Taming the Temper Tantrum

child outside crying

by Stephanie Lopes

You are standing patiently in the store checkout line when your two-year-old spots a sweet. “No, my love. We cannot buy chocolate. We are going to have lunch after this,” you calmly explain.

“But I want it!” your child screams, then flailing onto the store floor while letting out a high-pitched squeal that seems to summon the stares of all the shoppers nearby.

Although temper tantrums might be frustrating for everyone involved, they are a normal part of child development – with most children between the ages of one to four years old having them on a weekly basis, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Knowing more about why temper tantrums occur and how to respond when they do can assist in preventing tantrums and propelling your child’s growth out of the temporary tantrum phase.

child crying outside next to two girls
Children become over stimulated or tire more easily in public and may use the outburst as an attempt to regain your attention that is focused elsewhere.

Temper tantrums are a way young children communicate.

Whining, crying, screaming, kicking, hitting, breath-holding: These are all common during a temper tantrum and are ways young children are simply attempting to communicate their frustrations.

While they may “want to do it” themselves, children between the ages of one to four are still developing the physical, motor and language skills to successfully complete many tasks independently, adding to their angst. Furthermore, young children live in the moment, not always being able to acknowledge or comprehend adult reasons for saying “no” or “not right now” (safety, punctuality, etc.), and, with young children’s lack of communication skills, this can often lead to a tantrum.

Through pre-planning, temper tantrums might be mitigated.

Since tantrums are a natural part of growing up, they likely cannot be eliminated completely; however, certain steps can help to reduce their severity and frequency.

Full bellies and enough sleep. Being hungry or tired can create crankiness, so ensure snacks are available and naps are taken as needed. Also, if your little one is tired, it might not be the best time to squeeze in that last errand.

Offer choices and minor control. Does it really matter if that outfit is mismatched? You might not want to fight that battle to avoid a tantrum. Also, offering choices, such as “Do you want to brush your teeth after or before a bath?” instead of “Do you want to brush your teeth now?” can prevent the inevitable “no” and offer empowerment in owning choices.

Eliminate off-limits objects. Put the remote out of reach. Add the child locks to the cabinets. Not even offering the option for their little hands to grasp items can stop the power struggle before it starts.

Prepare for transitions. Leaving the playground or saying goodbye as a parent goes to work can cause some cries. Saying when the transition will occur (“One more slide ride, and then we will go home for lunch.”) and trying to frame it in the most positive way as possible (“Give mommy a big kiss. You will see her after our fun day to give her another!”) can assist in making transitions more tolerable.

Alter the environment. Toddlers’ minds are active and staying in one place for too long can lead to trouble. Outside, inside, playing independently, hanging out with friends, at home, at the beach: Keeping keiki engaged in an array of activities can help prevent tantrums. Also, if you notice your child beginning to jump on the couch, for example, offer an alternate activity, like helping sort the laundry, instead of immediate reproach.

Praise positively – especially when toddlers try new skills. Specifically praising positive behaviors can lead to more of those behaviors. For example, “I like the way you wait patiently for your milk,” or, “Thank you for sharing with your brother.” Also, encourage your child to try new skills – that aren’t too much above their current level – and be sure to praise them when they try and eventually master the skills (“You didn’t give up, and now you can zip your jacket!”).

child crying while being held by parent
Offering comfort and support can be helpful and is not the same thing as giving in to the tantrum.

Responses to temper tantrums can vary, and a variety of strategies might help to stop the outburst.

What do you do if you can’t prevent a temper tantrum? First, make sure your child is safe, removing them from areas where they could be hurt (like the store) and taking away any objects that could cause damage to themselves or others.

Next, stay calm, and try a variety of tools to attempt to tame the tantrum: offer a hug, do self-calming techniques (deep breaths, counting, etc.), play a song, move to a different area, or give a different toy or treat.

Another option is to ignore the tantrum and wait for it to subside. While staying physically and emotionally available for the child, you might want to refuse to engage in the crying and screaming and offer praise as portions of the tantrum stop (“I am proud of you for not stomping your feet anymore.”). Ignoring the tantrum is often helpful for older children, as they learn a tantrum is not an effective means of communication and will not get their desired outcome.

“Timeouts” can also help tame a tantrum and can prevent parents from feeling overwhelmed. In a calm voice, give your child a safe, comfortable area to cool down; for older children, a timer can also be set to offer a tangible time for the cool-down period.

What shouldn’t be done during a temper tantrum? Don’t give in to the request that initiated the tantrum, as this is a recipe for more tantrums since children will learn that having a tantrum gets them what they want.

child sitting by themself to calm down
Sometimes temper tantrums are inevitable, and the best solution is to move your child to a quiet, safe environment and let it run its course.

Frequent, extreme tantrums should be discussed with a professional.

If your child’s tantrum is lasting longer than ten minutes and occurring more than five times per day, or if there is extreme aggression or hurting of themselves, others or objects, speak with your pediatrician, who might refer you to a psychologist for further examination. Anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, or even physical ailments might be an underlying cause of extreme tantrums.

Temper tantrums are not always the most desirable phase of a child’s development. But with preventative tactics and consistent responses to the undesirable communication method, children can learn to communicate in a socially acceptable, more pleasant manner – and the tantrum phase will be a distant memory.

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