The only people who find temper tantrums amusing are a child's grandparents—because it’s finally payback time as they watch their grown children struggle helplessly with their own little monsters. Unfortunately, tantrums are a fact of life for anyone with young children. They usually start before age two, when children experiment with different ways to communicate with others and to get what they want. Tantrums become more infrequent around age four, but some children continue to “throw fits” for years after that—even into adulthood. Yikes! Don’t worry, though. While tantrums are unavoidable to some extent, you can prevent many of them and help your child learn better coping mechanisms by following some simple steps. This article will help you and your child navigate the tantrum years with your sanity intact.
- Remain calm enough to handle the tantrum properly. The worst thing parents can do is have a temper tantrum over their child's temper tantrum. Children need a calming influence, especially during a tantrum, and if you can’t provide that, you can’t expect them to calm down. Take a few deep breaths and wait at least a few seconds before deciding on a response.
- Remember that your child's tantrum is NOT necessarily a way to "get his way", but could be the result of frustration, lack of needed attention from you, or even a physical problem, like low blood sugar, pain or digestive problems! The lack of a place to nap is a common cause of tantrums (Ever notice how many kids you see having them around 3 PM in stores! It's NAP TIME, but Mommy would rather shop! It is also the time of afternoon when blood sugar drops after lunch and a small snack is often needed NOTE: not all parents put their children to sleep at this time, do not generalise!). Don't set yourself up! Schedule activities around your child's needs.
- Offer your child a choice of coping strategies. For example, your son wants ice cream, but it's too close to dinner. Say: "Johnny, you're really getting upset now. Calm down or you'll have to go to your room." You have given him a choice -- either control himself or, if he can't, retreat to a place where he won't influence others. If he makes the right choice (to calm down), remember to compliment him: "You asked for ice cream and I said no. I want to thank you for taking no for an answer." Conversely, have consequences and enforce them if he chooses to get upset. Guide him to his room and firmly insist that he remain there until he calms down, for example. This is easier with a two-year-old than with an eight-year-old, so the younger you begin the learning process the better.
- Stem your own rising frustration level. Tantrums can raise blood pressure and stress levels in parents as well as children. If you really can’t handle a tantrum, make sure the child will be safe and spend a few moments away from him or her. The time-out has a calming effect for both of you. Get your spouse or other responsible person to look after the child while you calm down. Put your child in his or her room with a gate in front of the door if necessary.
- Try to determine the cause of the tantrum. Tantrums can be triggered by a number of things, and the cause of the tantrum should help determine your response to it. If a tantrum is caused by hungriness or sleepiness, you should feed the child or allow him or her to take a nap as soon as possible. If the tantrum is triggered by frustration or fear, you need to comfort your child. If the child feels ignored, spend some quality/quantity time with him, playing or reading, etc. If, however, your child is acting up because he or she can’t get his or her way…
- Do not reward the tantrum. If the parents give in, tantrums become a launching point for the child—a way to deal with the world socially. If you allow yourself to be held hostage by tantrums, your child will continue to use them long past the age when they would otherwise cease. Even if the child is throwing a fit because he hasn’t received enough attention, don’t reward the behavior now. Instead, resolve to make long-term changes to avoid future outbursts. Try not to panic or make concessions, but leave the scene, even if just for a few minutes. Go to the crying room at church—that’s what it's there for, after all—to the car, or even to the restroom to allow your child and you to regain control.
- Take steps to prevent injury. Some children can become quite animated during a tantrum. If this occurs, remove dangerous objects from the child’s path or steer the child away from danger. Try to avoid restraining a child during a tantrum, but sometimes this is necessary and comforting. Be gentle (do not use excessive force), but hold him or her firmly. Speak reassuringly to the child, especially if the tantrum is the result of disappointment, frustration, or unfamiliar surroundings.
- Explain to the child that you will talk to him or her when he or she calms down. This will help your child to understand that you are ignoring her because her behavior is unacceptable, not because you don’t care about her. When the child calms down, fulfill your part of the bargain by discussing the tantrum and the child’s concerns.
- Avoid trying to reason with any child who is in the middle of a full-blown tantrum, especially in a public place. Give him or her time to vent. Instead, give the child phrases to express the emotions that they are experiencing. Say phrases like, "You must be really tired after such a long day," or, "You must feel frustrated that you can't have what you want right now." This not only will help the child verbalize this later, but shows empathy for their feelings without having to give in.
- Discuss the behavior with your child once the tantrum has ended. While there’s no use trying to reason with a child in the midst of a tantrum, you both can learn a lot by discussing the incident afterwards. Explain that the behavior is unacceptable, but also make sure your child understands that you love him or her regardless. Try to discover the cause of the tantrum if you haven’t already, and take the opportunity to discuss better alternatives with your child.
- Do not discipline physically eg by smacking your child. This conveys three unhelpful messages:
- That you are out of control.
- That hitting is an acceptable behavior.
- That feelings should be suppressed and not vented (a toddler is expressing feelings in the only way they are able).
In this video, The Go-To Mom, Kimberley Blaine, shares practical parenting advice on how to handle temper tantrums and cope with your child's behavior when these arise.