What To Do When Your Child Is Having a Stress Tantrum

Responding to a Highly Stressed Child

When a child in our care is highly stressed, so are we. This is a fact, and one that is important to an effective response to help the child. We need to keep in mind that strong emotions are often contagious. While we will always have some level of stress when dealing with a stressed child, we must guard against “catching” the full brunt of their stress. Often, children, because they know us, will be very skilled in attacking us verbally when they are stressed. The biggest mistake we can make is to personalize this material.

A second mistake that most adults make when addressing a highly stressed child is to begin to increase the pressure on the child to comply. From experience, this hardly ever works. It usually just escalates the situation further. So what to do?

Fortunately, there are skills that you can build to help children in your care to lower their stress. The first is to recognize that lowering a highly stressed child takes space and time. Every child and every situation has it’s own timetable for de-escalation. You can not rush the process. The space where you find yourself with the child is also important. If possible, lower the stimulation in the space; turn off televisions, radios, etc. Direct other people that are not needed in the room to leave. If the child is in a space not appropriate for de-escalation, try to gently encourage the child to let you guide them to another, less public area.

Your next tool is your tone of voice. In giving directives, it should be firm, confident, and compassionate. It should be used at normal volume. In engagement about the issue at hand or what is stressing the child, you voice should be what I call a “Mr. Rogers” voice. This is calm, gentle, and nurturing. Many people become uncomfortable with this approach, thinking that the intention is to “coddle” the child; it is not. You can maintain a calm, gentle, and nurturing tone while continuing to be firm and unyielding to your behavioral standards and expectations.

It is important when approaching a stressed child to first ask permission to get physically close to them, or at least tell them that you are going to move closer. This demonstrates respect for their emotional state; it is also wise to do from the standpoint that the child may feel threatened by your sudden move closer to them. If you ask, and they allow it, you might sit close enough to them for physical contact (arm to arm). If they also allow, put an arm around them, or pat their back. If you can get to this point, the child will often calm noticeably, and may even begin to cry instead of tantrum.

Your goal is to help the child calm with your voice and reassuring presence. At times, stressed children may try to harm themselves. If they do, you must tell them in the same calm, nurturing voice, that you will not let them do that. If they lash out at you physically, simply move away, out of range. If they head bang or begin to hit themselves, put a pillow, stuffed animal, or your hand between.

Once the child calms a bit, you might begin to ask them (not press them) what they are thinking and feeling. The idea is to get them to process the source of their stress in a positive and effective manner. Remember to give them time enough to calm enough to do this. If they at first refuse, fall back to your kind, firm, nurturing, and try to get them to process a bit later. You can also give honest reassurances that things will get better. Do not make any promises that you can not keep. Never offer any kind of bribes for the child to stop their upset. End the event with a strong suggestion that when they are upset again, they can come to you and process their concerns and feelings, rather than become over stressed and tantrum. Follow this up with a hug and assertive statement that you care very much for them.


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