How to Diffuse a Tantrum and also Raise a Happy Child

Noob Baby is 3 ½ years-old. I was reading online a few weeks ago that the “half” stages for children are similar to a state of disequilibrium. For example, at age three they’re generally more emotionally balanced, grounded and predictable. At 3 ½, the whole world is off kilter, confusing and pretty much one long sloppy hangover. Developing children keep cycling through stages of equilibrium and disequilibrium until they’re like … oh … 26-years-old, give or take.

Well if you remember my post about The Totally Terrifying Threes, then you know how tantrums and Chernobyl style nuclear meltdowns have become kind of a regular thing around here lately. Just a little preface, though. NB’s tantrums are different than many of those I read and hear about from other moms. She doesn’t have the thrash-around-on-the-ground-and-scream-so-loud-birds-fall-out-of-the-sky kind of tantrums. For parents dealing with those tantrums, seriously consider starting your own non-profit because I’ve got a sympathy check here with your name on it already.

Yes, NB’s tantrums can be loud. They can be aggressive. And yes, they do involve flailing limbs (from multiple parties). But most importantly, her tantrums kind-of-sort-of involve lots of eerie, goose-bumpy threats and KGB death stares. They’re “kind of” psychological. And by “kind of” I mean really. Really. For example, she said she wanted to kick Noob Daddy in the chin the other day. Just wait, it gets better. She added …. So Daddy can go to the hospital. It’s when there’s:

A) cause and effect
B) a line of reasoning
C) the hospital involved

that I scour the Internet for a parenting book covering tantrums and/or hired assassin babies and what to do about them. Never underestimate the power of a good parenting book. And just so you know, a “good parenting book” by definition must always reassure you that you are not the only one raising Rosemary’s baby.

So, I’ve been reading this really interesting book called Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who’s passion is in brain development.  If you’re a noob parent or planning to have kids in the future, I highly suggest you pick up a copy of this book. I plan on writing a more detailed review about it later on, but for today, I wanted to share with you a chapter from the book that I found really eye-opening. Actually, I implemented some of the strategies immediately because of the “escalating disequilibrium” problem we’ve noticed lately.

The chapter in the book titled Happy Baby: Soil provides six key ingredients parents should focus on to “raise a happy child.” If you are looking to diffuse tantrums with your noob, pay close attention to the last three elements. Those were the strategies I applied immediately with NB, and I was shocked at how quickly she got over her anger, frustration, and creepy KGB moments. Some of the suggestions go against my instinctual hard-ass Chinese mommy image I’m trying to maintain, but it turned out to be a good thing. By the way, isn’t it amazing how often we seem to unconsciously mimic our parents’ parenting style even when we’ve vowed never to be our parents?

Here is a brief overview of the six components for raising a happy child:

1.  A demanding but warm parenting style

Parents who are demanding and attentive to their children, but also allow room for independence, usually have the happiest children. Communication and consistently enforcing and explaining rules is also a key component of this parenting style. According to the book, pushover parents, inattentive or overly controlling parents appear to have the least happy, confident and successful children later on.

2. Comfort with your own emotions

Parents should recognize how comfortable they are with their own emotions because it can affect how they react to their children’s emotions. For example, we usually praise and encourage joyful, positive feelings in our children, but often ignore or condemn their emotions when they are angry, frustrated or even fearful (all three of which usually manifest in a tantrum). Consider the way you express or suppress emotions. Does it correlate with how you were raised?

3. Tracking emotions

Can you read your child’s emotions and foresee an impending tantrum? Parents who are in tune with their children’s emotions can jump in before trouble happens. The better you understand what triggers the anger and meltdowns, the more you can do to prevent those things from coming to a boiling point. Again, finding a balance between being attentive and not smothering your child is important.

4. Verbalizing emotions

Did you know that labeling and identifying emotions is neurologically calming? Being able to label our feelings and teach our children how to label theirs is a crucial component of raising happy kids. According to Medina, “Kids who are exposed to this parenting behavior on a regular basis become better at self-soothing, are more able to focus on tasks, and have more successful peer relationships.” Many times, children “experience the physiological characteristics of emotional responses before they know what those responses are.” Hence, they become overwhelmed, confused and have volcanic meltdowns. Not only are they upset with a given situation (having a toy taken away, for example), but they must also cope with some hugely upsetting feelings that emerge out of the blue and essentially scare the bejeezus out of them.

