Help! My child is having a tantrum and I’m trying to work.

You’ve had it happen to you. You, or you and your spouse, are working from home and now things are not going well. You are on a critical call or zoom session, in the other room your child or children are going to school remotely video conferencing with their classroom or they are working on one of their schoolwork assignments, and our child is having a meltdown or is out of control with her emotions in some other way. What did you do? Were you freaked out about your own meeting? Did you try to reason with your child? Did it work? If you are reading this it is most likely that it did not. You were probably triggered as well and worried about how this reflected or looked to your co-workers or worried you weren’t going to finish the project you were working on in time. Hence, your reaction continued to trigger your child’s reaction which in turn reactivated their emotional state and behavior. So, what can you do differently when this happens again in the near future?

First off, recognize that we are going through a hard time, this means you and your children. This pandemic is unlike anything we have lived through. Every day we receive new information about what to do, what not to do, whether school is open in person or not, and going to the store only to see that they are out of toilet paper once again! Give yourself a break and a pat on the back. You are doing the best you can during this tumultuous and difficult time.

So, what can you do?

That is exactly the question I am asking you. What could you do differently in this moment? What has worked in the past when your child had a tantrum or meltdown? What did you do then? Did you react or respond? Reacting is immediately saying or doing something without thinking. For example, you might react by screaming or yelling at them to stop, that it is not a big deal. Responding is taking the time to STOP, stop and take a deep breath or a time out. Think and reflect on what is happening right now, identify options on how to best deal with this situation, or offer support. Then proceed with one of those options. As an example, you can respond by taking a deep breath yourself, then coming down to your child’s level, literally by kneeling on the floor and maybe putting your hand on your child’s shoulder or giving them a hug.

Are you reacting more than responding?

Try the following:

  1. Do not yell.
  2. Walk Away! Make sure your kids are safe, and then walk away, letting them know where you are going. It could be the bathroom, your bedroom, anywhere where you can have privacy and be alone.
  3. Let your kids know you need a time out and that you will come out when you feel better. “I am so frustrated right now, I need to walk away and take a time out. I’m going to go to the bathroom and just close the door. I am going to take a minute.”
  4. Take 1-2 minutes of your own time out. Take time to collect yourself and do your own self-care. Take a deep breath. Stretch. Splash cold water on your face. Say a mantra. Sing a song. Whatever it takes to get you back to a calm and relaxed state.
  5. When you are ready, come back out and talk to your child(ren) about what just happened. Have them share with you what their frustrations are and what support they need from you. This might also be a good time to check in on HALT. Is your child too Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?

More often than not, parents use logic and reason to handle the problem at hand. Except this rarely works when a child is in the middle of a right-brain meltdown.1 In the book The Whole Brain Child, authors Daniel Sigel and Tina Payne Bryon explain the differences between left brain and right brain activation. The key is to integrate the two sides of the brain, allowing them to work together as a team. Siegel and Bryson recommend starting by connecting from the right brain by acknowledging feelings in a nonjudgmental way, using physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, and a nurturing tone of voice. By starting to connect your child in this way, you allow your child to “feel felt” before trying to solve the problems or address the situation (Siegel, Bryson).

Once you have gotten your child to physically calm down, Siegel and Bryson continue with the next step by redirecting with the left brain and problem solving with your child or making suggestions on what she can do now that she’s calmer and in control of herself. In their book, they provide additional skills such as name it to tame it, engage don’t enrage, let the clouds of emotion roll by, use the remote of the mind, SIFT (sensations, images, feelings and thoughts), connection through conflict, and increasing the family fun factor.

When the kids are not having tantrums, talk about this experience and ask them what they want in that moment. Do they want a hug? Or do they need a glass of water? Or do they just need 5 minutes of your time and attention to help them navigate through their difficulty and frustration?

It can be helpful to prepare yourself for these moments ahead of time, especially when you don’t have the time to think about the right and left brain. It is helpful to learn how to identify behaviors, and what options you have when these situations show up. You can create a toolbox for yourself and your child ahead of time. Brainstorm some ideas with your son or daughter or come up with your own.

Here are a few suggestions for creating a tantrum toolbox:

  1. Help ground yourself and then your child. You can do so by using your five senses. Identify 5 things you can see in front of you; 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can sense/feel on your body, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Now notice how you are feeling and thinking. Once you feel grounded, see if you can ask your child to do the same.
  2. Toss a stuffed animal or ball towards your child. Play catch for a minute to help regulate their nervous system and help your child calm down.
  3. Mirror your child’s behavior. If he is rolling around on the ground, roll around with him.
  4. Jump up and down. Or do jumping jacks. Encourage your child to do so the same.
  5. Grab an old telephone book or newspaper and start tearing it up into shreds.
  6. Use some calming apps such as Ninja Focus or Calm.

Even if you have a plan, you’re not going to make the right choice every time states Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids. She continues that it’s okay when you get it wrong — do your best to hang in there. The goal is to come up with strategies when you are in a calm state and not scramble in the midst of a turbulent situation.3

Perhaps next time you are on a call, ask to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. Or mute yourself and turn off your video while you walk away for a moment? If you are working on a project, save it and walk away for a few minutes. Can you do this without feeling guilty about tending to your child’s needs?

Ultimately what parents want is for themselves and their children to behave calmly and peacefully in their household. And if this gets interrupted, know how to deal with it and fix it. Ask yourself, how can I respond to this behavior and my child’s expressed need for help so that it brings us back to that goal of calm and quiet. Is what I am thinking and doing getting that response? Or am I just perpetuating the problem with my reaction? Help yourself first, then help your child. Just like being on an airplane, you are asked to put your mask on first, then your child’s.

Main Street Counseling Group offers Parenting Classes and Counseling Services to help parents and their children navigate through these emotional rollercoasters. You can contact us at or by calling 805-798-0405.

Recommended Reading

  1. The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
  2. Active Parenting Now: Parent’s Guide for Parents of Children Ages 5 to 12 by Michael H. Popkin, Ph.D.
  3. How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent by Carla Naumburg, Ph.D.

Suggested Apps