When a child throws a tantrum, stress and anger can quickly rise in both the child and parent, sometimes leading to violence. Child abuse is prevalent in Arkansas, with an estimated 30,000 cases each year. The state also ranks fourth highest in childhood trauma and eighth in unintentional injury, the leading cause of death for children in Arkansas.

There are many safe ways parents can learn to de-escalate anger for themselves and their children.  

What triggers child abuse?

Rachel Wingfield, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences, explained child abuse could be physical violence, emotional and verbal abuse, along with medical neglect, which means not giving the recommended medical care to a child.

Environmental stressors in a parent or caregiver's life can be a contributing cause of abusive behaviors, including housing insecurity, financial instability, hunger, being overworked or not having a job and relationship issues. There can also be added stress on a parent or caregiver if a child has a diagnosed disability or behavioral challenges and does not have the tools or resources to manage the condition properly. If the person perpetrating the abuse is struggling with an addiction, they will have difficulty making appropriate parenting decisions.

According to a Psychology Today article, a parent can enter “fight or flight” mode when a child triggers anger. The body’s hormones and neurotransmitters can cause muscle tension, a rapid pulse and a quick breathing pattern, creating an instinctive desire to act. However, anger is not an emotion a person should act on, no matter how they feel.

"Kids are always watching what we do. I've seen children whose go-to behavior is to slap and swat to get things to go away," Wingfield said.

Giving a child attention and praise for positive behavior is also important instead of just disciplining for negative behaviors.

Tips to de-escalate anger

There are many ways to de-escalate anger in a child and parents or caregivers.

Tips for parents and caregivers to cope with their anger include:

  • Step away: If the child is not in physical danger while throwing a tantrum, it is OK for a parent to walk away for a few minutes, take at least three deep breaths and get a drink of water to help calm their nerves and relieve some of the tension caregivers are experiencing.
  • Set a timer: Stay close enough to intervene if necessary, but set a timer to whatever feels appropriate to allow yourself and a child time to calm down.
  • Tag team: If a second caregiver or parent is in the home, ask them to help if you need a break.
  • Do not take action if you are angry: An adult cannot calm down a distraught child if they are not calm.
  • Identify triggers: If an irritating behavior triggers anger, set boundaries, put rules in place and discuss ways to resolve with a child before getting angry.

Here are some tips for de-escalating a child’s temper tantrum:

  • Learn what comforts your child: If a child needs space, give them space. If a child responds better to comfort when distressed, like cuddling, place them in your lap and hold them.
  • Create safe spaces in a home: Have designated time-out or calm-down areas where a child can breathe and reset.
  • Do not yell: A soothing voice can help calm a child down.
  • Distraction: Giving a child something else to focus on can alleviate a tantrum. A popular tactic is having them watch the liquid move inside a glitter bottle and focus on their breathing.

For children with developmental or behavioral differences, distraction is key, along with keeping the child aware of what changes might be coming up.

"If a parent knows a change in routine is a struggle for their child, give them a few days' notice that things will be different. Children with communication difficulties benefit from visual schedules, showing what will be different on a certain day," Wingfield said. "Reminders are also crucial. A parent can say, 'Instead of going to school this morning, we have a doctor's appointment' to give them a heads up."

Help at Arkansas Children’s

Arkansas Children’s has resources for families that need assistance in positive interactions. Wingfield said her top recommendation is Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which trains parents and caregivers on positive interactions and nonviolent discipline techniques.

The Child Study Center, located in the David M. Clark Center for Safe and Healthy Children at ACH, has providers specializing in PCIT, or parent training opportunities at UAMS.

Positive parenting techniques do not allow bad behavior and are more effective than physical discipline. More resources can be found at:

If parents need counseling services for themselves, they can discuss it with their primary care physician.

To combat environmental stressors, Arkansas Children’s Resource Connect provides a list of resources available by zip code to help parents find support via financial assistance, food pantries, medical care and other free or reduced-cost help.

Report Abuse

It is anonymous to report child abuse. If you see someone or know someone is hurting a child, call 1-800-482-5964 or visit How to Report Child Abuse & Neglect - Arkansas Department of Human Services.