Although temper tantrums are distressing to both adults and children, they’re a normal part of early child development.
Prevention is the best way of handling temper tantrums, but that’s not always effective.
This column is Part 2 of my response to the question, ‘Is there a graceful way to handle temper tantrums? Leah—my 2 and a half-year old—always seems to choose the most embarrassing public moments for her tantrums.’
Kids vary a whole lot in how often they have tantrums, how bad the tantrums are, and how long they last.
Some of that has to do with how good adults are at handling temper tantrums, but a lot has to do with the child’s temperament.
Toddlers who are intense, sensitive, and strong-willed are more prone to tantrums than others.
And those who have a hard time with change or show other signs of hyperactivity tend to have more tantrums than others.
Tantrum behaviours include whining, crying, screaming, kicking, biting, lying on the floor pounding with fists and feet, and breath-holding.
Girls are just as likely as boys to have them. Most kids grow out of them by the age of 3.
If you’re still handling temper tantrums at age 4, it’s probably time to consult an expert.
Ten Top Tips for Handling Temper Tantrums:
- Keep calm. It may be tempting to start screaming back at Leah, but it will probably make things worse, and it certainly won’t provide a good model for teaching Leah how to deal with her frustration. Take a deep breath, do your best to regain your equilibrium (understanding that this is a stressful moment for you as well as your child), and calmly inform her that yelling (or whatever it is she is doing) is not the best way to get what she wants.
- Don’t give in. You don’t want to teach Leah that tantrums are effective bargaining tools. Once she’s started on a tantrum, it’s too late to change your ‘No’ to ‘Yes.’ And next time, think very carefully before saying ‘No.’ Especially with toddlers who tend to tantrums, say it only when you’re prepared to go to the wall over it.
- Don’t try to argue with her or explain anything. While the tantrum lasts, she is beyond reason.
- If she’s inconsolable or out of control, hold her tightly. Tell her gently that you love her, but that you’re not going to give her what she wants right now. If holding her enrages her further, release the hold, but make sure she’s physically safe. A tantrum is a terrifying out-of-control situation. Handling temper tantrums well means reassuring Leah that you will keep her safe even when she can’t do that for herself.
- Try to understand the cause. If she’s experiencing a terrible disappointment, she may need consolation. If she’s working hard to do something and just can’t do it, she needs your empathy. If it’s a desire for something you’ve said no to (Sugar Crispies at the grocery store, for example, or more time at the park), you’re best to ignore it, and follow the other suggestions here for handling temper tantrums.
- Remove her from the situation, and give her a chance to calm down. Find a quiet, safe spot where you can stay with her until she’s settled down. It can be a bathroom, a quiet corner of a store, your car.
- Carry on, with strength and confidence. Don’t let Leah’s tantrums change your treatment of her. If she sees you worrying about a possible tantrum—being extra-nice to her in public, for example—you’ll be training her to use tantrums to control you. You really don’t want to do that.
- When it’s over, reconnect. Handling temper tantrums doesn’t end when the crying stops. She’s just been through an emotional and scary experience. She needs your love and comfort, your reassurance that she’s safe, and that you still love her.
- If they recur, keep a tantrum diary. Record time of day, day of week, setting, circumstance. That will help you see if there’s a pattern, and help you prevent them in future.
- Remember that you’ll both get past this. Toddlerhood brings a lot of stresses, worries, and frustrations, but as Leah becomes more competent and autonomous, she’ll have better coping mechanisms, as well as fewer frustrations. With your attention, modelling, and help, she’ll get better at regulating her emotional ups and downs. In the meantime, be patient and understanding with yourself, and with Leah.
For more on handling temper tantrums:
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