TANTRUMS: Do You Make Them Worse or Help Them Ease?

Yeah, tantrum-ing kids can be pretty unpleasant. They can be especially hard work if we’re knackered, stressed or ruminating about something other than them. It’s easy then to slip into the roles we were, inadvertently, taught by our parents or other significant people in our lives. These roles are not useful but they are familiar – and these are automated reactions; no point beating ourselves up about having them. But we can pause, choose to make changes and then see those changes through.

Karpman’s Drama Triangle is a way of understanding how many of us live our lives. It includes three key roles: victim, rescuer and persecutor. These are particularly prominent during a conflict situation when many of us naturally embed into these roles and seek to reinforce them. I know, so not helpful. During the conflict we might move from role to role but the key for our brain is that we stay within the triangle. It’s familiar and we are comfortable with familiar. Breaking that triangle makes us feel uneasy and uncomfortable within our skin – these are signs our brains are rewiring.

So, example…our 3.75 yo son, Ed often wants to eat ice-cream for breakfast. For many reasons, this is not OK in our house. If he packs a tanty when the boundary is set, I have four ways I could respond to that tantrum – and THREE are not useful.

Unhelpful Approach One – Victim:

I could tell him how unfair he was being to me and point out how many things I had to think about or do of a morning. I could scold him because we have already been through this before and, really, how dare he challenge the boundary again because he is making my life so difficult by doing so. I could allow him to eat the ice-cream and then make a lot of noise about how hard he makes my life. I could tell him or imply he didn’t deserve to have a mother as wonderful and saintly as I. (Yes, you may gag now.) Which ever way I do it, as a victim, I make it all about me and my emotional needs and not about him or what he really needs at this time.

Unhelpful Approach Two – Persecutor:

I could use my body or words to cause him pain. I could make this all about how dreadful he is and tell him that he is an awful dreadful child who will never be ‘good’. Which ever way I do it, as a persecutor, I make it all about my power and might, and not about him. I am asking him to learn and rely on ‘the rules’ to get through life. I am asking him to become externally focussed and not trust his own instincts. In this role, I am unable to tell the difference between his needing a boundary and my needing to be the boundary-setter.

Unhelpful Approach Three – Rescuer:

I could start using this as a time for teaching. I could reason and debate with him and then pat myself on the back for being such a wonderful parent and doing such a lot of work. I could give up my own need for breakfast or my other boys’ needs to have my focus from time to time and give myself totally to the issue of teaching Ed all the stuff he needs to know about healthy breakfasts. Can you see the problem? In any situation, but particularly conflict situations, the person doing the most talking is the person doing the most work. Except, I already know about decent diet and why ice-cream is not a great choice as a breakfast food, and after about 10-15 words it’s unlikely he’s hearing me anyway. Which ever way I do it, as a rescuer, I am assuming what he needs to know and teaching him in a way that makes me feel better about MYSELF. If I’m a compulsive rescuer, I actually don’t want this resolved because I gain a lot of self-worth from the rescuing and helping and assisting that I do. I am embedding him in the role of ‘victim’ so that I can get MY needs met.


Approach Four: What Actually is Helpful?

There are five things to do that will help this situation calm and will reduce the amount of Boundary Testing tantrums experienced over time.

1. I am organised and have his breakfast ready or almost ready. Yes, I may have considered his requests from previous days but I have made that decision. (Too many options is a huge cause of stress in modern life.)

2. I calm myself. I have to work out where his stress ends and mine begins: I (figuratively or literally) step back; I breathe deeply; and, I reclaim the energy I am sending him. I work on my own poise and serenity. I focus on the ONE key thing that matters at this moment in time – he needs to eat healthy food.

3. I make a statement of fact or a very brief explanation: ‘ice-cream is not a breakfast food’; or, ‘ice-cream is not helpful to your brain and body while you’re at kindy.’ (I am not debating or reasoning with him, I am stating how things are – calmly and pleasantly but also firmly.)

