Expert Articles

How to Handle Toddler Tantrums?

Author: Dr. MOK, Wing Si Joyce
Senior Clinical Psychologist


One afternoon, as I was descending the stairs of Lyndhurst Street in Central, I encountered an elderly lady and a three-year-old girl who appeared to be grandmother and granddaughter. The granddaughter was constantly whining. The grandmother held an umbrella to shield the girl from the intense sunlight while gripping with frustration. “You’re always like this—wanting to play more after playing, wanting to eat more after eating! My legs are tired! I won’t take you out anymore!” However, it seemed that the grandmother’s words failed to effectively soothe the girl’s emotions.

Since I only passed by the grandmother and granddaughter, I couldn’t know what happened next. Nevertheless, it made me think that such situations actually present valuable opportunities to teach children how to handle their emotions. It’s important to understand that scolding, blaming, and threatening by caregivers do not effectively calm a child’s emotions.

In the book “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” by renowned American psychotherapist John Gottman, he explains how caregivers can provide emotional guidance to children in order to cultivate their ability to handle emotions. Firstly, caregivers should pay attention to when a child begins to show slight emotional distress because that’s the critical moment for emotional guidance. Don’t wait until the emotional outburst is severe before intervening. Let the child know early on that the caregiver has noticed their current emotional state is different from usual and is ready to listen to their needs.

Indeed, the caregiver’s perception of the child’s emotional outburst is crucial. If the caregiver views the child’s behaviour as defiance or intentional resistance, anger may arise, leading to a desire to immediately control the situation and stop the child’s behaviour. Failing to provide proper emotional release for the child will only intensify their emotions, making the situation worse! On the contrary, if the caregiver approaches the situation with the idea that it’s an opportunity to teach the child how to regulate emotions, they can grasp the present moment for emotional guidance, preventing the child’s emotions from escalating.

Caregivers need to regulate their own emotions and be prepared to listen attentively, guiding the child to express their feelings and thoughts. Remember, it’s important not to rush into criticism and judgment at this moment because only when the caregiver understands the situation from the child’s perspective can they provide appropriate assistance based on the child’s level of understanding. The caregiver is like a mirror reflecting the child’s inner world. If the caregiver can use suitable vocabulary to help the child articulate their emotions and intensity, the child will feel understood, and their emotions will naturally calm down.

When the child’s emotions have stabilized, that’s the appropriate time to discuss problem-solving strategies. Attempting to solve the problem too early will be futile because, when a child’s mind is clouded by emotions, rational discussions are not advisable. Problem-solving requires the caregiver and child to jointly come up with suggestions, avoiding unilateral orders from the caregiver.

Reflecting on the situation of the grandmother and granddaughter mentioned earlier, when the grandmother noticed the granddaughter starting to experience negative emotions, she could have taken the opportunity to listen to the girl’s concerns and then empathize with her emotions, saying something like, “Grandma understands that swinging is really fun, and you don’t want to leave now.” When the girl’s emotions slightly eased, she could continue, “Why don’t we discuss when we can come again next time? When you come next time, what would you like to play first?”

Remember, every instance of a child’s emotional outburst is an opportunity to teach them how to handle emotions. The goal is not just to address the immediate event but to help children develop long-term self-regulation skills through accumulated experiences.

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How to Handle Toddler Tantrums?