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How to Deal With Tantrums

January 25, 2022

A psychologist’s advice for dealing with temper tantrums.

How to Deal With Tantrums

“Children behave well when they can,” writes Professor Ross W. Greene. For children with autism spectrum disorders, this statement is also absolutely true.

How do adults like parents, relatives, or even a babysitter act in a situation where a child has a tantrum? Many adults do not tolerate loud noises well, so their priority is to stop the screaming as soon as possible. Sometimes, the child screams become purple-red, arches his/her back, or causes such harm to him or herself that the adult becomes afraid for his/her health.

A child’s tantrum is certainly a serious test for the adults around him/her. It will be up to the adults (parents or caregivers) to determine how this type of behavior will be handled in the future.

Within the framework of applied behavior analysis (ABA), the work on any behavior begins with the definition of its function. In other words, it is necessary to understand why the hysteria happened. 

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Parents are strongly encouraged to constantly “collect data”. This data will help them determine the following important factors:

  • What preceded the tantrum: the circumstances and environment around the child before the tantrum commenced
  • How it occurred: the nature of the tantrum and the child’s behavior during the tantrum
  • The consequences of such behavior (a tantrum)

To formulate a complete hypothesis about the function of a tantrum, it may be useful to note the following points in a table:

  • what exactly was the child doing a few minutes before the tantrum?
  • who was next to him/her?
  • what happened immediately before the child threw a tantrum?
  • where did the hysteria occur?
  • at what time did this happen?
  • how did others behave when the tantrum started, and what did they do when the child calmed down?

For a child, a tantrum may have the following functions:

1. Avoiding (or getting rid of) some unpleasant stimulus

2. Getting what he/she wants

3. Attracting attention

Before considering specific examples, I want to encourage readers to remember two basic rules:

1.  Act consistently

For example, if you refused to buy a chocolate bar in a store, and your child threw a tantrum in response, he/she should not receive the chocolate bar.

It is natural to want to give our children what they desire, but giving in to tantrums will reinforce this negative behavior. Persevere in ignoring negative behavior and rewarding or reinforcing a positive or desired behavior. Also, if you ask your child to do something, it must be done within the agreed time period. 

2. Ensure everyone in your child’s life is on the same page 

Measures to prevent and handle a tantrum need to be carried out by all adults who spend time with the child. This adds to the aforementioned point regarding consistency. If your child knows grandma will still buy the chocolate bar in response to a tantrum, the behavior will be reinforced and it will continue, despite parents not giving in to tantrums anymore.

Now let’s talk about the functions of tantrums in more detail.

Function: Getting what he/she wants

When tantrums occur because the child is using this behavior to get what he/she wants, the behavior, how it is handled, and the consequences may play out in different ways. Let’s explore some scenarios to see how tantrums may be motivated by a child’s desire to get what he/she wants:

Scenario A

 A child on the playground sees someone else’s wonderful radio-controlled car. He tries to touch it, but the car goes so fast that it is impossible to catch up. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, the child bursts into a full-blown tantrum.

His nanny, who adheres to the principle “The most important thing is that the child does not cry,” approaches the boy who owns the car, and asks whether the hysterical child can play with it. After thanking the owner, the nanny hands the toy to the child. The child, having received the car, magically calms down.

This example illustrates how the child resorts to hysteria because he/she does not yet possess the communication skills to request a turn with a toy. In this case, the child should be taught to communicate his/her desires with words or gestures. The child’s request should only be fulfilled once he/she communicates such wants in a calm way, whether it be through verbal or nonverbal communication.

Scenario B

The events unfold, as in the previous example, until the owner of the car responds. This time, he says “Look, I can’t give it to you. It’s my car; I don’t give it to anyone.” This follows with the nanny and the child behaving in the same way as in the previous example, but to no avail. The mom of the boy with the car takes him away from this playground. In this example, the child needs to be taught to accept rejection. This is difficult for a child, and the appropriate skillset may take a while to acquire.

Scenario C

In the last example the child may have a tantrum not because they really want to play with the car (this may only play a secondary role in the causation of the tantrum), but because of hunger, thirst, tiredness, or sensory overload.

In this scenario, the child should be taught to communicate his/her needs. Parents should be aware of tantrum triggers like hunger and sensory overload—by helping the child communicate when he/she feels overwhelmed, tantrums may be avoided.

In this scenario, the child’s daily routine plays an extremely important role. Older children should be taught to independently control the regularity of drinking and eating according to a visual schedule or a timer signal. Hyperactive children should be provided with a sufficient amount of physical activity.

Function: avoiding (or getting rid of) some unpleasant stimulus

To explain how this function of a tantrum may play out, let’s look at the following example.

A teacher asks the child to put blocks back in the box. The child refuses and screams. The teacher then collects the blocks with some of the other children who are willing to help her.

In this situation, the teacher is not really helping the child long-term. The teacher, by picking up the blocks, maybe encouraging screaming and non-compliance.

The child tried to get out of helping to clean up. The tantrum worked as he/she did not have to put the blocks away because the teacher took over the duty. The behavior will continue as the child will perceive that the function behind the tantrum was successfully achieved.

In this scenario, teachers may need training in ABA principles to encourage desired behavior like helping to clean up. Aids like social stories, visual schedules, and making a fun game of cleaning up could help the teacher in this scenario.

It is also pertinent to examine whether the child’s behavior was really motivated by getting out of cleaning up. Often, children tantrum in educational settings to get the teacher’s attention.  

Function: attract attention

Children crave attention. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether it is positive attention (praise, hugs, approving or interested look) or negative attention (shouting, slapping, or angry eye contact). The motivating factor is that the attention is sincere and accompanied by a pronounced emotional reaction from the parent.

Unfortunately, it is often easier for a child to achieve a negative reaction than a positive one. It is often easier to offend a peer than to engage him/her with something interesting. It is easier to annoy a tired dad after work than to interact with him in a meaningful way, geared towards getting a kind word from him.

Negative behavior, not just tantrums, should not receive attention. If, however, there is a chance that during a tantrum a child will cause injury to him/herself, you must intervene. This should be done in silence. After the child calms down, you can give him/her attention.

Provide plenty of positive attention to a child and teach him/her to attract attention through positive behavior. By ignoring negative behavior and reinforcing positive behavior, you are teaching your child to act in a desirable way to gain attention.


Many parents have a hard time ignoring tantrums. By preparing in advance, parents are more likely to act with consistency and calmness. 

In conclusion, I want to remind parents of a quote from Professor Greene’s book: “The child will not throw tantrums if they cease to fulfill their functional purpose.”

This article was featured in Issue 125 – Unwrapping ABA Therapy

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