Tantrum Relief — Meeting the Three Basic Needs

Tantrum Relief — Meeting the Three Basic Needs

The difference between the Language of Listening® approach to dealing with tantrums and that of most other programs is basically this: in a tantrum, others try to calm children down; we facilitate tantrums in a way that allows children to calm themselves down.

It all starts with the Three Basic Needs for Growth: experience, connection and power.

Here’s how to meet those needs to facilitate a tantrum:

1. Meeting the Need for Power: Putting children in the lead is the quickest way to meet their need for power. For example, when I’m called in to work with a child in a tantrum, the first thing I do is approach the child while watching for any reaction to me. If the child glares at me or looks apprehensive, I back up. That simple step puts the child in the lead by letting him “tell me” where to stand and begins to meet his need for power in a way that is OK with me. When I meet that need first, angry outbursts immediately de-escalate to tears.

If a child tells you to go away, you can take a big, deliberate step back and take direction by saying, “Like this?” or something like “Where would you like me to go?” and the child will probably look up and point (connection on their terms). If they don’t look up or answer, you can try once more with something like, “That must not have been far enough away. How about this? Did I get it right yet?” Children love to correct you when you are wrong, but either way their answer, yes or no, will be a good indicator of the remaining level of their need for power.

Meeting a child’s need for power is often overlooked, but it is usually the primary need at the beginning of a tantrum because children feel powerless when they can’t get what they want. That’s why you help the child meet the need for power first. If the child is kicking the floor and that is OK with you, you can say things like, “That was a strong kick! Try that again! Wow, that one was even stronger!” If they change to pounding with their fists or pushing something away, you can continue to give a play-by-play like a radio announcer, knowing that their actions are the quickest way for them to meet their need for power.

If the child kicks, hits, pushes, or starts to throw something that is not OK with you, you can intervene by quickly finding something that is OK with you while saying things like, “Oops! That’s not OK with me,” and “Try this instead!” or “You can do that over here!” Depending on what’s needed to ensure the safety of the child and property, your intervention may involve pointing, moving them to a safe place, or handing them something to push or throw that’s OK with you.

Kids innately know what works for them, and when their needs are met, they calm themselves down.

2. Meeting the Need for Connection: When the anger de-escalates to tears or sadness it’s time to connect. Tears indicate a move toward acceptance of the boundary. They are like a pressure relief valve that helps kids cope with something they don’t like.

In the case of a child who has been told no about something, SAY WHAT YOU SEE matching their energy with your voice like, “You wanted to do that, and you’re sad that it’s not OK right now. Something about it must be important to you!” The lack of judgment or control in your statement and demeanor allows the child to tell you more. When you hear why that thing is important, you can validate it with a statement like, “Oh no! That was important! No wonder you wanted to do it (have it, etc.). That’s so hard for you!”

Validating what a child wants when they can’t have it may feel counter-intuitive, but it’s VERY IMPORTANT. Without validating what the child wants, they will have no choice but to escalate their communication back up to the level of anger or tantrum to prove they are right to want it. Validation meets children’s need for connection and allows them to move into the problem-solving step to find solutions that work for you both. If you try problem-solving without connecting first, it often backfires.

Validation by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE is actually the missing step in parenting.

3. Meeting the Need for Experience: When a child is ready to problem-solve, you can turn that over to him with the all-purpose CAN DO statement: “There must be something you can do,” or if you are open to negotiation, “Must be something we can do.” Your job is to clarify what the child wants, decide if that’s OK with you or not, and get on the child’s side.

For example, if the child wants a snack and that’s not OK with you now but would be later, you validate how much they like that snack, then say something like, “You really want it now, AND that’s for after dinner. Hmm. Must be something you can do to wait.” If the child says, “No, I can’t wait. I want it now!” you start there by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE like, “Oh no! You can’t wait, and I bet after dinner feels like a long time away! Must be something you can do to make sure you get your snack!”

To facilitate problem-solving, be sure not to contradict the child or focus on the boundary. Contradicting a child or focusing on the boundary of “not now” increases their need for power and builds resistance.

Instead, focus on what the child wants and keep the conversation moving forward toward a solution that will work for you both. 

