Addressing Tantrums from a Sensory Standpoint

Pretty much all kids tantrum at some point. In fact, we all tantrum – grown ups just usually refrain from lying on the floor. But we’ve all experienced that kid whose tantrums are less predictable, more explosive, and seem to go on forever. Here are a few tips, based both in sensory theory and counseling, that may help with that frequent flyer-off-the-handle.


For some kids, we know exactly what is going to set them off – it’s raining and you can’t go outside, it’s time to share that favorite toy, the word “no” comes out of your mouth… Sometimes preparation can go a long way in heading off that tantrum.   Even though most young kids (and a few adults) have no concept of time, a “5 minute warning” will at least prep them for what is to come. A very effective tool is some kind of timer with a loud ping. Many kids respond much better to an inanimate object telling them to quit, and then you can serve as the comforter instead of the bad guy. Deep pressure is calming, and can be used to help comfort before, during, and after bad news is delivered. Visual schedules can help less favorable events during a school day be less of a surprise.

In the moment:

1)    If possible, label what the child is feeling and why -“you are mad because I made you share that toy”, “you are mad because we can’t go outside”, etc. Use as few and as simple words as possible. DO NOT SAY “BUT”!

2)   If the child doesn’t respond to a calm reflection of their feelings, try again, this time mirroring their intensity – stomp a foot, smack your leg, show some emotion. What they may not get from your words, they may get from your actions and hear more clearly that they are being understood.

3)   Tell them they make sense – period. “It makes sense that you are mad – you really like going outside”, etc.

4)   Provide calming input of some kind – massage their shoulders, give a big, deep hug, rock slowly from side to side (but avoid any contact that may feel like restraint).

5)   Briefly describe what will happen next, or engage in conversation about solution, depending on the age of the child – “Joey is going to play with this toy now, and I’m going to go get you that toy to play with”, or “You really like that toy – it is so cool. Is there another toy here you like, too?”

6)   Repeat as needed, offer timeout location


Make note of what may have contributed to tantrum – who was near, noise level in room, sequence of events – to better prevent the next time. Notice any patterns that emerge – you may find that simple adjustments in schedule or seat arrangement may help. Discuss with parents to see if similar patterns are happening at home and work together on similar approach.


Prepared by Rebecca Thomas, MOT Occupational Therapist
Brightsong, LLC

With information from “The SOS Feeding Approach” by Toomey and Associates and Imago Relationship Therapy by Harville Hendrix

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