4. I, as gently as possible, peel his fingers from the ice-cream container and carry him over to the table where I already have the healthy alternative prepared. If he climbs, falls or jumps down from his seat, I leave him where he is and, while staying nearby, continue on with chores I have to do. If he tries to fetch the ice-cream again, I stop him from getting to the freezer and carry him back to the table.

5. I give him a cuddle when he asks for one. I feed him if he asks to be fed. I sit with him on my knee if he wants to eat that way. I talk to him about other things if he engages in alternative conversation. Or I will make an alternative healthy breakfast for him to eat in the car. (None of these are pandering to him – all of them are acknowledging that his physical and emotional drives are way more powerful than his ability to be rational.)

Why it Works:

A. By not engaging in debate, I allow his brain to learn that some things are unacceptable behaviours in our house and that eating healthy food is important. He is learning; I am not teaching.

B. By moving his body physically in the direction I want him to go, his brain automatically begins to refocus. He is hungry. He wants to eat. And his Physical Brain Systems are far more powerful than his Rational Brain Systems. The first time this happens, he may take a while to settle but eventually the change in focus is enough for him to eat the healthier option.

C. By calming and remaining calm I can use all of my brain systems to stay out of his drama. I can set the boundary in a way that is useful to him without imposing my agenda or personal shadows on the situation. We can all stay out of Drama Triangles – where it’s emotionally and psychologically healthy.

The full alternative to the Drama Triangle? Try this post:

TANTRUMS: The Serenity Triangle.

For more innovative and science based ideas about dealing with tantrums buy my book,



About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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37 Responses to TANTRUMS: Do You Make Them Worse or Help Them Ease?

  1. Mamma_Simona says:

    Thank you for reminding me about the Drama Triangle. This is helpful information even if you don’t have young kids who throw tantrums!

  2. Clear and logical, thanks. Sharing!

  3. Nicole says:

    Perfect timing. Thank you!

  4. Dean Beitel says:

    My daughter s never had tantrums it was stopped on the first one.i simple got down to thier level looked them in the eye and in a very low tone stated that in this house we respect each other and nothing happens until this stops.i am your dad and I expect better from you. You represent our family and this is not exceptable behaviour. And it stopped period

  5. Alison says:

    Not getting pulled into their drama – yes!
    Diversion is great, that’s my go-to tactic to prevent a meltdown.
    Great tips as always, Karyn!

  6. Cathy Dixon says:

    Point 5 is really interesting. ‘My Miss 6’ – queen of tantrums, demands all of these things, which I always deny because I felt this would be pandering to her wilfulness. Hmmm rethink time… very good advice.

    • It’s all about focus, Cathy. What’s the main thing you want to achieve at any one time? Our Physical Drives dominate our Emotional Drives, and both dominate our ability to be Rational. The younger our kids the more this is so. Pleased to see you here. 😀

  7. Melissa says:

    Great tips! I need to work on being less long-winded and “teachy” when talking to my 2-year-old.

  8. Amber says:

    So what does one do if there isn’t a boundary issue involved? For example, my 2.5yo DS will ask for his water. I’ll hand him his water bottle he was most recently drinking out of. He may immediately throw himself on the floor and have a tantrum over wanting a different glass/bottle/receptacle of some sort. I’m not an unreasonable person…he’s still little and within reason if he prefers a different glass or jug, and simply asked for it, I would probably be agreeable. But without even first telling me or asking for what he wants, he simply melts down immediately! We tell him often to use his words, and simply ask for what he wants instead of having a tantrum, but he’s not quite figured it out yet.

    • I have to guess, of course, because I can’t know everything surrounding this…but at first glance I would suggest asking what he wants his water in, before you hand him the glass/bottle with the water in it. I would offer two alternatives “Do you want your water in your bottle or this glass?”…he may choose a third option but that’s OK because it is likely to prevent the meltdown and get him his water – which seems to be the prime goal. We often get caught up with dealing with more than one issue and that’s often what causes their frustration and the tantrum.
      Great question!

