Heading Off Temper Tantrums

Infants and young children cannot regulate their emotions on their own, and they need loving adults in their lives to help them regulate and practice these skills.
upset young girl

The Ideas & Solutions blog is intended to provide a forum for the discussion of child care and early education issues and ideas. We hope to provoke thoughtful discussions within the field and to help those outside the field gain a better understanding of priorities and concerns.

Originally published in the Winter 2022 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine.

We all have things in life that aggravate or annoy us, and we all have different ways of managing those feelings of frustration. Sometimes even adults need more practice with self-regulation techniques.

We manage these adult annoyances the same way we were taught to as children: through practice and guidance.

In the early years of life, our brain grows and develops at a rapid pace, and our understanding of the world grows alongside it. Through the challenges of learning our place in the world, we get lots of practice managing our emotions, often accompanied by the guidance of our caregivers.

Self-regulation is the ability or willingness to calm down, settle down, or adjust to different conditions.[1]  Children develop self-regulation through warm and responsive relationships — and through watching the adults around them. Self-regulation starts in infancy, but the peak of self-regulation occurs in the toddler and preschool years and continues into adulthood. 

Infants and young children cannot regulate their emotions on their own, and they need loving adults in their lives to help them regulate and practice these skills. Here’s how you can help them:

Respond to cues. Pay attention to children’s needs and cues, and respond accordingly. For example, if it’s too loud, take the child to another room, cover their ears, or help them cover their own ears.

Display patience. Self-regulation takes lots and lots of practice; give children time and grace to learn this skill. 

Offer words for their emotions. Use a variety of vocabulary words in talking about emotions. This helps children understand their emotions and share what they are feeling later on as the skill develops.

Establish a routine and plan ahead. When children know what to expect, it’s easier to self-regulate. Establishing a daily routine that is consistent and predictable will create behaviors that are consistent and predictable as well. Communicate changes and transitions to children beforehand, and plan for how you can help the child feel more comfortable during that time.

In preparation for this article, I decided to do a Facebook poll to gather some adult annoyances — which could have or did turn into a temper tantrum. Here are some highlights: 

When I go to pull out a shirt from my closet and the hangers are tangled

Cashiers at the grocery store that talk more than they scan

Finding the laundry that I washed and so neatly folded for my girls upstairs on their floor or crammed into a corner. You know, the same thing I did to my mom when I was a teenager.

Can’t find the end of the Scotch tape

A dirty house that no one helps you clean!

Spending forever on a meal just to have it turn out awful

Putting together a TV stand you bought from IKEA

Being cut off in traffic

When your jacket gets caught on the door

Presidential election

Printers that say “offline” 

When the toilet seat gets left up at my house

Anytime I’ve ever stubbed my toe

When someone asks me for information that is in the email they are replying to

  • Callie Hoffman
    Executive Director, Kansas Parents as Teachers Association (KPATA)

    Callie has worked with Parents as Teachers for 22 years. She started as a parent in the program, then became a parent educator, and currently serves as both a program coordinator and the executive director for KPATA. KPATA supports early childhood home-visiting programs with a parent education component and strives to build quality programs throughout the state so that all Kansas children will develop to their fullest potential. Callie lives in Olathe with her husband Matt, their five children (Emily, Rudy, Clare, Colter & Jude) and a very well-loved dog named Bullet. Callie and her family love traveling, spending time outdoors, and watching sports.