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At the moment I am sharing a house with an eight year old (let’s call her ‘Screamer’) and a five year old (let’s call him ‘Kicker’). They are experts at provoking each other. This has led to me dealing with a lot of anger in the last few weeks. (The preference for anger and misery over boredom is the subject for another post.)

My preference is for a life of elated calmness. Some people love the roller-coaster ride (and will have a much more exhilarating life than mine) but I’m not one of them. Things going along happily-and-smoothly is the way I like it.

My way of responding to a temper tantrum is to try to calm it down; to be reasonable, or at least sensible; to figure out solutions to problems. To get back to peaceful as soon as possible.

Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. This post is about the times that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t work when the Screamer or Kicker is talking nonsense. Statements by Screamer like, “Nobody ever buys me anything”, when they have had their favourite cereal bought for them that morning. Or by Kicker that, “Nobody ever listens to me” – when that is what is happening now and happens most of the rest of the time too.

At these times, when it is pointed out to Kicker or Screamer that what they are saying is actually incorrect, they just get in a worse temper. It has taken me a while to realise that it is not about having a rational problem solved.

So what is it about? Here is my best guess. (I’m fairly sure that it is right, but far from certain. And there may be much else going on too – any insights and suggestions most welcome.) I think it is about feeling.

1. Expressing Feeling
When they are having a temper tantrum Kicker or Screamer is feeling something very intensely and they want to express it. Sometimes they’ll even remember and talk about all the bad things that have happened to them and express their feelings about them too. Clearly it is not about wanting to just feel better (by having their problem solved) or they could just remember nice things instead of upsetting things.

2. Connecting intensely with others. They want to be heard (the volume of the makes this point most forcefully!).
What I have found does work is shouting back.

It’s strange – all that advice about calming down, being reasonable, speaking in a soft voice, being sensible and so on. None of it works. On a number of occasions I have tried all these a number of times (over a period of say 30 minutes) and it does nothing for the tantrum.  Some things – like pointing out that what they are saying is incorrect – can sometimes make the tantrum worse.

I think the reason the shouting works is that it matches the intensity of feeling that Screamer or Kicker are experiencing. It is about connecting intensely with feeling, not solving a problem.

After connection is made, and the tantrum past, rational discussion may be possible. It is also possible that the tantrum has nothing to do with is said. A child may well not know what their unmet need is, and the only way they have of expressing frustration is through some kind of tantrum. (It may also be that this applies to adults as well as children, though adults have different ways of sulking and tantrumming.)

When someone is angry and the soft approach is not working, it may be worth matching their intensity.

A Couple of Cautions

  • I think this should only be done when the soft approach has been tried first.
  • It is best if you can do it before you are in danger of losing your temper. You will then be able to meet the other person when the tantrum is over, and you will be able to stop if it seems to be just making the situation worse.

I’m not a parent, and I have no desire to add to the parent guilt industry. It seems to me that the demands on parents are increasing and the support diminishing – and I think this is appalling. So if you have experience dealing with tantrums (either from children or older people) I’d love to hear your experience of what works and what doesn’t.
Temper Tantrums: responding with soft words or shouting?

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26 Comments to “Temper Tantrums: responding with soft words or shouting?”

  1. There are never any guarantees, but in general the best strategy would be to establish rapport by shouting “You’re really upset!” and encourage him/her to talk about feelings. I agree, you can only do it if you’re feeling centered and are willing to listen.

  2. Evan says:

    Hi Jean, well put. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Diane says:

    I am with you sometimes quiet does not get the achieved result. Ususally the raised stern voice can grab attention.
    Talking can happen later once child is calm on different things they can do when they feel their anger rise. I used tell my boys to go outside and do some physical activity. The other thing that can improve things if this brought by sibling rivalvry is having them have code words when one has crossed the line. Actually the boys actually loved the creativity of it.

