Child’s Tantrums: Ignore, Command, or Connect?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Whole-Brain Child" by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the best way to respond to your child’s tantrums? Should you ignore them? Command your child to obey?

Although conventional wisdom tells parents to ignore their child’s tantrums to avoid encouraging the bad behavior, that approach doesn’t help with long-term resolution. Instead, connect with your child emotionally and brainstorm the solution together.

Read about how to handle your child’s tantrums using the connect-and-redirect strategy.

Connect-and-Redirect Strategy for Child Tantrums:

When your child throw tantrums—whether they are upset about chores or refusing to finish dinner—you have two choices:

  1. Use your authority to command your child to obey, which may get results but will antagonize her in the process.
  2. Engage her rational brain to reach a resolution, which empowers your child to be part of the solution.

If your child is upset and throwing a tantrum, start by taking the connect-and-redirect strategy. Connect emotionally by using soft touch and voice to try to identify how your child is feeling and why. When your child begins to calm down and open up emotionally, she will be receptive to approach the situation from the place of reason as opposed to emotion.

At this point, invite her to help you brainstorm a solution, or to offer a suggestion for negotiation. Encouraging your child to participate in the problem solving has several benefits:

  • She practices analytical thinking and decision-making.
  • She feels self-efficacy, which lays the foundation for a strong sense of agency.
  • She reflects on the way she handled the situation and how she can act more effectively and appropriately next time. 
  • She has to consider other people’s needs and feelings in trying to come up with a solution that works for everyone. 

Once you’ve worked together to reach a resolution, address misbehavior, if necessary, and talk about appropriate ways of handling similar situations and big emotions in the future. 

Two Types of Child Tantrums

There are two types of children’s tantrums. Downstairs tantrums are the result of the child being in the midst of an emotional takeover by their downstairs brain. The child is overwhelmed by her emotions and not capable of keeping them in check.

In contrast to emotion-driven downstairs tantrums, upstairs tantrums are strategic, manipulative tantrums that a child intentionally throws, in hopes of getting her parents to give in to her demands. This tantrum requires analytical thinking and decision-making—thus, it’s a product of the upstairs brain. With the upstairs brain already engaged, you can use reasoning to explain to your child why the tantrum is inappropriate and what the consequences will be if she continues to act out. Stand firm and carry through with consequences, if necessary.

Tips for Using This Strategy at Different Ages

Ages 0-3: “No” tends to trigger toddlers’ downstairs brains. Avoid using “no” unless you really need to, and try to stay calm and redirect. For example, instead of simply telling your toddler to stop banging the mirror with her stick, engage her problem-solving upstairs brain by suggesting that you go outside together to find another use for the stick. 

Ages 3-6: When your child misbehaves, instead of responding with a statement (such as, “That’s not a nice thing to say”), respond with a question that requires her to use her upstairs brain. For example, rather than merely telling her that her behavior is inappropriate, ask her to brainstorm a more acceptable way of acting. Give her positive reinforcement when she thinks of a better alternative. 

Ages 6-9: Do as much as you can to engage your child’s upstairs brain, which is going through significant growth at this age. If she’s upset about a decision you’ve made, explain your thought process, ask her if she has a different suggestion, and negotiate (within parameters that are acceptable to you). 

Ages 9-12: Your child’s upstairs brain is still undergoing tremendous growth—so use it (and avoid saying, “Because I said so,” which will likely enrage her downstairs brain). Whenever possible, ask your child to help you in decision-making and problem-solving. 

Child’s Tantrums: Ignore, Command, or Connect?

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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