Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents.She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz mom kissing toddler 150x150 Ten Top Tips for Preventing Temper TantrumsQuestion: 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.

Answer: Preventing temper tantrums is the most graceful solution to the tantrum problem, so I’ll start with some suggestions for preventing temper tantrums:

  1. Keep to regular schedules. You’ve probably noticed that Leah’s tantrums are more likely to happen when she’s hungry, tired, hot, or uncomfortable. Keeping to regular schedules for food and sleep is essential in preventing temper tantrums.
  2. Give her warnings of transitions. Give Leah some warning about upcoming transitions—dropping her off or picking her up from somewhere, going shopping, going to bed, etc. Preventing temper tantrums includes calm, friendly warnings as transitions approach, with a timeline and an idea of what’s next: ‘We can play that game three more times, then we need to put our coats on;’ ‘You can draw one more picture, and then it’s time for dinner;’ ‘As soon as we’re finished snack, it will be bathtime.’ Warn her four or five minutes before the transition. Then warn her again, when transition time is closer: ‘We’ll play that game two more times,’ etc. Then give her a final warning: ‘This is the last game before we put our coats on.’
  3. Pay attention to her. Make sure you’re giving her enough of your undivided attention. That means no conflicting calls on your attention—phones, TV, housework, conversation, whatever. Sometimes toddlers have tantrums because nothing else works to get the attention they need.
  4. Respect her independence, and allow her as much autonomy as possible. Another big reason for tantrums is the inevitable frustration associated with being 2 or 3 years old—all those things Leah can’t do on her own but really really wants to. Preventing temper tantrums includes giving her as much autonomy as possible. For example, give her her own shelf or cupboard where she keeps her cooking utensils, her own cups and plates, and anything else you can make room for that’s safe for her to handle independently. For more:  Also, allow her to make choices whenever possible. ‘Would you like to put this sock on first, or this one?’ ‘Should we pick up the Legos first, or put away the books?’
  5. Be consistent. Leah will be less likely to move into a tantrum if she’s already learned that ‘No’ really means ‘No.’ When parenting a strong-willed child, that usually means sticking to your word through a tantrum or two—or, in the case of one of my daughters, a lot more than two!—usually in the most embarrassing and inconvenient of circumstances.
  6. Prevent boredom. When you’re doing something she doesn’t enjoy—shopping, driving, cooking—make sure she’s got something to do that engages her interest while she’s waiting.
  7. Distract her as needed. Being attentive to Leah’s moods is necessary to preventing temper tantrums. When you notice the first signs of fussiness, give her a hug, start singing a song she likes, make a funny face, or say something silly.
  8. Prevent feelings of helplessness. If you notice Leah having trouble with something, ask her if she wants help. Don’t take over the task, but help her get over the hump so she can proceed with what she can do.
  9. Teach her other ways of dealing with frustration. Giving her the words she needs to get what she wants means preventing temper tantrums– ‘Help, please!’ or ‘Leah’s turn!’ She’s not too young for you to show her how deep breathing and counting to five can help get through a frustrating moment.
  10. Take her outside at least once a day. Outdoor playtime has many benefits, including stress-reduction. See, for example,

Everyone has terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad days, days when tantrums will happen in spite of your brilliant prevention work. I’ll address that in part 2 of my response to your question, ‘Handling Temper Tantrums: Keep Calm and Carry On.’

In the meantime, some more ideas for preventing temper tantrums:


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