Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Temper Tantrums

Boy sitting at tableMany frazzled parents of toddlers live in fear of the same thing: witnessing a very public and very loud meltdown after telling the toddler “no.” Tantrums can be embarrassing to parents because they serve as a way for children to get what they want. In extreme cases, tantrums may result in injury to children who hit their heads, throw things, or injure themselves while pounding their fists.

Tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, and most experts believe they occur when a child is old enough to have wishes of his or her own but not old enough to express those wishes in a socially acceptable way. Parents should take heart: your child is normal, and this too shall pass. However, parenting style greatly affects child behavior, and there are several things you can do to minimize and manage your child’s temper tantrums.

Two Types of Tantrums

Experts in child development often break tantrums into two categories: distress and control-based tantrums. Distress tantrums occur when a child is afraid, alone, in pain, hungry, or exhausted. They typically involve real tears. Control tantrums are attempts by children to get what they want by expressing anger. For example, a child might have a control tantrum when denied a toy at a store. Children throwing control tantrums don’t typically shed tears.

Your strategy for dealing with tantrums should be dictated by the type of tantrum. If your child is legitimately distressed—even if you think the reason for the distress is not valid—you must provide comfort and a sense of security. This decreases the chance that you child will have more severe tantrums in the future, and it teaches your child to trust you. If your child is trying to manipulate you into doing something, it is important to gently demonstrate that manipulation will not work by using one of the following strategies.

Provide direction: If your child’s tantrum is just beginning, and you’re willing to satisfy the request being made, try redirecting the tantrum behavior by suggesting that he or she ask nicely, or in a different way. When your child calms down and asks in a more appropriate way, praise him or her and supply the item. This gives children a strong incentive to stop throwing tantrums.

Seek distraction: Many parents mistakenly believe that tantrums should be punished and that distracting a child who is having a tantrum does not teach self-control. The reality is different. Children have tantrums out of frustration and because they do not have good impulse control. Thus, distracting a child before he or she escalates into a full-fledged tantrum is one of the best things you can do to save your sanity. Point to an interesting picture, share an interesting item you have with you, or practice singing a song together.

Lower the volume: Parents tend to match their children’s volume level. If the child is screaming, the parent is likely to yell in response. Control your own behavior. Try whispering. This often causes children to be quiet just so they can hear. Moreover, calming yourself can help your child to calm down as well.

Don’t give in: Parents all know that they are not supposed to give in to a child’s tantrum, but most parents have caved at one time or another. If you give in to a control tantrum, even once, you teach your child that tantrums work, and that makes him or her more likely to throw an even bigger tantrum next time. No matter how embarrassed you are by your child’s behavior, don’t give in!

Walk away: Children often stop throwing tantrums when they no longer have an audience. Ensure that your child is safe and walk away. Make sure you can check back in, listen, or watch from another area. This strategy is among the most effective for ending truly violent tantrums.

References:

  1. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Kohn, A. (2006). Unconditional parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York, NY: Atria Books.

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  • Chris

    Chris

    May 25th, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    I hate when I see the parents of toddlers who are throwing tantrums acting just as ugly as the kid is. Hmmm wonder where they get that kind fo bahvior from in the first place?

  • WT

    WT

    May 26th, 2012 at 12:30 AM

    Its never fine to get upset because your child is throwing tantrums.He is a child after all and you need to behave like what you are – an adult!

    If we cannot control ourselves in such a situation then it makes no sense to think our children should!

  • Mark

    Mark

    May 26th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    Chris- I agree with you. The parents are yelling and screaming all over the place, demanding to know why the child is acting out. Duh, look in the mirror. Most of the time I would say that it is fair to rationalize that a kid learsn how to behave from their parents. Of course any toddler is going to throw a tantrum every now and then. but I see far too many adults who feed into it, and encourage it by their own behavior. This is not the lesson that you should teach your child. Teach them to be cool and collected, how to express their emotions in a way that is not belligerent and in a way that gets attention but not through kicking and crying. And until they can do that, then I agree, sometimes you just have to walk away. When the attention is gone, so will the temper tantrum.

