How can we manage tantrums?

toddler tantrumQUESTION
Our issues are with our three-year-old son who has been waking one to two times most nights. It started about a year and a half ago and it has now progressed to full-blown screaming with demands that we go into him. We would wait to see if it stopped but he is so determined he just storms into our room, banging our door to ensure we know of his presence.

Settling him back generally takes a few minutes. I walk him back into his room, don’t engage with him and tuck him back in. Sometimes he demands I sit on the chair beside him or massage his hand which I do for about one minute.

Once every two weeks, it will escalate for no apparent reason to a full-blown tantrum which results in us taking him downstairs until he calms down. His bad sleep pattern is disrupting the whole household as he often wakes my other two children, and so the vicious circle continues.

He is an extremely determined child and we have had to resort to completely different parenting techniques than we use with our older child. We have to give him choices, count to three to get something done, be very clear on expectations and improve our art of distraction. However, he will often have tantrums during the day regardless of this.

We have disciplined him with the use of a naughty step, but in the past month we changed this to time out, telling him he must calm down before he leaves but sometimes this can be a half-hour – his determination when having a tantrum can seem relentless.

Oppositional tantrums are tough to deal with at the best of times. In the middle of the night, when everyone is tired, they are particularly stressful. However, with a lot of patience and gentle persistence you can make progress.

It strikes me you have both a determined yet emotionally insecure little boy, who is as shocked and overwhelmed by his angry emotions as you are.

To make progress, it is important to find ways to help him calm down and to get through his outbursts in a way that he feels contained and understood (and that does not leave you feeling exhausted).

Coach him down
Try to avoid getting into a battle of wills when he is in the middle of a tantrum. The goal is to try to de-escalate the heightened anger rather than confronting his misbehaviour.

When dealing with a three-year-old boy, distraction and emotional soothing (via gentle words and comfort) are going to be the most effective tactics. I think you have already seen this working for you in the night when you intervene and give him a hand massage to help him relax and get back to sleep. This not only helps him calm down but also gives him an emotional sense of security which he definitely needs.

Teach him how to calm himself
I would suggest you employ a gentle step-by-step approach to help him learn to settle himself at night. Avoid waiting until he has got worked up and is “banging on the door”. Intervene earlier and take him back to bed.

Avoid waiting until he has got worked up and is “banging on the door”. Intervene earlier and take him back to bed.

You can employ a little bit of discipline to help him co-operate. For example, if he is over-demanding, you can say “Sshh now, ask Mum nicely and I will give you a gentle rub,” or “When you get back into bed, then Mum or Dad will tuck you in.”

The key is to try to get a tiny bit of co-operation first – getting him to go back to bed himself before you soothe or asking nicely before you respond to him, though you need to make the first step of co-operation as small as possible.
Then you can build slowly to help him co-operate and manage his feelings.

Effective timeout
I think you are making progress by not using the naughty step and instead calling the process “time out”. Engaging in a battle of wills or naming it the naughty step makes the process more confrontational and less likely to work with a child who has a determined personality like your son.

Frequently, I suggest to parents not to even use the words “time out” and instead suggest you say, “Let’s take a break now – let’s all calm down.” Then invite your child to sit somewhere else in the room for a few minutes where he can calm down.

Remember that your son will initially find it hard to calm down and may need you to return in a minute to emotionally coach him – perhaps give him a hug and say, “Come on now, let’s calm down now and be friends.”

If you get through a tantrum positively like this, he will start to learn that he can manage his emotions. Crucially, he needs to feel that you don’t reject or criticise him for having these angry feelings in the first place.

Focus on self-care and get further help
Dealing with serious tantrums and nighttime disruptions is hard work and it is important to focus on your self-care as you do this (such as taking breaks, sharing your son’s work with the other parent – alternating nights “on duty”, and so on). The more relaxed and calm you are, the easier it will be to manage.

Seek further help from professionals such as your primary care team or consider attending an evidence-based parenting course. There is more detailed information on dealing with tantrums in my book, Positive Parenting.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents see