Pressing the Pause Button on Your Child’s Temper Tantrum


Do you ever wish you could do that? That you actually had a remote control and could just press pause – even for a moment – to collect your thoughts and calm down before having to deal with your kid’s emotional meltdown? If you ever feel that way, please know that you are not alone. Many parents feel this way. What makes it even harder to help our kids when they are yelling, crying, moaning, or thrashing around is that when you ask them something reasonable like, “What’s the matter?”, they can’t tell you why. Or their reasons make no sense to you.

To top it off, when our kids are exploding, we often have a sense that we are supposed to do something – immediately. We feel pressured to help them in their suffering. We want peace and quiet. We think that we are somehow failing as parents, which amplifies feelings of shame, frustration, and doubt.



There is this idea of a “teachable moment” in parenting lore. It goes something like this: a teachable moment is an opportune/unplanned moment in time when a parent can communicate their values or an important truth to their child when their child is most receptive to adopting those values or learning that truth.

The problem is that teachable moments are very misunderstood.

Parents have commonly been led to believe that every moment is a teachable moment in which the parent is required to be the teacher and provide direct and immediate intervention. Let me be clear, you don’t always have to be your child’s “teacher” – or their therapist, for that matter. Teachable moments do not always require:


• Another person – kids can and do learn many things by working through experiences without the help of anyone else.

• The parent to be the teacher – kids can learn from other kids, adults, animals, nature, books, etc.

• Direct intervention – parents can supervise a situation without intervening and responsibly observe their child grapple and eventually cope with that situation.

• Immediate intervention – kids often have a very hard time learning while they are upset or in the middle of a distracting activity, but children often spend a lot of time thinking later about situations they’ve experienced to gain understanding and assign meaning.


If you are a big fan of teachable moments, please consider that teachable moments might require you to take a step back from the situation if you want to help your child learn to manage their emotional outbursts.



Kids get upset for a myriad of reasons, often over things that you believe are completely mundane. Kids frequently get upset over things so small that parents convince themselves that there is no reason or trigger for the anger. Your child might be upset because you said “no” to McDonald’s on the way home from school. They might be mad the second you tell them to brush their teeth and get ready for bed at night. What can you do about this?

In my role as a pediatric psychiatrist, I talk a lot with kids and their parents about these situations. One pattern that I’ve seen among many parents of irritable kids, is that once the child blows up, the parent reacts too quickly. I see parents making the error of “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” and so they try many different strategies in an attempt to get the child to calm down faster. A parent might ask numerous questions, tell the child to stop yelling (or even yell at the child to do so), inform the child that there is “no reason” to be upset, or threaten consequences if they don’t calm down quickly. The most common reason parents intervene are:


• Feeling responsible for actively teaching your child emotional regulation skills

• Feeling that your child is not being reasonable

• Feeling disrespected by your child and a failure as a parent

• Feeling embarrassed, guilty, and ashamed

• Feeling angry at your child, yourself, or both

• Feeling overwhelmed with an intense desire to make your child stop


Because of their own emotional responses, parents oftentimes feel compelled to react to their child’s meltdown and do something—anything—to get them to calm down ASAP. Unfortunately, kids learn virtually no new skills when they are upset, and neither do you. Reacting too quickly when kids are upset typically backfires. As often as not, intervening too early can fuel or intensify the anger outburst. Whether or not they are already angry at you, the moment you step in to get them to calm down can result in becoming the target of the anger.

Things often worsen at this point. Once kids become convinced that their parent is as mad at them as they are at the parent, the anger outburst becomes prolonged and can degenerate into a series of arguments that span the entire day. If you deal with this you might become a much happier parent if you try the opposite strategy when your child gets angry: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”



That’s one of the first strategies you can use to ride out the storm of your child’s anger outburst. As long as your child is not completely out of control (dangerous or destructive), it is completely reasonable for you to select the proactive parenting strategy of timing the duration of the anger outburst.

Note: Do not record the anger outburst on video as this worsens anger outbursts by humiliating the child.

Why would you time the duration of anger outbursts? Well, you need data. Parents often overestimate the duration of their child’s anger outbursts (and children notoriously underestimate the duration). By the way, you don’t have to be in the same room as your child when you are timing the duration of their outburst, especially if they are being rude or if you think your presence is agitating them.

If you take the steps to learn how long it takes your child, on average, to calm themselves down without assistance, then you will have the information you need in order to determine what to do about it. In the rare event that your child is routinely having anger outbursts lasting over an hour (in response to one trigger), it’s a good idea to have them assessed for a mood disorder. More commonly, the duration of anger outbursts for kids lasts from a few minutes to around 15 minutes. The potential side benefit is that you might just witness that your kids can calm themselves down if you give them the time and space to do so.

If you are not able to tolerate letting your child yell or cry for longer than a few seconds, consider setting a timer on your phone for five minutes once your child becomes upset. Once the timer goes off, you are then free to intervene in your usual manner. What is the purpose of this strategy?


• It helps you to set healthy boundaries with yourself to ensure that you are not intervening too early.

• It allows your child time to learn to self-soothe.

• It will allow you to see how often your child can regulate their own emotions without your help.

• At some point in their development, your children need to learn the skill of emotional self-regulation.



Obviously, if your child is putting themselves in danger, damaging property, or attempting to harm themselves or someone else, there is a need for you to immediately intervene (sometimes physically). If this happens more than once, it’s often time for you to schedule a meeting with your child’s pediatrician or involve professional mental health support.

Sometimes kids are not physically dangerous during an anger outburst, but they are disrespectful/abusive in some other way, such as shouting curse words, calling you names, or saying they hate you. If every time a child receives a consequence it triggers another emotional meltdown, it’s time for parents to involve professional help.



Being slow to react to your child’s anger will allow to you begin to see the triggers of your child’s anger more clearly. If your child sees that you are calm even after they blow up when you say no, they’ll learn that you are intentional and firm in your parenting decisions. They will respect you more, even if they are not willing to admit it. If you know the general time it takes for your kids to calm down when upset, you’ll feel less anxious when they get angry. Lastly, if you are not engaging with them every time they get upset, you are less likely to be in conflict with them the entire day.



The simple strategy of riding out the storm of your child’s anger outburst can yield tremendous benefits. Imagine how relieved you’ll feel as you see your child learn to self-regulate without requiring you to intervene every time. The strategy of observing, delaying, and/or timing the anger outburst does not work for every situation, but it’s a great place to start. You might just surprise yourself with how well and how quickly your kids learn to self-soothe. It feels great to have fewer conflicts over your child’s anger outbursts and be able to no longer feel like you’re walking on eggshells around them. In the end, you’ll both be happier.

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