  • Ashley

    Ashley

    May 26th, 2012 at 5:04 AM

    “Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Temper Tantrums”

    The right title I think. You see it is about understanding and managing and not about facing or combating.

    Your child is not doing all that without a reason or because he/she enjoys doing it. There could be something that is bothering the child at a deeper level and that needs to be understood and managed. A point in the right direction, thank you for this wonderful article.

  • sarai

    sarai

    May 28th, 2012 at 4:45 AM

    I have been that parent who loses it when the kids are pitching a fit. I guess I would be the one that you are looking at and wondering what the child did to set me off. I was never taught how to manage my own anger as a child so I guess that has followed me into adulthood too. I know that there have been times when I have unloaded on the kids the same way they are unloading on me, and I heard that little voice questioning what was I doing, but it’s like the rage takes hold and it’s all I can do to get it back in control again. Their tantrums just really set me off, but when I thin about it when I am calm I know that I am only giving them the same sort of training to continue to act just like me, and really, that doesn’t make me feel good at all.

  • Jim

    Jim

    September 29th, 2017 at 7:37 PM

    See ‘Circle of Security’ for ways to understand how children trigger our own stuff and how to manage this…and them.

  • L Gaither

    L Gaither

    May 28th, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    Sarai, thank you for your honesty and not judgment. I think we have missed the boat on what the purpose of this article is. It is to inform readers how to deal with tantrums. Not every parent has this guide on how to do this (or else there would be no need for writing this article). Plus, for some parents who may have had a child throw a tantrum before, this is vital information. Just from reading the comments it would seem that you may have never had a child throw a tantrum in a public setting or in the eyes of your peers. Remebering to stay calm or whisper may not even cross your mind, most likely you are trying to squash the tantrum as quickly as possible in those settings. Everything in this article I have learned AFTER my first experienes with my childrens tantrums. I have seen just about all the tantrums I would like to see, but kids are kids & it’ll happen again. But now that I’m informed, I feel more confident in those trying times. So all this to say, don’t judge a parents response to a tantrum, they may not be informed on how to handle it themselves. Plus, your eyes of judgement does not make them feel more confident, but may add to their own “stuff” (shame, embarrassment, etc) they may be feeling at the time.

    I miss the days when people tried to help, i.e. talking to your child when this happens instead of staring & judging or pretending to ignore the situation. As a parent, it would be nice to know that someone might help if they saw me being overwhelmed, but long gone are those days…It does take a village to raise a child, but somehow we’ve forgotten that. Sorry, for my long rebuttal, but thanks for reading.

  • Trey

    Trey

    May 28th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Many times the best way to manage your child’s temper is to learn how to manage your own.

  • Kaitlyn

    Kaitlyn

    May 29th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    We have to learn to speak to our children as humans and not something that we can take for granted and poush around just because they are smaller than us.
    That already gives an adult an unfair advantage size wise over kids, and then we tend to take that advantage to the extreme by yelling and doing nothing to control a situation like a temper tantrum.
    Think about how you feel sometimes when you are being belittled and think that no one is listening. It makes you want to fight back too.
    Maybe that is what these tantrums are all about, a child’s way of seeking some control when the moment does not offer them that kind of feeling.
    Tone your own handling of the tantrum down a notch or two and I would bet that automatically the child’s handling of the tantrum will calm down in increments too.

  • monica

    monica

    May 29th, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    They are looking for a way to tell us what they are feeling. When words don’t do it, then those tears and screams certainly will.