  4. Evan says:

    Hi Diane,

    Getting them to do something physical is a great idea. The idea of code words is great too – I’d never have thought of this on my own.

    Thanks for your comment and extra ideas.

  5. sarah luczaj says:

    I am going to hazard a guess that you don’t do a lot of shouting, Evan, and that for you shouting works because of the shock factor! Whatever shakes the situation up and draws the tantrummer’s attention to something else outside their own distress might work. On the whole though I think shouting tends to escalate the situation. One thing is for sure, reason is absolutely no use at all!

  6. Evan says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Good guess. Shouting isn’t really my thing. I like what you say about drawing their attention to something outside their distress, very well put. I’ll hazard a guess and say that you have been dealing with some tantrums lately.

  7. sarah luczaj says:

    Too right Evan – from a two year old, eleven year old and thirty seven year old 😉

  8. Evan says:

    Is there one that is harder to handle or pretty much all the same?

  9. Daphne says:

    Hi Evan,

    This is a very real and tough-to-solve problem. I tend to ignore tantrums rather than reward them with attention. I’ve never really shouted in response – I tend to shout only when the child is in danger and needs a quick jerk to attention. Then again, like you I’m not a parent and it’s a lot easier to handle small doses of other people’s children instead of being with them all day everyday.

  10. Evan says:

    Living a few weeks with young children has certainly shown me how much easier it is to handle kids when you are not living with them!

    Thanks for your comment Daphne.

  11. Maudrey says:

    I live with my youngest sister and her 5-year-old son who has recently learned the art of screaming and whining. My sister is a single mom so my nephew is growing up without a father, which I think is the reason for his acting up.

    Soft words don’t seem to do it anymore and my sister has taken to raising her voice to him already. I, on the other hand, can’t bring myself to shout at him. While he really tries my patience at times, I really can’t do it.

    When throwing a tantrum, I noticed that my nephew calms down after he and his mom go into the room and talk by themselves. My sister does that so that he doesn’t get embarrassed when scolded in front of other people. That usually works.

  12. Evan says:

    Thanks Maudrey,

    I think you’re on to something. Perhaps this is another way of breaking out of the behaviour. Thanks for your valuable comment.

  13. sarah luczaj says:

    to answer your question, Evan, the 37 year old tantrums are obviously a bit disturbing because they are less developmentally appropriate 😉 but I exaggerate, this is not often a problem. With the 11 year old it is a question of weathering the storm (or putting my foot down) and then listening/talking/negotiating, the two year old tantrums are both the most normal (Maudrey, I find it astonishing that your neice has only just discovered them at the age of five!) and the most harrowing for all. She can find a disappointment or lack of control over something (and let’s face it how much do you cntrol at the age of two?) a total and utter personal annihilation. She is also strong enough now that physically removing her from situations, or, say, prising her off the floor, putting her back on the aeroplane seat and fastening the belt before landing while stewards who have obviously never had children smile sweetly and suggest I “put her back in the seat” , can prove impossible.
    Words and the volume at which they are spoken are quite irrelevant in that kind of a situation!

  14. Evan says:

    Getting a glimpse of the world of a 2 year old (annihilation, despair, the totalness of it) I can find a bit scary. With two year olds I think words are usually quite irrelevant. How I wish there was good education about these kinds of things (not that I don’t think Ancient Egypt, which I studied in high school, isn’t interesting).

    Thanks for your comment.

  15. Just be sure you do not reward the behavior by giving the child what they were acting up for. When they find out that tantrums do not work, they stop using them. Energy Boomer Grandpa.

  16. Evan says:

    Thanks Grandpa. I think these are words of wisdom.

  17. sarah luczaj says:

    I think there’s a difference between ‘using tantrums’ to manipulate and being ‘used by your tantrum’,completely overpowered by your own various needs, say a need for control, plus tiredness…a killer combination! Both these kinds of tantrums are equally real.

