How to Deal with Temper Tantrum

Nadia Shanab | autism, general advice, parenting, tips
28 Jul 2010

What is temper tantrum?

It is a negative attention seeking that the child resorts to, in order to communicate 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

Temper tantrum is a form of meltdown among many, like aggression, running off, screaming, and others. 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 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, 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), 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). 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 the 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.
  • Show the child a visual timer, that will prompt her/him that there is an end that he should prepare her/himself for to stop the tantrum. Set the timer to the amount of time you believe to be reasonable.
  • Ignore the behavior and walk away if you are at home, and make sure the child is safe to be left on her/his own.
  • 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.

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

How did the temper tantrum start?

Simply, the child got over stimulated from his environment and was unable to tolerate all these sensory integration issues that bombarded his 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 him. I could have anticipated the situation. But the problem was that it was the first time I see my student in this setting.


The best way to prevent a tantrum is to prepare ahead of time for this moment. 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.

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 be easily doubled or tripled, and I have seen it before.

A Suggestion

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.

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. Evidently, 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 him makes him stop immediately.

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

If I can summarize the above I would say

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

Mrs. A

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Diane Lewis Elmore, Autism Tips. Autism Tips said: If you want to know more about managing temper tantrums read at […]

  2. CR says:

    In regards to your example about the child who was having a temper tantrum at the school event – I want to point out that I think it was a good thing for you to take the child out of the environment – not only to help calm that child down – but out of respect for the other students and participants of the event.

    This has been something that I have given a great deal of thought to. The rights of OTHERS in regards to my son’s behaviour.

    I was once at a preschool graduation where there was a mother with her young daughter who had special needs. The 4 year old graduates were singing a song and everyone was clapping. The younger sibling started shrieking and crying uncontrollably. It was LOUD and it went on and on and on and on…….

    No one wanted to say anything to the mum because it is hard raising a child with special needs, HOWEVER, the child’s tantrum was ruining the event for everyone else….

    I look at it this way. If I have a coughing fit in the middle of a movie – I remove myself from the theater and finish coughing and clearing my throat outside the theater so that the film is not disrupted for others.

    Likewise, if my kid is having a tantrum in a restaurant , a concert, the library, etc – I make an effort to remove my child from the area in a very timely fashion (both to calm him down and to respect the other patrons). If I can, I help them to calm and re-enter the venue. If I am unsuccessful in calming them – then we go home.

    The thing is – there are times when it is uncomfortable and awkward to be dealing with a child who is having a tantrum and there is no choice but to remain where one is. I call these necessary errands and essential services. An example might be a doctor or specialist appointment. Another example might be a supermarket trip to get weekly groceries. All we can do is to best set up and arrange for these errands and services to minimize the chances of a tantrum and use the advice on autism-tips to help end the tantrum on site or at least a little away from others.

    There are other times when one needs to respect others and leave the area/venue if behaviour is an issue. These are non essential and non-necessary events (such as movies, concerts, sports events , etc). Leave the venue entirely and help them calm. Re-enter if they are ready for it – if not – settle up if necessary and LEAVE!

    It is important to have respect for others as we navigate the behaviour of our children. Then we can feel more confident in expecting respect, understanding and support from others.

  3. Mrs. A says:

    Dear CR,
    I cannot agree more! Your comment explains clearly what to be expected from a parent of a child with special needs. I know it is a very delicate subject, and we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but you made it so simple to understand.
    I always appreciate your comments! Your feedback is very important, you keep adding value to my blog. Thank you so much for taking the time and doing the effort to make other people’s everyday life easier. Best Regards.

  4. nonna says:

    dear Nadiota
    Excellent message to parents re managment of temper tantrums .I frequentely used distraction model when faced with a this situation in clinic setting .
    the beauty of your message is that the language is so clear to any parent without using any technical jargon.
    well done sis

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    Hi and thanks for a awesome post!

  7. Mrs. A says:

    You are most welcome!

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  9. Mrs. A says:

    Thank you for reading and thank you for your kind words! This is very encouraging.

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