When your child throws a tantrum, it can feel like a storm has suddenly erupted. The crying, screaming, and flailing can be overwhelming, and you feel a surge of emotions yourself.
Many parents know they should stay calm when their child is having a meltdown. They’ve read all the advice about not yelling or scolding. Yet, during the challenging parenting moments, their minds go blank, and anger seizes hold. The rational steps they’ve learned about gently ending a tantrum fly out the window.
Staying calm during a tantrum is all about preventing emotional flooding.
What is emotional flooding
Emotional flooding occurs when a person experiences an overwhelming surge of intense feelings that temporarily hinders the ability to think clearly, make sound decisions, or cope effectively. It is like a sudden, powerful wave of feelings that can sweep you off your feet. It’s so intense that it can cloud your thinking and even lead to full-blown rage.
What causes emotional flooding
Think of these emotions as a river that’s usually kept in check.
Certain experiences, thoughts, or reminders can act like a heavy rainstorm, causing the river to swell and overflow its banks.
These triggers carry a strong emotional charge, and the resulting flood of feelings can feel much more intense than what the trigger event might seem to warrant.
Here are some reasons that could trigger a flood of emotions.1
- Feel attacked
- Feel misunderstood or wronged
- Feel criticized or contempt
- Feel intentionally shamed or humiliated
- Hostile attribution
Anything that makes you feel in danger or threatened can trigger the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When it happens, our stress response system triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can inhibit cognitive thinking at high levels.
These are survival reactions designed to protect us when we might have encountered a sabertooth tiger.
However, even non-life-threatening situations like toddler tantrums or a demanding workload can set off these responses today.
Our brains, unable to distinguish between physical danger and emotional stress, react in the same way causing emotional flooding. Our ability to reason and act calmly is impaired when that happens.
How to stay calm during a tantrum
Preventing emotional flooding is easier with proactive preparation.
When a storm of emotions arises, it can be tough to shift gears in the heat of the moment suddenly.
Taking steps before your child is in full-blown tantrum mode again will help you weather it better when it does happen.
Find the trigger
To prevent flooding first is to identify what can cause such an emotional outburst. Without knowing what causes the surge in emotions, you won’t know where to begin.
Sure, you can apply quick fixes like deep breathing when you notice the signs, but these are band-aids over a deeper issue. The most effective approach is to prevent the need for these quick fixes altogether.
Figure this out before the next tantrum. You won’t be able to analyze your feelings in real time when your child’s tears and tantrums start.
Think back to the last episode.
At what point did you feel completely overwhelmed? What was the trigger?
Was it the crying, the screaming, the kicking, or the shouts of “I hate you”?
Triggers are not limited to just words or actions. They could also be a specific gesture, facial expression, or even your environment at the time, including smells or nearby objects.
Understand the why
Understanding your reactions to your child’s tantrums requires you to delve deeper into your emotions and their roots. It’s about unraveling the connection between the triggering event – your child’s tantrum, and the feelings it evokes in you. Ask yourself, “Why does this upset me so much?”
Dig beneath the surface to find the real cause of your feelings, not just look at what’s happening outside.
Think of it like solving a jigsaw puzzle – you can’t finish it all at once. It takes time and patience. By asking yourself “why” over and over again, you start to see the real reasons why you react so strongly.
Often, our emotional responses come from past experiences or insecurities we’re projecting onto the current situation. They are often related to stressful childhood experiences, deep emotional wounds, traumatic memories, or unprocessed feelings.
Being aware of your emotional patterns can help prevent knee-jerk emotional reactions.
When you unravel the root causes, explain to yourself rationally why they don’t apply here.
The following are examples of common triggers and how you can rationally explain them.
“My bad child is being defiant” or “They are trying to push my buttons.”
Attributing hostile intentions to children’s difficult behaviors is the surest way to cause emotional flooding in parents.
Children also have tantrums because they are overwhelmed by frustration when they cannot meet their needs. They use the only way they know to express their distress.2
They, too, are experiencing emotional flooding and forgetting how to do it properly, even if you have taught them before.
Tantrums are a normal part of child development, not a personal attack or manipulation.
When you attribute tantrums to natural development and a lack of emotion regulation skills, you will be less likely to be overcome by emotions.
“I would be yelled at or spanked if I had done this as a child,” or “My parent would never allow that.”
These internal scripts can spark fear and result in emotional flooding in parents.
Remember, you are not your parent.
You likely aspire to take a different approach with your own child. Separating the past from the present can prevent old wounds from clouding your judgment.
Think about the kind of parent you want to be without being limited by your own upbringing.
Prioritize what is best for your child over what your parents did or what they would have preferred you to do.