    My toddler knows that seat belts always get fastened in the end, but does that stop her? Nope she does it every time (and we have taken a lot of planes!)

  18. Evan says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I think you are right. They are certainly both real. I can’t describe how I know the difference – saying, ‘I can tell’, isn’t real helpful. Maybe there is more looking for reactions with the manipulative one and in the ‘used by’ one the person is in their own ‘trance’. Does this make sense? Any ideas?

    Thanks for your comment. As usual you have got me thinking.

  19. sarah luczaj says:

    makes lots of sense to me!

    as an aside, can you put a thingie in so that we can be notified of further comments once we have posted? or do you have one and I can’t find it? It would be useful!

  20. Evan says:

    Thanks Sarah. Not sure how to do this. I’ll have a look for a plug-in (I’m very techie illiterate).

    Thanks for asking, I appreciate it. Evan

  21. sarah luczaj says:

    wish I could advise you but it would be a case of the blind leading the blind!!

  22. AmyL says:


    I have to admit that your solution to the soft words vs shout dilemma shocked me and I laughed out loud. I would not have guessed you to be someone willing to raise your voice to a child. Ever.

    I’ve shouted before. In fact, it got to be enough of a problem with me shouting and the boys following suit with each other that we found it necessary as a family to use our attitude jar. Anyone who shouts in anger has to pay in; 25 cents for the little guys, 50 cents for the older boys, a dollar for me, and Hubby went all in for a dollar fifty.

    It’s easy to get conditioned to the increased volume and not respond to the lower more modulated voices. We’ve had great success with the attitude jar and it only took about a week to remove almost all shouting from the house. Yay! I think that your points about the child’s feelings and lack of rationality are spot on. Perhaps it’s the sudden change that helps shake them out of the tantrum. I have had good luck with humor, joining them, hugging, time outs, tickle fights, and whatever else worked at the time. Variety definitely helps in the long term.

    Great post! Oh, I have a plugin called Subscribe to Comments that has worked very well for me. Hope that helps.

  23. Evan says:

    Hi Amy,

    I don’t like raising my voice, but I do – I try to ensure that it is always a choice.

    I like the sound of the attitude jar. I do think the volume can escalate.

    I’ll check out the Subscribe to Comments plug in.

    Many thanks for your comment.

  24. AmyL says:

    LOL. I should also admit to getting angry last week, grabbing a dollar and putting it in the jar so I could then shout at the children. That was a choice, but it was definitely because I was mad.

    We do various shouting and yelling for fun….that’s different. I especially like it when we manage to get kids shrieking due to a tickle fight or wrestling match with their father. With 4 boys this is a loud house, but most of the time it’s a cheerful loudness. I can live with that.

  25. Scott says:

    I’m really hoping for some godsend from this page. I’m in a relationship of 2 years and my girlfriend has 2 children, 5 and 11. The 11 year old boy really has us at the end of our ropes. His father is still in his life as they have joint custody but from what I know of him he’s the kind of person who blames everyone and does nothing wrong (which is why she divorced him). Well like father like son he blames everyone but himself for his actions. He will completely come unglued every time he does not get what he wants. We’ve tried everything. Grounding him from things, putting the responsibility on him to keep those things, talking with him and still no change. I love my girlfriend and to have her in such a horrible mood everytime her kids are her breaks me up inside. He’ll tell her she’s a bad mother, that she spends all her time with me and anything else that will get to her. PLEASE HELP

  26. Evan says:

    Hi Scott, not knowing the situation I have a general comment.

    My guess is that the kid feels torn and doesn’t know what his needs are and isn’t confident that they will be met.

    I wonder if he is convinced that he is loved. I wonder if his parents understand him and if so whether he knows they do. It seems the focus is on his behaviour rather than his world and how he is experiencing it (natural enough given his behaviour).

    This may just be ludicrously wrong because I don’t know the situation. If so I hope it stimulates some useful thinking and insights.

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