What’s the worst response to a tantrum?

This could be worse. |  Gonziser  for  Pixabay

This could be worse. | Gonziser for Pixabay

I can’t remember how the tantrum started, but I know it ramped up when my four-year-old threw my phone across the living room.

I didn’t want to take a screaming, phone-throwing kid to Starbucks, so told him we’d have to cancel our afternoon plans. “Fine! I’ll go by myself!” he said, and grabbed his hat and shoes. Because I was confident he could reach neither the car keys nor the garage door opener, I spent the next twenty minutes pretending to read while recording his ear-splitting but adorable tantrum:

You’re always saying what I don’t want you to say!
So I am going without you!
I can’t get in the car!
I need help to get the keys!
And I need help buckling my seat belt!
And I don’t know how to drive!
Well, I do know how to drive, but I’m not allowed to drive!
And I don’t know how to get there!
I don’t have any money for the cake pop!
Oh, I do have money!
I don’t know how much a cake pop is!
What if I get there too late and they are out of cake pops?
But if I go there by myself a police officer will ask “Where are your parents?”

I felt good about how I was handling the situation, namely, staying on the couch pretending to read while preserving this tantrum for posterity. I didn’t scream at him about the phone, or even scream about the screaming. When he’d run in to sob and scream about finding money or using keys, I’d offer my calm assessment: “I know you’re upset about not going to Starbucks, but you threw my phone so I’m not going out with you. We can go tomorrow if you’re feeling up to it.”

Acknowledging children’s feelings was my main takeaway from the first parenting book I ever started reading, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s classic How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. (As with all ambitious reading projects in those early months with baby, I didn’t finish it until a few years later.) I’ve spent years practicing this, whether the hurt is a skinned knee or a crushed desire for cake pops, trying to honor each feeling even when it seemed insignificant to me.

The book I was pretending to read mid-tantrum happened to be Faber’s daughter’s new book, How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, which adapts some of her mother’s strategies for kids aged 2-7. When I got around to finishing the book, Faber and her co-author Julie King showed me I could use some more practice acknowledging feelings.

While we might think of the yelling as the worst way to respond to a tantrum, at least yelling is an instinctual human response to stress. According to Faber and King, I sabotaged my tantrum-stopping strategy in three subtle but important ways.

1) I ended with a big “but”

I thought I’d done a reasonably good job acknowledging my son’s feelings: “I know you’re upset about not going to Starbucks.”


I also said “but you threw my phone so I’m not going out with you.”

Faber asserts that the word but “takes away the gift you’ve just given. It’s like saying ‘I hear how you feel and now I am going to explain to you why that feeling is wrong.’”

In place of but, Faber offers another phrase, The problem is, that describes the situation without contradiction or blame. The phrase “suggests that there is a problem that can be solved without sweeping away the feelings.” You’re not telling your child to stop screaming or get over it. You’re inviting him to help you solve a problem.

In this case, my “but” translated as “get over it, we’re not going today.” Would the tantrum have stopped sooner if I had acknowledged my son’s feelings this way? “You are angry about not going to Starbucks. The problem is, you threw my phone so I don’t want to go out now.” Would that have framed the interaction as a problem to solve rather than a laying of blame? I’m not totally sure, because there was another big problem underneath that statement.

2) I presented consequences as punishment

I’m not a “punisher” parent. In general, I view the feeling of knowing you’ve harmed someone as punishment enough, especially at young ages, and instead encourage my child to think in terms of consequences. A consequence of leaving toys all over the floor is that someone might vacuum up your Legos. A consequence of not putting dirty clothes in the laundry is that your favorite sweatshirt isn’t ready to wear when you want it. A consequence of hitting people is that they won’t want to play with you.

Until reading Faber and King, I hadn’t realized how some of the consequences I described to my son were really just punishments in disguise. I was mad at him for throwing my phone, and while I found his careful plan for a solo drive to Starbucks hilarious, I wasn’t interested in going out in public with this screaming four-year-old. Even if I had skipped the “but,” I would still have framed the problem in terms of consequences: “but you threw my phone, so I’m not going out with you.” There’s no logical reason that throwing of a phone should indicate a lack of future travel options, unless I needed the map in a now-broken phone in order to navigate to our destination.

It’s not that there are never consequences. A child hurting others at the playground, for example, gets brought home, but Faber distinguishes between this and punishment: “I take action in order to protect, not to punish. I take action to protect my child from harm, to protect others from being harmed physically or emotionally, to protect property, and to protect my own feelings.”

Instead of adding an unclear and confusing “consequence” to his behavior, I could have focused on my own feelings: “I am sad and frustrated and don’t feel like going out right now.”

3) I offered him solutions to his problem.

Even if I had avoided the big “but” and kept the punitive element out of it, I had a third problem. I framed going to Starbucks tomorrow as an alternative, a way of silencing conversation and getting past the tantrum.

I had clearly been listening to the tantrum enough to write down my son’s attempt to take himself to Starbucks, but I had failed to really hear it. What started as anger over not being allowed to do what he wanted right now had turned into a much bigger problem: he didn’t know how to get to Starbucks, how much the food cost, or how to pay for it. The crying was increasingly focused on these problems, not the original slight. The kid in front of me was overwhelmed by all the things he didn’t know how to do.

What if I had showed him the notes I’d been sneakily writing while pretending to read Faber and King’s book? Could we have had a conversation about all the obstacles in between him and Starbucks and then discussed how to overcome those obstacles?

Fortunately, both Fabers note, parents always get another chance to get things right. Maybe tomorrow he’ll get mad because we’re out of chocolate milk.