How to deal with your 4-year-old's tantrums
Before I list 4 ways to stop your four-year-old’s tantrum, I’m going to acknowledge that I have struggled with motherhood: its rigidity, routines, and relentlessness. I also want to convey that I have no professional training nor aspirations of being a heralded childraiser. I simply want to survive motherhood. And have a child that doesn’t resent me.
My daughter will turn five-years-old soon, probably before I find time to edit this article, and I will say that I track most of her tantrums back to her food, water, and screen time consumption, or a lack of sleep.
But how much corn sugar is OK?
I’m not going to bore you with my opinions on how much of those contributing factors your kid should or shouldn’t have. Suffice to say I live in Oregon and I pretend we are characters in Little Women. (Apologies to any real pioneer people for the use of rugged stereotypes—but also, what are you doing on the Internet? I make pants, do you?)
Because I’m so old-timey, I do not approve of screen-time for my daughter.
However, screen-time is tolerated under the following conditions:
- Anytime there is a “Teacher Training Day” at school
- When mommy can’t bear to play one more round of “The Cheetah’s Owner” or “You’re Chase and I’m Skye” or “Bluey’s Family”
- When mommy and daddy need a moment alone. Or 30 moments.
- After child attempts monkey bars at playground
- Anytime it’s Monday
The trouble with using screen-time as a family coping mechanism is that it ultimately leads to… a four-year-old’s tantrum. And with any of her flare-ups, my goal is to calm her as quickly as possible, and that usually entails limiting stimulation, taking deep breaths, moving to a quiet place and righting her glucose or hydration levels. But as you’ll notice in my tried-and-true approaches below, 4 ways to stop your four-year-old's tantrums, there’s always some cajoling too.
What NOT to do during a tantrum
I’ve learned what not to do during a tantrum: saying things like, “The blue drink from the bounce house has let you down,” or “The TV makes you angry.” She will defend those liberties to no ends. And it only makes her red-faced-rager more inflamed to point out the sources of her present state. When there is no logical way to move forward, I resort to one of these four tactics to disarm her and I hope they work for your four-year-old too.
Four Ways to Stop Your Four-Year-Old's Tantrum
1.Tell Your Child, “It’s My Turn to Cry”
Though my mental health coach would shudder at the idea of it, this is a wild card I can deal every now-and-then during a tantrum—let’s say seasonally so you don’t overuse it. When my child has been moping around all day, and she finally delivers her peak performance, let’s say just before dinner—the tears, the maroon face, the look of hate she is too young to understand—there! That’s when I promptly introduce the idea that it is now my turn to cry.
It's instilled in our culture (at least in childcare circles) to share with others. And I’m always telling my daughter to take turns and share—or bad things will happen: you have to leave the library; the unicorn gets taken away; no one gets to play with the glue stick.
So use that common notion of sharing-or-else and gently, calmly tell her that her turn is over, and now it is your turn to cry. This usually baffles my daughter enough that she quiets down to listen and to see if I am actually going to cry. Mommy is not bluffing dear—sometimes I feel like crying, dammit, but even if I do not, I will deliver my most melodramatic performance ever, as long as she is taking the bait and calming down.
When to use tactic: at home, preferably alone with the angry child.
Teachable moment: Sharing
2. Ask Your Child, Why are You Behaving like a Sith Lord?
Somewhere, right now, a father and young daughter are building a Lego Millenium Falcon, and a wing is crashing down, inexplicably, as you read my confession: I am not well versed in the Star Wars universe—I do, however, have a strong grasp of the evil characters. There are those who chose the Dark Side, like Anakin Skywalker, and the ultimate evil villains, the Sith Lords like Palatine and Darth Maul. My daughter knows the villains too—and she does not want to be one, know one, or encounter one. So, parents, that’s your ticket: Sith Lords.
I know I said our home is like a settler’s cabin, but a modern parent needs a modern break. So I let her watch a Star Wars Rebels series or two. And once my daughter got a taste, it was like she was taken by it—like she was George Lucus’s little drone. And despite me throttling the bejesus out of her show intake, she absorbed every lesson of good versus evil with fervor. So if the Empire is coming for you, strike back!!
Make the Ask
Time to wield Star Wars’ worst insult at your screaming child, and do it with a horror-stricken face. Ask, most somberly, if she is letting anger and hatred into her heart? Then follow-up quickly, while you have her attention, and ask if she is turning into a Sith Lord.
Compare your child’s behavior to the worst of the evil empire, and as that idea sinks in, give her the antidote: food and water, quietude or rest. Mine has taken the bait every time–but don’t overuse this power. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” as Yoda reminds us.
When to use tactic: Anywhere in the universe
Teachable moment: Behavior is a choice (at least for adults)
3. This is Mommy's Monarchy
I too want to dismantle the legacy of colonization, and you know, drain the authoritarian mindset from my bone marrow and maybe even ride the blockchain one day—but within my parenting model? Hell no. That is not the place to consider alternative power structures.
Your home, your child, that’s your kingdom, and if your daughter is leading a revolt, the same daughter that loves those blond princess tropes, then it’s time for you to step into the role of Mommy the Monarch.
You don’t need to banish her, or throw her in the gallows, instead collect a tax.
- Ask your little tyrant if you need to take away screen-time, since it makes her scream and hit mommy when it's over.
- Or ask if you need to give the Gruffalo stuffy away, if she’d rather act a’ fool than share it with the nice playdate boy.
Some adults guffaw at this line of reasoning with a kid, but this tactic is a workhorse for me. It took a while but my child now respects it, or me, or whatever— she calms down.
When to use tactic: Anytime, every-time.
Teachable moment: Mommy rules. Show some respect.
4. Say “All Done” and Leave the Room
This approach is centered around the idea of the tantrum as a theatrical outlet—and if there is no one to perform for, then there is no performance. It also usurps dog training language, which some could interpret as inappropriate, but it’s a winning combo in my house.
The idea with “All done” in the dog training context is that you are reinforcing positive behaviors, you know, asking the dog to do puppy push-ups or wait on his mat, and then you reward him with nibblets of hotdogs. When the training is over, you say, “All done,” as a way to acknowledge that you are out of hotdogs and he can chill out.
When my child launches into an angry tantrum and I have exhausted other avenues, I resort to the dog training/end of show technique. I say, “All done,” and calmly (in an ideal scenario) exit the room. Without fail, my crying, screaming, pink-faced child will follow, so I must choose a quiet and calm room.
Upon her arrival, I explain that I love her, but I don’t want to hang out with people when they are screaming, hitting or being mean. She usually checks herself and realizes that she needs mommy and must change her behavior.
And at that point, in a quiet room with low stimulation, I can usually focus on regulating my breath and calming down, and eventually she will regulate her breath too, and we can go get a snack.
My mental health coach likens this approach to the airline safety instructions. You must place your oxygen mask on first and then help those around you. And about thirty minutes after we are both breathing normally, I can say, “ I was scared you were turning into a Sith Lord,” and she responds, “I’d never choose the Dark Side over you, mom.”
When to use tactic: at home, preferably alone with the angry child
Teachable moment: Mommy doesn’t suffer bad theater
Thank you to my sassy cousin Ginny who graciously reposted this article on her entertaining and enriching resource for mothers, MothersRest.com. If you haven't checked it out, her sarcasm and humor is on-point, and you can't read her writing without hearing her Southern twang—and wanting a ham biscuit.