If the child can’t think of a solution, offer something tangible like, “Maybe I could put it somewhere that you can see it so you will know you will get it for sure after dinner.” That makes the snack real which often makes it easier for a child to succeed in waiting. For a young child, who doesn’t know they have patience, placing it out of reach is usually best. The goal is to help them succeed (Success Training). Then when they succeed, you name that STRENGTH, “You waited all the way through dinner. That shows patience!” 

On certain occasions when no solution seems possible, as unlikely as it sounds, validating the child’s frustration and granting their wish in fantasy can also help meet the need for experience.

For example when you are in the car and the child wants a snack “right now,” SAYing WHAT YOU SEE like, “Oh no! There are no snacks in the car, and you want one right now! Your stomach is even growling! That’s awful! You really wish you had one right now! No, two! No, a whole refrigerator right there in the back seat with you that you could open, and reach in and grab anything you wanted…” If you are right about the child’s wish and have added enough details to make it feel real, the child will probably join in and expand on the fantasy or correct you and take off on a fantasy solution of their own. When you follow along and validate, the added connection prevents escalation.

4. After a Tantrum – Pointing Out STRENGTHs: Of course, after any tantrum or crying session, regardless of how long it takes for the child to work through it, when the child is calm be sure to point out to them that they knew exactly what they needed to do to calm themselves down.

Connecting children with that STRENGTH is the goal of facilitating their tantrums in the first place because it helps them see they have self-control.

There is a sample video at the bottom of the Basic Coaching Skills Course registration page (scroll down) where I explain how I facilitated my 2-year-old niece’s angry actions to help her move from hitting to self-control in a very short time by reconnecting her with her STRENGTHs. It demonstrates how to find STRENGTHs even in a tantrum and why that is an important thing to do for our children.

The bottom line is that children who know they can control themselves and calm themselves, don’t need you to do it for them. The confidence that comes from the validation of their wants, their ability to problem-solve, and their awareness of their STRENGTHs helps reverse the feeling of powerlessness that sets off tantrums in the first place. Less need for power, fewer tantrums!

What does your child tantrum about? How do your responses help your child meet their needs?

You can find out more about our simple 3-part coaching approach in our book, SAY WHAT YOU SEE® for Parents and Teachers. You can buy it here, or if you just can’t wait, you can read it online here for free!

Or if videos are more your speed, you can check out our online Basic Coaching Skills Course, which is full of clips that you can watch on your own time to learn how to step from controlling your child to coaching your child and gain more hugs, more respect, and more cooperation as a result.


  1. Susan |

    This is a great technique and I have used it and it works. But in our house it is a 45-50 minute process. Is there a way to cut through this on days the tantrum happens 20 min before the school bus comes?

  2. Susan,

    Cudos to you for your persistence in sticking with the facilitation process. I’d like to hear more about how it works for you.

    Still, 45-50 min is pretty extreme for any child, and it sounds like it’s a regular thing in your house.

    Tantrums follow the same cycle as the grieving process, because that’s basically what tantrums are. Along the way, the child is constantly communicating his/her needs to us, so helping him/her meet those needs is how we facilitate the completion of the cycle and help them come out the other side feeling more powerful, not less.

    I don’t know how old your child is, but long tantrums suggest that the child is older (beyond the early toddler years) and something about this pattern works for him/her (particularly on school mornings) or it would have stopped by now. Permanent resolution will be in understanding the child’s POV (specific communication to you), finding CAN DOs that work instead, and finding the STRENGTHs the child needs to feel more empowered in the first place.

    I would love to see a video of one of these tantrums so I could provide pin-point coaching for you. You can contact me on my contact page to make specific arrangements. If I can use it for teaching purposes, I can do it without charge.

    Since tantrums do not happen in a vacuum, recurring tantrums are generally about something much bigger than the individual things that seem to set them off. My gut feeling about your child’s is that they are likely to be related to your comment on our adult personal growth Loss or Security post: “we will lose everything one day.” https://languageoflistening.com/blog/loss-or-security/

    That is clearly a “life lesson” that you do not like. Imagine your feelings when someone first tried to teach it to you! That could be what your child is facing right now, and if so, these tantrums could be your child’s way of fighting against that “life lesson.” If that’s the case, the child’s persistence (like yours) is to be commended and encouraged!

