into threats (“If you don’t stop right now, there’s no snack for you.”) Again, while this may work with a more easygoing and flexible child, it’s likely to just catapult a spirited child directly into the red zone.

So, what’s a parent to do? Do we let our kids do whatever they want in order to avoid meltdowns? Do we just let them get away with stuff to maintain peace in our home?

While this can be tempting at times, this also isn’t the answer.

Spirited kids need structure, routine and to feel that you’re in control. In fact, the more they feel they’re in control (instead of you), the more insecure they actually feel.

They need us to set firm and clear boundaries, and then stick to them. That said, they also need us to be FLEXIBLE (I can’t say this strongly enough!).

I know these two statements seem to be contradictory, however they aren’t. But they do require us to be extra-smart and extra-creative in coming up with solutions that work for both parties.

“I’m tired of having to always be so flexible!”

Sometimes I’ve felt resentful that I have to put so much thought and effort into parenting a spirited child. I find myself thinking, “Why am I always the one who needs to bend?”.

But research shows how important it is to keep putting in the effort. According to one study, “difficult” infants are disproportionately affected by parenting and child care quality. In fact, this remains true until these kids are in mid to late childhood.

What does this mean? These kids need parents who are willing to go the extra mile. And when we do? This same research suggests these kids are actually more well-adjured than their peers by grade one. 

How do I deal with these intense meltdowns?

In terms of meltdowns (which I prefer to the word “tantrum”, as that implies manipulation), I find it’s vital to help move their focus away from their intense feelings, BEFORE you can deal with the root cause.

When a child is in the throes of a meltdown, logically explaining, “You’re being silly. You don’t need to freak out because your socks don’t match”, is highly unlikely to work. In fact, it’s more likely to make your child even more frustrated and upset; because now, not only do his socks not match, but his mom or dad doesn’t understand!

Some alternate strategies to try:

  • Tickling or using humor to move his focus off what’s upsetting him
  • Completely changing the topic with lots of enthusiasm (“Hey, guess what?! Did you know we’re going to the park this afternoon? What should we do there?”)
  • Staying with him and “pretending” you don’t notice the tantrum. Start doing another activity and get him engaged with it (“I’m just going to start playing with this playdo, if you’d like to join me.”)

Above all, remember that logic simply won’t work right now. It will work later, but not now.

Once he’s calmed down, you can talk about the tantrum and about what he was feeling. You can also come up with strategies together to potentially avoid the same situation happening in the future.

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka likes to say, “Aim for progress, not perfection.” This is so true with spirited kids. Their behavior may never be perfect, because they’re little people with their own thoughts, feelings and limitations.

However, we can keep doing our best, by parenting them with warmth and flexibility. We’re raising extra-special, extra-amazing kids…all our efforts WILL be worthwhile!

Books I recommend for further reading:

The Fussy Baby Survival Guide: Practical Strategies For Parenting A Fussy, Colicky or High Need Child, 0-5

Raising Your Spirited Child, Third Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind


Image courtesy of Phillipe Put under CC 2.0