TANTRUMS: Helping Kids When They Dig Themselves Into A Hole

All relationships go through times of emotional disconnection. This is natural and normal and part of being one human living with other humans. When our children tantrum, whatever the reason, these are times when they feel disconnected from us.

Sometimes their tantrums are accompanied by another need, as when they are tired or hungry(Reaction Tantrums). Sometimes their tantrums are more about learning that the world has edges and they cannot always do what they would like to do (Processing Tantrums).  All tantrums are about having big sensations in their bodies that they would like to go away – some need more soothing (Reaction Tantrums) and  some need to be completed to that new information can be integrated into their neural pathways (Processing Tantrums). They all feel bad.


During any kind of tantrum, our children need to know they can find their way back to us. They need to know, deep inside, they are still good and worthy, even if some of their behaviour is unacceptable. They need to know how to emotionally reconnect after disconnection. They need to know how to make things better. Their ability to do this will determine how well they can manage their adult relationships. It’s a big deal.

Some children, those I call Owls, get very stubborn when they are tantruming. They get so overwhelmed by the big sensations in their bodies, and their ability to think rationally can be so far off-line, that they dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes.  That is, they make things worse for themselves, even when they desperately want to make things better. Helping these kids to calm and emotionally reconnect takes a bit of conscious parenting. Here’s a process that seems to work for our Owl child:

1.  Stay calm and take nothing they say or do personally. It’s NOT about you or your internal needs or dramas. Imagine you are observing the situation, not participating in it.


2. State the situation clearly and with as little emotion as you can manage. “You are not having ice-cream for breakfast, it’s not a healthy start to the day.” OR “You’re hungry, I know, we’ll get you some food as fast as we can but all the same, you’re not allowed to hurt your brother.”

3. As frequently as you can, make warm, non-intrusive, eye-contact. It can also be good to hold them in your arms, with their backs snuggled into your tummy – when they relax, you relax, when they tense you hold a little firmer – not to hurt them, just to contain them. This helps them to feel the edges of their bodies. (They will probably hurt you and complain you are holding them too hard.) During this time you could remind them that you love them, in a calm voice but stop them from kicking, pinching, biting etc. They might say all sorts of mean things in return. Ignore those things, you’re the observer – not a participant.

4. If they go and hide somewhere, follow them and remind them you love them and you are available for a cuddle as soon as they are ready. Then leave them to it. You could pop back every now and again to remind them that you love them, but it works best – long-term, if they come to you, rather than you going to them. (You’re NOT a Rescuer you’re an Enabler.)

5. Snap them out of the tantrum in some way.

(A) You could try ‘Random Words and Phrases’ as Hand in Hand Parenting suggests – where you call out anything that will give their brain an alternative picture to focus on. “Red Noses!” “Hairy Elephant Legs!” etc But often these make Owl children more angry, so then try…

(B) Distract them by suggesting to someone else that they go and do something pleasant, within the upset one’s hearing. “Why don’t you go and play with Jason?” said to Joe, can make Sam re-emerge from his anger. You might need to try something different each time.

(C) Divert them by reminding them they can hit the pillows in their bedroom as much as they like but they are not to hit the cat, etc.

6. Carry on with something else, remove your focus from them: prepare the food if they are hungry; help them into bed, if they are tired; fold the washing or continue with the grocery-shopping if you are simply setting a boundary.

7. Expect them to apologise. Of course, apologies can be ‘just words’ but you can easily say, “I don’t believe you mean that just now.” People cannot genuinely apologise until they feel better themselves. You’ll know when they are feeling real remorse, then you have a lovely snuggle, makes loads of eye-contact and emotionally reconnect. They don’t have to apologise about being hungry…how silly would that be? But for any mean-ness or any hurt they have caused. (Whether you believe in asking children to apologise or not; it is the way adults in the western world are expected to begin repairing relationships. I believe it is a skill to be taught and practised as much as learning to use the washing-machine or balance their cheque-books.)

