Dr. Becky: Tantrums Help Your Child Know What They Want

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What, exactly, is a tantrum? What role do tantrums play in a child’s development? What’s the best way to deal with them?

According to Dr. Becky, tantrums are one of the most common challenges that parents face. She suggests specific approaches for handling tantrums so that you can foster behavioral change without jeopardizing your connection to your child.

Read more to learn Dr. Becky’s approach to emotional tantrums.

Dr. Becky on Tantrums

Dr. Becky Kennedy explains that tantrums are episodes in which a child is feeling emotions more powerful than what they’re able to process, and they become dysregulated as a result. According to Dr. Becky, tantrums aren’t misbehavior; they’re a moment where your child’s body gets out of their control. They’re important for your child’s development because they shape the foundation of them knowing what they want and being able to ask—and, if necessary, fight—for what they want.

(Shortform note: Although tantrums are a natural part of your child’s development, you probably want her to grow out of them eventually. Dr. Becky doesn’t offer advice on coaching your child away from tantrums, but the authors of The Whole-Brain Child offer tips on how to avoid tantrums, such as by avoiding “no” to toddlers and fostering your child’s reasoning skills.)

To help your child learn to regulate her emotions without squashing her emerging will and assertiveness, work with the underlying urge. Dr. Becky suggests using the following tools: 1) empathy and validation and 2) connection.

Tool: Empathy

Ensure that you’re calm and have perspective on the situation. Dr. Becky urges you to remember that your child’s meltdown is developmentally appropriate and not a reflection of your parenting.

(Shortform note: You and your child benefit from looking at the bigger picture when big feelings are taking place. The authors of The Whole-Brain Child suggest reminding your child that emotions are temporary and helping her recall a recent time when she was happy. That being said, Dr. Becky warns against trying to fight a tantrum with logic because emotions will always win out inside a child’s developing brain. Instead, use these reminders to keep yourself regulated during the tantrum, and share them with your child when she’s calmer.)

Tools: Validation & Connection

Validate what your child is feeling and how powerful and important it is. Dr. Becky explains that putting your kid’s urge into words tells her that you understand what she’s experiencing, even if you can’t allow her to have what she wants. At the same time, tell her that you’re right there with her, and stay present until the tantrum subsides.

(Shortform note: One way to validate your child’s urges even if they’re not feasible is to use make-believe. The authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk explain this can help a child feel heard. For example, if your child doesn’t want to do her homework, say, “It’s frustrating to do homework after a long day at school. I wish I could wave a magic wand and give you more time to play!”)

Dealing With Aggressive Tantrums

Sometimes, Dr. Becky says, tantrums become aggressive if the feelings are so intense that the child becomes frightened at her own loss of control. The stress hormone cortisol floods her body and sets off aggressive behavior like kicking or biting. Aggressive tantrums are also developmentally normal, but they need a different approach. 

(Shortform note: Although aggressive tantrums are a natural result of a young child’s body being flooded with cortisol, it’s worthwhile to keep tabs on them. A study of preschoolers found that the tantrums of children who fit the criteria for depression turned aggressive more often, lasted longer, were harder to recover from, and involved self-harming behavior more often. The researchers point out, however, that triggers like illness and changes in their environment could also make children lash out aggressively, so it’s important to look at each child’s behavior in its context.)

When your child’s tantrum takes an aggressive turn, Dr. Becky recommends using the following tools: 1) boundaries and 2) validation and empathy.

Tool: Boundaries

Enforce the necessary boundaries to keep everyone safe. Tell your child that you won’t let her continue the aggressive behavior, and, if necessary, Dr. Becky explains you might have to use your body to stop her without hurting her. Give her a safe and acceptable outlet for her urges. If the tantrum continues, take your child to a small room and sit there with her. Model calm behavior through deep breathing and a soothing voice. Stay there with your child until the tantrum subsides.

(Shortform note: Dr. Becky isn’t alone in advocating for boundaries applied with love and connection. For example, instead of time-outs, Montessori-influenced educators recommend “time-ins,” similar to Dr. Becky’s suggestion to take your child to a small room. However, once your child is regulated, they suggest letting her choose whether or not to go back into the situation that triggered her. As a parent, you should decide whether giving that option violates the boundaries you’ve set.)

Tools: Validation & Empathy

Dr. Becky suggests that after the tantrum, once everyone is calm, you should talk about what happened with your child to validate her experience and show her how she eventually rode out the tantrum. Narrate to your child what triggered the tantrum, how she felt, what her body did, and what you both did until her body regulated.

(Shortform note: Encouraging your child to remember things—even unpleasant things—has an additional benefit. In The Whole-Brain Child, the authors argue that processing experiences avoids unintegrated memories—fragments of unresolved thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Unintegrated memories can create anxiety around everyday activities, injure your child’s self-confidence, and impede her ability to trust others.)

Dr. Becky: Tantrums Help Your Child Know What They Want

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Becky Kennedy's "Good Inside" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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