  • Angela

    Angela

    June 20th, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    I would like some feedback on what happened this morning for instance ending with me shouting: “that is enough now, go to your bedroom or get in the car!”
    I’ll talk you through it.
    Morning: waking up later than usual…
    Kisses and hugs – ‘ come my love, time to wake up now, we don’t have much time. Here is your milk and biscuits’ (service at the bedside table)
    My almost 4 year old boy moans and grunts, and then with a whiny voice ‘ I want more buscuits’
    ‘- start with those and then I will get you more’
    ‘I want more’ now almost crying.
    -‘ there are 4 biscuits there honey, please start with those and then I will get you more’
    ‘ oh, there are.’ starts eating biscuits
    Mean while I’m getting dressed and washed.
    ‘i want you to wear the other boots’
    ‘I don’t want you to wear that skirt, I want you to wear the other one’… Moaning and whining about it… Repeating in a loop.
    -‘this is comfortable for me, the other skirt is dirty, Besides, you should be eating your milk and biscuits, and what I wear should be comfortable to me.’
    ‘but I want you to wear the other one’ repeats this at least five times in a moaning voice.
    -‘I understand you like that skirt and you want me to wear it because you think it looks nice on me, but I need to wash it today.’ ‘how about I wear it tomorrow? Is that ok?’
    ‘ok’ stops moaning and goes on with his biscuits. Starts complaining that he doesn’t want to get dressed because it’s too cold and he is too comfy under the blankets (I understand perfectly … Who has never felt hat way?)
    By now at least 15 minutes have passed. -‘you now, when I was smaller and I was too cold to get out of bed to get dressed, I would get my clothes under the blankets so they would be a bit warmer’ . So I go get his clothes and put them under the banket.
    -‘ 2 minutes then you have to get dressed’.
    Still complaining about not wanting to.
    ‘I understand you are tired, but I will help you get dressed’ . I help him with the shirt, then try to help ith pants but he plays the falling puppet with me. By this stage my patience is running out. I tell him -‘my patience is running out, please put you pants on’ . His attitude doesn’t change. -‘well then, I need to go, you can stay home with the dog and the house lady’….
    ‘no,no no, no please,please’ . -‘well then stop playing puppet, you can see this tummy is getting so big I can no longer pick you up’.
    Finally we get pants, socks and shoes on. -‘brush you teeth and have a wewe while I go have some breakfast’
    ‘no, I don’t want you to eat!’
    -‘pardon? I need to eat, I ‘m very hungry, you had milk and biscuits, I still need to eat something’
    ‘no, no, no, no’ crying. -‘have a wee, and brush your teeth nicely, then come down stairs’ I go, he stops and gets over it.

    Comes downstairs very proud of himself for brushing his teeth, I praise him for doing such a great job.
    Dog goes out in the garden, followed by the little chap screaming with disappointment because he is trying to control the puppy in everything it does. I try to explain that the puppy is a living animal and can’t be totally controlled. That he needs to go out in the garden to have a wee and a poop. My boy doesn’t seem to want to register this information. I repeat it to him, ask him to please stop pulling the puppy from the ears. I get bags and keys, let him know we are ready to go. He runs out, the pup after him, he screams again for the same reason, can’t control the pup gets frustrated. Just before entering the car we wants to go back upstairs to get a card he has forgotten (doesn’t need it for any special reason, just wants it and is getting inconsolable). -‘listen honey, you see how big your mama is getting, I’m not going up and down stairs for a card which is not vital to go to kindergarten, now please get in the car we are so very late.’
    Screaming, crying, frustration … The cleaning lady tells him she is going to go get it for him (i don’t agree he should have this dictatorial request satisfied, he should go get it himself, I just know this will not help, he will just have yet another request or reason to be in a frantic mood). I ask him again to get in the car, that we are very late, and that he can have his card later, and actually that it’s not a good idea to bring it to school. She comes down with the wrong card… Big drama!!!
    I had it… My patience is gone, I cannot reason with this boy any longer, anything I say or do is not going to help.
    I slam the car door and end up shouting “that is enough now, go to your bedroom or get in the car! I’m leaving now!’
    He gets in the car crying. In the car I tell him that I don’t want to get to shout again, that i do not want this type of events to repeat, that he has to collaborate in the morning, if he does not then he will be left behind (with the cleaning lady), but I will not get to nag, repeat myself so many times and most of all I will not shout. I let him know that I do love him also when he has this type of behavior, but he has to know that next time there will be consequences. I left him at school on a light note with a big hug and a smooch. He came back for a second one.
    Shouting left me with a bad feeling the whole morning, but patience has limits. Children test and manipulate those limits constantly. Being a parent is not easy and parents can’t be perfect all the time.

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