6. Expect them to ask, “How can I make it better?” For some situations, it’s enough to have the genuine apology. For other situations, payment for repairs or help to clean up the tantrum mess might be more appropriate. (Always work alongside them, so it is a re-connective process.)

7. Never mention it again, unless they raise the topic.

{About a week after I wrote this, my lovely Owl (Sam) managed to dig himself into a hole about who was going to open one of our gates. He wasn’t going to do ‘that’ gate no matter what, but when his four yo brother, Ed, said he would have a go at it, Sam quickly volunteered to help if Ed had any problems managing, and did. He found a way out of his hole before he got in too deep. If I had pushed the issue, instead of waiting for that to happen, he would have simply dug himself in deeper and he would have had no relief from the stress he was experiencing in that hole. And I’d still be sitting in the car waiting for the gate to be opened.

The intense stubbornness these kids display can be immensely frustrating for parents and teachers…perhaps until we realise, it’s a sign of stress and feeling overwhelmed and we have to give them breathing space in order for them to calm, and manage the situation.}

For more innovative and science based information on parenting, in particular tantrums, you could go and buy my book – All About Tantrums: Why we have them, How to prevent them, What to do when they happen. There’s the link riiiiiiiiight there:  https://www.createspace.com/3893965

‘All About Tantrums’ is also now available for Kindle.

(The advertising on this page is all about WordPress. I have no control over it, nor do I get any money from it.)


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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8 Responses to TANTRUMS: Helping Kids When They Dig Themselves Into A Hole

  1. My mother used to try cajoling her three owl-ish kids out of various miseries by making us laugh. It made one more angry, made another shut down, but made me feel so sorry for her earnest attempts that I laughed.

    • Trying to use humour with our Owl would definitely make him angry or shut down further…laughing at your Mum’s earnest attempts was a wonderful and gracious thing to do.

  2. hamakkomommy says:

    What a timely post! Your description of a tantrum is basically exactly what happened here this afternoon, complete with my son locking himself in the bathroom for 30 minutes. I’m always torn as to whether I should help him clean up the mess he’s made, etc. My instincts told me I should, but you describing it as a way of reconnecting was kind of a lightbulb moment. Thank you!

  3. Rachel says:

    Hey I was curious about #7? I shouldn’t try to discuss the behavior with my child after the fact?

    • I am reflecting on this, Rachel. You’re right to raise this…I tend to leave the issue alone, which is what I meant when I wrote this. The reactive behaviours I do speak about with them once they are calm…And discuss other ways of dealing with internal stress (if there has been violence, especially.)

  4. Jen says:

    Just came across your blog. Wanted to know your thoughts on this. I have a sometimes 5 yo owlish who has been having big tantrums mostly due to over tiredness. I cannot hold him (partly due to personality and partly to early months at an orphanage) when he gets this way. He often screams for something – last night which tantrum continued for an unusually longer time period and was in multiple phases to continue to scratch his back and for over 10 minutes. Total tantrum was likely 15-20 minutes but seemed liked an hour. I declined until he calmed down. Eventually he stopped and I went to him to get him to bed. I am able to stay emotionally detached from the situation but really want to help him with skills to settle/calm down earlier. Nothing seems to work except plain old wait it out. It’s a horrible cycle with the inability to calm himself and his inability to settle down for the much needed sleep.

    • Over tiredness is nasty and there really isn’t a lot we can do at the time, except help them get through it as best we can. That you can stay detached and not take it personally is a wonderful skill that many parents don’t have. When he is calm, you could teach deep breathing and even meditation or that he can hurt a pillow rather than himself. Before he gets too upset, you can then direct him to breathe properly or to go hit his pillow. Owls can trigger very quickly, though, so I understand if you are unable to do this. There may be all sorts of things buried in him emotionally, from the time in the orphanage, I would work on slowly building his ability to make eye-contact and tolerate warm non-intrusive touch…these things can help his brain to re-programme, if there is residual trauma. All the best.

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