I know that when you’re in the heat of the moment and there is a nuclear freak out happening, it’s difficult to stay rational and get all pedantic. But if you do, it will pay off! I remember when we taught NB what being frustrated was. She immediately began to announce the moments when she was feeling SO FRUSTRATED!! At the time, I was like … “Awww, how cute. She remembered a big shmancy word.” But now I realize, it really made her emotions more manageable for her. Jealousy, joy, excitement, fear, anxiety, nervousness … those are all words we can be using with our children to help them identify what they are feeling.

5. Running toward emotions

In a nutshell, don’t ignore or discount the difficult moments and feelings. Remember that all those instances can be really rewarding teachable moments. By acknowledging their emotions, our little noobs feel validated. We might not like their behavior at the time, but remember that we can teach them that behaviors are choices and emotions are not. You can’t help that you feel angry about having your new toy taken away by little Jimmy, but you can make a good choice not to smack him upside the head. Anger is ok. Hitting is not. Ad infinitum.

6. Two tons of empathy

Lastly, this one truly works. I know because I’ve been doing this consciously for the last few weeks. EMPATHIZE. A LOT. Even when you are trying to be a hard ass, even when you are in front of strangers giving you their I’m-so-effin-glad-I-don’t-have-kids sneer, even when you feel like a total ignoramus doing it, just try the over-the-top empathy. Your noob will be shocked and most likely get over whatever was causing the meltdown in the first place. For example:

Standard Scenario

Tommy Tantrum: I WANT JUICE RIGHT NOW!!!
Mommy No-Sleep: Yeah, well I want my tits back. I want to know what five hours of uninterrupted sleep feels like again. I’d like to take a piss in private. Tough luck kid. Life’s a bitch.
Mommy No-Sleep: (Hand mimes gun to forehead blowing brains out the other side)

New, Empathetic, Effective Scenario

Tommy Tantrum: I WANT JUICE RIGHT NOW!!!
Empathetic Mommy: You must be really thirsty right now. I bet you would love some juice. (Insert baby voice for maximum effect) I know. I am thirsty too. I wish we could both have a big glass of juice right now. How about we have some right when we get home?
Suspicious Tommy: (Whimper) Umm…
Empathetic Mommy: I know you’re thirsty. Thank you for understanding and being such a big boy! (Quickly change the subject) Hey! Look at that monkey doing backflips on the unicycle!

TADA!! And that, my friends, is how you diffuse a tantrum and raise happy children (according to molecular biologist John Medina). Remember… come down to their level. Validate and label their emotions. Then just lay it on thick with the empathy.

Now if only Medina could have taught me how to write this post in just 100 words, right? Go on. Try it out and let me know what your experience is. I can’t wait to hear if this works for you!

Need to get your paws on this book?! Share the love and buy from my Amazon link, or visit the Brain Rules for Baby website for more info.



  1. 21

    Wow, tears from the laughing. Yes, I have blown my head off on many occassions. Lately, though, the tantrums have started. My son is strong willed and won’t settle for anything other than his way alot unless I can outsmart him with a compromise that he didn’t see coming. He is just 38 months. I will try the lay it on thick with the empathy. It has been working around toys that he wants at the store alot but never thought to try it when a tantrum flares up. What I just recently discovered by accident though was if I tell him “Its okay Mommy loves you”, that also deflates though whole thing bammo. But incase that is just temporary I will try the empathy thing too. Thanks. And what is Noob?

  2. 22


    I am crying right now from laughing so hard as I can relate & I’m sure many others I have a 31/2 yr old and a 2 month old.

    Thanks for the laughs & all the reminders as I go through the TT 3’s while trying to get baby #2 on somewhat of a sleep schedule.

  3. 23
    Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for this! Just had a day from hell with my 2.5 yr old, and this made me laugh out loud! Will try some empathy tomorrow!

  4. 24

    Thank you for posting this. The Scenario just made me laugh!

  5. 25
    Elsmama says:

    help using the EASY schedule for my 8week old do i need to wake him up if he naps for longer than 2 hrs?

