The dreaded temper tantrum…we’ve heard about them, we’ve seen them, and chances are almost 100% that you’ll have to deal with at least one, if you haven’t already!
A temper tantrum is simply anger or frustration gone wild and most often happens in those children who either don’t have (or don’t remember) the skills to fully express themselves. To prevent them, make sure the child’s environment is not too restrictive and activities or responsibilities are age-appropriate. It also helps if you can help children avoid difficult tasks during stressful times of the day (e.g. when they are hungry, tired, or trying to wake-up from a nap).
Tantrums come in two flavors – manipulative and temperamental. Some children have learned how to manipulate the adults in their lives by throwing tantrums in order to get something. However, some children aren’t necessarily manipulative, just more sensitive to what goes on around them or have a lower level of tolerance for frustration. Knowing the cause can help you treat the symptom and work proactively to prevent future tantrums.
But when a tantrum “hits” – what’s your next move? Try these steps to help diminish and eliminate the possibilities of a repeat performance:
1. Be consistent. Don’t allow a certain behavior one day and then forbid it the next day.
2. Actively listen to the child from the beginning. Don’t wait until they’re screaming at you to respond. Doing so actually “rewards” tantrum behavior, especially when they are seeking attention.
3. Be proactive. If you know they may try to manipulate the situation, set some firm guidelines beforehand. Or, if you know your child is particularly sensitive to something, talk through expectations beforehand, coming to some sort of compromise if possible. Compromising indicates you are listening and that you truly care. (By the way, the “art” of compromising takes some practice, but is well worth it in any child-rearing process.)
4. Stay calm. This is especially important if you know they are trying to get you to lose your cool so you’ll give in. This also models the behavior you hope to see from them.
5. Remove yourself. With your child’s safety in mind, if you can remove yourself from the situation, you will remove the “audience.” Without an audience, manipulative tantrums just won’t work.
6. Distract them. For younger children, simply distracting them to something more appropriate may ease or eliminate a tantrum. Make sure to analyze (and change or eliminate, if possible) what may have caused the tantrum, though, otherwise you may simply see it show up later.
7. Use kind words. I know this may sound crazy, but sometimes children can get so out of control, it scares them. No matter how frustrated you may be, do NOT give them a long laundry list of reasons why they should stop. Just simply tell them you love them and will be waiting patiently for them to calm down so you can talk about their frustrations. Once they’ve calmed down, give them a hug, and tell them to let you know when they are ready to talk. Do NOT forget to talk about it though, otherwise you miss a golden opportunity to give them support, love, and confidence for future frustrations.
8. Be thankful. Yes – this definitely sounds crazy… but it’s true! Tantrums can be part of a normal maturation process. Although we certainly do not want to encourage them, tantrums can give you insight into your child’s or charge’s temperament and personality. Sometimes reframing the way we think about child behaviors can help us relax and approach them calmly.
Lastly, a quick story to demonstrate how humor can sometimes be helpful as well. One of my children threw a temper tantrum at home and I was totally thrown off guard. I had not seen it coming and he’d never thrown one before. He cried and yelled, throwing himself on the floor in wild anger about something. I tried to reason with him, to console him, to discipline him…nothing was working. At a loss, I waited for him to take a breath and look up. I cannot tell you why I did this, but I began to throw my own tantrum! I flailed about, saying that no one ever listened to me, no one cared what mom said, and that things were just not fair! My son’s jaw fell open and he instantly stopped in his tracks. I didn’t carry on for too long before bursting into laughter, which got my son, as well as his two brothers, laughing as well. Needless to say, the tantrum stopped and I never saw it again from any of my children. But we did have a really good talk afterwards about the appropriate ways to share frustration. And, I made sure my son knew I wasn’t making fun of him, but trying to help him see that a tantrum just wasn’t the way to solve the problem.
So, if you tune in to what sets off your child, set up routines and demands that are age appropriate, prepare for the inevitable, and remind yourself that this, too, shall pass, tantrums don’t have to be ferociously feared. One word of caution however – if your child, or a child you work with, has any sort of self-injuring behaviors or is physical towards others during a tantrum, it would be good to connect with a professional.
Debbie Farr, Ph.D. Debbie received her Ph.D. in family studies and human development, her master’s in counseling and her BA in psychology. She has worked in various capacities, serving children and families for over 30 years, but her passion is in helping parents be proactive rather than reactive. To that end, Debbie offers workshops, presentations, and trainings for parents as well as professionals, blending education with support and coaching. Debbie has worked as a director for a family resource center, worked in numerous schools in several parts of the country, and taught at the university level. Currently she is working with SitterCycle’s positive discipline strategies and is putting the finishing touches on her new company, Flourishing Families. She is also getting ready to launch an “Ask Dr. Debbie” column in a local newspaper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.