Tantrum tornado - Part 1: What to do before the storm

Help your child work through their emotional storms and learn to manage strong emotions.

Tantrums are a very normal part of a young child’s development. Young children don’t yet have the skills and strategies to manage strong emotions, which often results in the dreaded tantrum. Tantrums are kind of like tornados -- a whirling mass of emotions barreling through a small child’s life and leaving damage in its wake. When we, as parents and adults, can help children recognize the emotions that initiate a tantrum tornado, help them through the storm and learn to prevent future outbursts, we are giving them the tools they need to address the strong emotions that all of us face as a part of life.  

Before the storm

In cases of real inclement weather, safety experts say to look for the warning signs. In the case of tornados, you might look out for a dark or foreboding sky, hail or particularly strong winds. You can be alert to your child’s tantrum indicators too, including physical, emotional and situational signs.

  • Physical signs. There are some physical warning signs you can look for that may tell you when a storm is coming, including a red face, clenched fists, teeth or jaw, shallow and quick breathing, or a sudden change in personality. Sometimes youth show these physical signs without even being aware of how they are feeling.
  • Emotional signs. When your child is experiencing strong emotions that they aren’t prepared to tame, they become overwhelmed and often end up in a tantrum tornado. Look for signs that your child is agitated, overstimulated, stressed or anxious.
  • Situational signs. Sometimes you can sense a storm is coming because of other things happening in the world, like sudden changes in air pressure. Similarly, when things are different in your child’s world, you can sometimes guess when a tantrum may come. For instance, when your child’s basic needs aren’t met, they are less prepared to manage strong emotions. So when your child is hungry, tired or sick, they are more likely to experience a tantrum. The same can be said when the world is unpredictable. This can happen if your child doesn’t have a routine or normal routines are broken, or if there are other big life changes such as starting a new school, moving, family struggles, etc.

Knowing the warning signs of a tantrum tornado is an important step in helping your young child learn to manage strong emotions and ride out their tantrum tornados. Check out the other two articles in this series to learn how you can stay safe during a tantrum tornado and how to prevent future storms.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read the 2016 Impact Report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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