  6. 27

    Hey there,
    I am reaching my wits end with my 1 1/2 years old. This past weekend, I kept praying to the God’s for my sweet little boy that I had. It appears that a demonic force has entered into my child. Being that this weekend was memorial day weekend, I had to deal with this possesed child for a total of 4 days. This morining I woke up to him have a tantrum because he did not want to kiss daddy goodbye before going to school. I will try some of the things that you suggested and see what goes. PLEASE WISH ME LUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. 28

    So true…it takes so much longer to empathize (“oh, you’re sad that playtime is over? I’m so sorry. Now can you pick up your toys sometime between now and when my head explodes in 2 seconds?”) but worth it. Like you, the Asian Tiger Mom in me wants him to listen and obey immediately and in silence, but evidently being half-non-Asian gave him the “validate-my-emotions” gene.

  8. 29
    Sammy'sMomma says:

    I know this section is for older babies but I need advice on my 8 month old. He recently started crying when I take something out of his hands that he was playing with. I don’t want to have “that” kid. Is there anything I can do to help this situation?

    • 30
      Charlotte says:

      A few ideas for you, Sammy’sMomma:

      -Give him warning: “Mommy needs that now. Thank you” and then take it away.
      -Trade him for something else: “You may not play with that but you can play with this.”
      -Help him say good-bye to it.
      -Keep it out of his reach to begin with if he shouldn’t be playing with it (when he’s a little older he can learn what’s off-limits and be expected to leave things alone).
      -If he’s allowed to play with it but it’s time to move on to a different activity, be creative: let him take it with for diaper changes or in the car or whatever.

      • 31
        Charlotte says:

        Probably the most useful thing is to trade him for something else. I recently taught my sister to do that with her 12-month-old, and some time later he wanted something she had so he brought her a tube of Chapstick to trade her for what she had. It was so stinkin’ cute!

        • 32
          Sammy'sMomma says:

          Thanks Charlotte! Good ideas… We tried “bye bye” when we were done looking out the window this morning…. he was so intrigued by my waving that he didn’t care. Yesterday I would ask him if mommy can see his toy then would take it for a few seconds and tell him he was a good sharer and could clap for him then give it back…. he started to just hand it over to me so i could clap for him! Very cute about the Chapstick!

      • 33

        Love these suggestions Charlotte!

  9. 34

    Holy crap, Noob Mommy! You are a friggin life-saver. My LO is slightly younger than yours, so as NB hits stages, I know that it’s coming for me soon. DS is just into the 1/2 territory and I’ve been noticing some of these changes and my tired brain was starting to register that maybe a storm was headed my direction.

    It’s so hard not to be the hard ass, though, because I’ve been so determined that I was NOT going to be one of those pushover moms, but this makes total sense. I mean, to have these big emotions must be completely scary for these litttle ones. THANK YOU!!

  10. 36

    Great advice!  I’ve been doing the empathy thing with my 2.5 yo and I agree it works well.  One day we were leaving a really fun place and she was of course upset and making a scene and I said, “I know, it’s really sad we have to go, isn’t it? I really liked it too.  It’s ok to be sad” and just walked out holding her hand.  The other people walking by had ‘aww, she’s crying and doesn’t want to go, how sweet” faces on instead of “look at that horrible parent” face.  That exchange has really got me thinking about how to empathize, put a name to what she’s feeling and validate it.  “I know, Mommy ate all your cookies.  That must be sad for you” ha ha.

  11. 37

    I wonder if they’ve also written a Brain Book about temperamental cats and how to diffuse the ticking “p” bomb… 😛

  12. 39

    LOVE this! I have a challenging student who seems to be at the same emotional place that NB is at…scary since he’s in 6th grade! I have applied some of these strategies, and it really does seem to help him. It totally makes sense…words of wisdom for all!

    • 40

      That’s great to hear Stef! Teachers are like parents and I can totally see these strategies working in the classroom. I guess kids just want to be heard and feel understood after all. 


  1. […] days a week, sleeping great hours, and really moving towards a happy equilibrium (check out my previous post about the disequilibrium and equilibrium stages of child development). The tantrums and sassy comments have even dwindled down to almost none. So […]

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