“This is so embarrassing,” or “Others must think that I’m a bad parent.”
A feeling of shame or humiliation is another way to trigger an emotional flood. When your child throws a public tantrum, it’s easy to assume others are judging you critically. But most parents have been through similar stages and are empathetic, not scornful.
Even if some do judge, your priority is doing what’s best for your child, not catering to others’ perceptions.
If your toddler, learning to walk, takes a tumble, your primary concern would be to soothe their hurt and assist them back to their feet. How others react, whether they laugh or find amusement in the difficult situation, is irrelevant.
This scenario is no different. If your child stumbles in their journey towards emotional regulation, your main focus is helping them regain balance and learn coping skills, irrespective of others’ opinions.
Instead of succumbing to embarrassment, embrace the pride that comes from prioritizing your child’s needs despite the pressure.
“I’m a bad parent,” or “I’m such a failure not being able to help my kid.”
It is normal for parents to have occasional self-doubts, but your worth as a parent isn’t defined by a single event or other people’s opinions.
All parents struggle sometimes, even those with the best intentions. What matters most is keeping your child’s best interests at heart in your parenting choices.
A good parent does not need to be perfect – no parent ever is. Good-enough parents practice effective parenting.3
This means there will be bumps and missteps along the way. Stumbles are expected as long as you keep your child’s well-being at the center. Cut yourself some slack.
Focus on helping your child learn to self-regulate and reconnect after tantrums rather than judging yourself. Show them your unconditional love by being caring and patient even when they struggle with regulating themselves.
Use mindfulness to improve awareness
Greater emotional awareness can help you notice triggers and signs of feeling overwhelmed. Catching these signs early can help you take proactive steps to prevent a full-blown emotional flood.4
Mindfulness exercises such as meditation and yoga can increase self-awareness. It helps you observe thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Regular practice can also help you become more attuned to your emotional responses and manage them effectively.
Label your feelings
Practice noticing and labeling your own emotions. This emotional coaching strategy can help you pay close attention to your feelings, identify them, and give them names.5
This could be as straightforward as saying to yourself, “I’m feeling frustrated right now,” or “I’m starting to feel overwhelmed.”
This exercise isn’t about judging or trying to change bad feelings; instead, it’s about being aware and acknowledging them.
By labeling your negative feelings, you can also regulate your own emotions to avoid flooding.
Slow deep breaths
How parents deal with stress and regulate their emotional responses plays a significant role in teaching children how to regulate their negative emotions.6
Slow, mindful breaths help you relax in daily life.
Taking a deep breath during tantrums can also help you regain a sense of control and stay calm.
Self-care to reduce stress
Everyday stress can make one more susceptible to emotional flooding.
Self-care doesn’t have to involve costly trips to spas or massage parlors.
Simple relaxation methods like progressive muscle relaxation or exercise can be great ways to look after yourself and keep stress at bay. Both practices can help you maintain calm behavior during your child’s tantrums so you can confidently apply these 7 Simple Steps To Dealing With Two Year Old’s Temper Tantrums.7
- 1.Jones TS, Bodtker A. Mediating with Heart in Mind: Addressing Emotion in Mediation Practice. Negotiation Journal. Published online July 2001:207-244. doi:10.1111/j.1571-9979.2001.tb00238.x
- 2.Green JA, Whitney PG, Potegal M. Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children’s tantrums. Emotion. Published online 2011:1124-1133. doi:10.1037/a0024173
- 3.HOGHUGHI M, SPEIGHT ANP. Good enough parenting for all children—a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Published online April 1, 1998:293-296. doi:10.1136/adc.78.4.293
- 4.Schreier LS. Emotional intelligence and mediation training. Conflict Resolution Quarterly. Published online September 18, 2002:99-119. doi:10.1002/crq.13
- 5.Havighurst SS, Wilson KR, Harley AE, Kehoe C, Efron D, Prior MR. “Tuning into Kids”: Reducing Young Children’s Behavior Problems Using an Emotion Coaching Parenting Program. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. Published online July 21, 2012:247-264. doi:10.1007/s10578-012-0322-1
- 6.Havighurst S, Kehoe C. The Role of Parental Emotion Regulation in Parent Emotion Socialization: Implications for Intervention. Parental Stress and Early Child Development. Published online 2017:285-307. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-55376-4_12
- 7.Penberthy JK, Chhabra D, Ducar DM, et al. Impact of Coping and Communication Skills Program on Physician Burnout, Quality of Life, and Emotional Flooding. Safety and Health at Work. Published online December 2018:381-387. doi:10.1016/j.shaw.2018.02.005