How To Handle A Temper Tantrum

Nadia Shanab | autism, general advice, parenting, tips
3 Aug 2015

What Is A Temper Tantrum

It is a negative attention seeking that the child resorts to, in order to communicate her/his frustration in a socially inappropriate way. Usually the child’s frustration arises when a need or a desire hasn’t been met.
Temper tantrum is a form of meltdown among others, like aggression, running off, and screaming. During a meltdown the individual is out of control. The nervous system of the child is unable to handle the overwhelming input from the environment, and all the emotions or sufferings the child is enduring. During a temper tantrum the child is going through a chaotic state of being. Consequently, the reaction of the child is unpredictable.

Reasons for Temper Tantrums

There are so many factors that can impact the child and get her/him into the state of temper tantrum. For example, too much noise, the crowd, loss of personal space, too bright, too hot, the child her/himself is too tired or hungry or sleepy or sick, the routine has been changed, parents are fighting, smells like an offensive odor, the child is confused because she/he doesn’t understand what is going on, the child is unable to communicate or express her/his frustration and emotions (especially if the child is nonverbal), separation anxiety, asking her to do a hard or long assignment, or any other cause that the child cannot tolerate.

What to Do During a Temper Tantrum

  • Safety is the most important issue. Make sure the child is not hurting her/himself, by banging her/his head or other part of the body on a hard or rough surface (like the ground or against the wall) or hurting others. If possible, remove the child to a safe place.
  • Remain calm during the entire period of the tantrum. Your facial expressions are very important to the child. The child takes the cues from your body language. So, wear a reassuring calm face.
  • During a temper tantrum the child doesn’t listen anymore, so say only the strictly necessary words. One cannot instruct a child during the crisis. However, the child can respond to visual cues. Do NOT try to teach if the child is having a meltdown.
  • Show the child a visual timer, that will prompt her/him that there is an end that she/he should prepare her/himself for to stop the tantrum. Set the timer to the amount of time you believe to be reasonable, like five minutes.
  • Ignore the behavior and walk away if you are at home, and make sure the child is safe to be by herself.
  • Try to eliminate, or minimize, or reduce the cause of the tantrum.
  • If you are outdoor, minimize the audience. If you were in a park or a crowd find a quiet corner or a bench, and show your support and empathy without giving in to the child’s request. That would be a big mistake, because this would work as reinforcement or a reward for the child. Consequently, it will encourage the tantrum to recur. If you are in the mall or a store, talk very firmly and briefly to the child and tell her/him that you understand she/he is upset, but ask her/him to use her/his words. Make sure to make it clear that she/he needs to wait for a few more minutes, before you could leave. Don’t be embarrassed by the audience and don’t make any promises. Stick to your rules and stay clam. Then, take the child away from the crowd and sit by her/him without talking until the crisis is over.
  • Try to deviate the fixation of the child, and direct the attention and interest to something different you know she/he could be interested in. I’ve personally tried this strategy out, and it worked out really well. You need to be positive and calm and show a lot of interest or enthusiasm in what you are suggesting. Tell yourself that it is just a matter of time and it will soon be over, because this is simply the truth.
  • If you were doing desk work or homework, break it down to smaller assignments and show it to her without talking.
  • Do deep breathing exercise, it will help you both, because the child may start copying you.
  • Allow the child to have her security object (like her blanki, or stuffed animal) if she had one.


Here is a real story. A child with autism had a meltdown at the end of school year celebration. The fifth graders were giving a concert in the school theater and my student was sitting in the first row. A band was playing drums and girls were singing and dancing along. The child started to fall apart as the performance went on. I had to remove her immediately to a quiet place. We went outside, and we sat on the grass by a big tree. I was holding her tightly trying to reassure her as much as I could, by telling her how peaceful and nice this place was, away from the crowd and the noise. Then, I started to talk to her intensively about her favorite topic (computer games). In the beginning her red, stiff face was covered with tears. Gradually, she started to calm down and listened to me. At the end, she was talking and discussing the subject I’ve suggested. Finally, the crisis was over. It took us less than half an hour to get over the whole problem and resume normal activities.

How did the temper tantrum start?

Simply, the child got over stimulated from her environment and was unable to tolerate all these stimuli ( sensory integration issues) that bombarded her body.

I realized that the proximity from the source of noise and intense action (sitting in the first row) was a big mistake. In addition, there was the other kids and parents cheering loudly and applauding around her. I should have anticipated the situation. But the problem was that it was the first time I see my student in this setting.

How to Prevent a Temper Tantrum

The best way to prevent a tantrum is to prepare ahead of time for this moment. Don’t allow the child to reach the stage where a change of her emotional state is impossible. When you are not prepared, you can easily get caught in the trap of rewarding the undesired behavior. In the middle of the crisis we tend to give in to the child’s demands, or promise something you never intended to. However, be flexible and accept changes in priorities if needed.


Help the child set up expectations.

  • It is not always easy to foresee a tantrum coming, but if you know your child well, you can avoid some of the factors that might entail or trigger a tantrum. For example, going to the mall and being in a crowd for a long period of time, this is something you can avoid. Long outings in general can be very frustrating. If you need to take your child to these places, prepare her/him for the event. Tell her/him that you are going to this place for a certain amount of time. Use visual cues like pictures and timer.
  • Don’t assume that your child understands everything you say or do. Explain in details what and how and where things are going to happen. Use real objects or pictures and written words to help visualize what she/he is going to do. It takes patience, time and effort, but it saves you a temper tantrum, which is very stressful for everybody.
  • Stick to your daily schedule as much as possible. Skipping a nap, or eating late lunch or dinner can be very unsettling. Attending events with big crowds frequently can be very irritating too.
  • Tantrums are easier to manage at home than at school or outdoor. At home you have more control on your environment.
  • If tantrum happens at school, teacher and staff should decide according to the circumstances, whether to evacuate the class, or move the student to another place. It is a safety problem that should be handled very carefully. The other students should not be exposed to inappropriate scenes. One tantrum can trigger another, simply because it is overwhelming for the other kids. In this case, the trouble can easily be doubled or tripled, and I have seen it before.

A Crazy Idea

A special education teacher in a moderate to severe class shared with me this idea, but I didn’t try it out myself. She teaches a class where temper tantrums happen very frequently. Her technique or strategy, according to her, worked every time she applied it.

In case of a meltdown, first of all she asks the aides to take all the children outside.

She emulates the child’s behavior. If the child is throwing things, or crying, she would do the same. Her theory is: the child gets shocked from the teacher’s or the adult’s behavior and starts watching her/him instead of continuing her/his tantrum (Which means she created a distraction for the child). Obviously, the teacher also would stop her temper tantrum, because she would still be emulating. I guess that the image of the teacher in tantrum is probably acting as mirror that reflects the child’s behavior. Facing the child with a negative image of her makes her stop immediately.

After the child has completely stopped, she would ask her if she can join the other friends outside. She tells her that she could, only if she cleaned up her own mess and hers (the teacher’s) too.


During a temper tantrum try to do the following:

  • Stay calm
  • Make sure child(ren) is (are) safe
  • Don’t give in to the child’s demand
  • Minimize the stimulating reason(s) that caused the tantrum
  • Redirect the attention to something different
  • Wait out patiently as a last resort

nadia shanab

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