    Check to see if the general theme of your child’s tantrums or what sets your child off is perceived loss – loss of a thing or opportunity that in the child’s mind will be gone forever. That would definitely be something to tantrum about!

    If you think this is on track, I can help you more with it when you contact me. I also address the personal growth side of this in my reply to your other comment.

  3. metal mama |

    THis is a great post. Ive read it a few times now to let it sink in. I myself was raised in an authorative household and if my child refuses to do as ive asked, I use my gentle parenting strategies but admit if she keeps refusing I hear my fathers voice come out and demand she do as I tell her (it feels like disrespect from her as I know that’s how my father saw it from me and my sisters). Its the letting them be angry at me that I find hard. When I work through the steps of validating feelings, saying what I see and trying to find a solution together, its the accepting of her anger when in the end she may not get what she wants, that is hard for me for some reason. Its that point I get a little angry. Its something I need to work on so I can silence my father’s voice in me.

    • Metal Mama,

      You hit on the exact point of struggle most of us have with boundaries, especially those of us who were raised with authoritarian parents who passed on their need for approval. My daughter Betsy’s post on criticism ( https://languageoflistening.com/blog/redefining-judgement/ ) touches into this in a way that might be helpful to you, because when you get right down to it, a child’s anger is pretty much the strong expression of an “I don’t like that” opinion, which is why “You don’t like that!” is another great thing to say when transitioning from meeting the child’s need for power to connection.

      Thank you for bringing this up!

  4. Ashlee Overdick |

    I just wrote in a question on the Q&A page and I feel like this post may be helpful to me already, while I’m awaiting a response. I might have to read it a few times. Can I just say, focusing on kid’s feelings and getting into their perspective can be harder than it sounds! Especially when you’re in—I don’t know— the middle of the grocery store and all you can think about is getting out of there without a meltdown and without your child curiously knocking a glass bottle of maple syrup on the floor. I feel like I’m lacking in the imagination department when it comes to offering a CAN DO, (which is not the area I expected to flounder in!).

  5. Ashlee, the hard part you are describing sounds like it’s about stepping out of the mindset that there is something to fix, which is why you would be desperately looking for CAN DOs.

    Finding effective CAN DOs without connecting first is extremely difficult. That kind of CAN DO often results in escalation since the child feels the “fix” which communicates they are doing something wrong, and round and round it goes.

    CAN DOs have to come from the SAY WHAT YOU SEE step of observing, understanding what your child wants, and seeing how his actions are already meeting his needs (or at least trusting that they are). That’s why I say that effective CAN DOs come from the child, not from us. The good news is that it takes the pressure off of us to be creative, and engages the child in problem-solving instead, which helps meets their need for power even more.

    In the scenario you describe, to get the point where you can focus on your child’s feelings and see his perspective, you will probably have to back up and address your perspective and your needs first. If leaving the store without a meltdown is your overriding thought, you cannot be present with your child until you address that. It could be that listening to yourself and following your instincts could be the most important thing to do in tense situations like that.

    You hate public meltdowns, so mastering the skill of facilitation would be easiest for you at home. Since grocery shopping is a recurring struggle, I’ll address more strategies for handling that on the Q&A page of the Online Training Center where you asked your original question.

    For the readers here, a key one will be setting up expectations and rules in advance and problem-solving with your child about what will make the trip work for him inside your boundaries. Bringing a favorite toy or his own snack from home may make all the difference, but that CAN DO will need to come from him, not you.

    I understand your frustration in wanting every part of this process to be easy. The three coaching steps are actually easy in themselves. Our struggles are usually at our boundary points where we need to look inward for resolution. When we follow through as you are doing, they will lead to the personal growth and ease you know is possible in working with children.

    Thank you for sticking with this. You are one determined mama, which is what will get you there!–Sandy

    • Ashlee Overdick |

      Thank you so much, Sandy! I can see what you are saying. I’m going to read (and reread) this! Very helpful!

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