  9. GroveCanada says:

    Thinking outside of the box…Make a homemade ice cream/frozen yogurt type concoction that contains no sugar, but does contain, granola, berries, or other various breakfasty types of things in it…Offer that as a new breakfast option, then sit down as a family & eat it together…

  10. Awesome tips, Karyn! You are my tantrums guru for sure 😀

  11. This is perfect timing for me, too, Karyn. Fantastic post!!

    Jen 🙂

  12. envirojulie says:

    This is magical! I have been nothing but calm and matter of fact with Harper, my 3 1/2 year old son, tonight and it has been a completely tantrum free evening!!! I was so guilty of being the rescuer, thinking I was helping, but that doesn’t create stable boundaries and just frustrates him. Thank you! Julie 🙂

    • FANTASTIC! That is so awesome to hear. 😀 So pleased that this helped and that you came back and commented…so appreciated.

      • envirojulie says:

        You are more than welcome! I love your site already and I have only just discovered it! Not only is applying this information helpful in calming my son’s daily life but it also helps me look at myself and my own patterns and grow as a mother and a person. I was averse to ‘matter of fact’ boundaries thinking that meant that I was telling him ‘this is the way it is because I say it is.’ Your article helped me redefine that by realizing that I’m really just telling him ‘this is how we live life.’ Once that is set then he is open to imagination and creative play and blossoming and learning being open to learning about his world instead of having to worry about what he wants for dinner and all the hundred reasons I can come up with to teach him why healthy eating is good for him. That’s not what his 3 1/2 year old little mind needs to try to process. My paradigms are shifting as I type this! 🙂 If he asks ‘why’ I will certainly engage but that is fulfilling his need to know not just my need to ‘teach.’ 🙂

  13. Rachel Wright says:

    I have found that when my three year old tantrums at meal times (usually because he and his sister both wanted the same plate or something, and she got it this time, so he refuses the other one.) The most effective way to deal with it is to simply remove the rejected item from in front of him and carry on with the meal. After a minute or two he will ask for it back and I give it to him and he is fine. bedtime and naptime though… I am still trying to figure that one out.

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  19. I am most probably in ‘rescuer’ mode a lot of the time and your description of Approach 4 is what I try and do now with our 4.5 year old. However, in your example, step 4 of prying the ice-cream container from his hands if he went back for it would almost certainly end in me being hit, punched or kicked. Sometimes I can divert with other interesting choices (do you want this or that) or refocusing on a toy or a game but he is quite determined and it often ends up with me struggling with aggressive behavior and not knowing how to handle it. Any thoughts? Thanks.

    • Yeah, that aggression can be tough. I have had that too. I then contain my 4.5yo in a way I’ve called Calm Restraint. (It comes from the book The Science of Parenting, but I gave it that label for easy understanding.) Basically: Calm yourself and make sure you’re conscious of what you’re doing and can stay in a gentle place; turn your child’s body, so that his/her back is against your tummy; hold him/her so that you can’t be too badly hurt, watch out for his/her head, until s/he relaxes; remind her/him that you will let go as soon as s/he goes soft; and relax every time s/he does so. It’s likely that s/he will still try to get to the ‘ice-cream’ and will still try to be aggressive a few times. So just repeat as often as you need to. It will be frequent to begin with but over the next few weeks/months the behaviours will ease and the boundary will be easier for him/her to accept. When people get to aggression, they often can’t feel their bodies, but just feel like they are the sensation of anger. This is great if you’re being chased by a lion or kidnapped but not so good in every day life. The Calm Restraint approach helps them to both feel the edges of their bodies, so they can engage their conscious brain again and have them know that you won’t accept that sort of thing but that you are warm and comforting as well. Usually, the children want to cuddle, make eye-contact or kiss us afterwards. It’s their way of showing us that they value the emotional connection they have with us. Good luck!

  20. Thanks – I gave it a try this afternoon…nearly got a black eye but we’ll keep trying! 🙂

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