Temper tantrums are exceedingly common in children especially between the ages of 1 and 4.
A temper tantrum is a young child’s way to vent their frustrations, test limits or protest their lack of control. Children tantrum when they don’t have the words to express their feelings or needs.
Some children are more prone to tantrums, particularly kids who are intense, hyperactive, or moody, or kids who don’t adapt well to new environments.
Any situation that requires change may prompt a tantrum. Add fatigue or hunger to the equation, which lowers the child’s threshold for tolerance, and a tantrum is even more likely.
Often, when a child has a tantrum, the issue that set off the behavior has little to do with anything that requires discipline. Just as adults who are in a bad mood, or have a headache might yell or grumble, children may be struggling with emotions that cause them to respond in a negative way. Often you can change the environment to help your child gain control of their emotions. Some of the common, controllable issues that prompt a child to lose control are fatigue, hunger, frustration, boredom and over-stimulation.
A young child most of all wants to get control over her life. Constantly hearing “no” can cause stress and frustration, leading to tantrums. When you say “no” to your young child make sure you are saying “no” to help her rather than help yourself. Picking your battles can be very helpful in giving your child appropriate control and decreasing tantrums.
Don’t take tantrums personally or get mad. Your child’s behavior is not about you, it is simply a reflection of feeling overwhelmed or out of control.
Naming your child’s emotion during a tantrum is helpful. For example, say “I can see that you are angry because ______. I will help you calm down then we will figure this out.”
Trying to reason with a child during a tantrum will not work. Young children are not capable of logical thinking in the way that adults are and they don’t want to talk to you mid tantrum. The best thing to do is distract them then hug and praise them when they are calm.
Worrying about what other people think during a tantrum is not helpful. Most adults watching your child tantrum have probably been through a similar situation and are most likely empathetic to your situation.
Understanding the “function” or goal of the tantrum can be helpful. Observe your child during tantrums. Figure out what she is trying to avoid or gain. Often the function may be to gain attention or control, or to avoid a task that is not desired. Teach your child how to fulfill his needs in a more acceptable way then practice, practice, practice! Praise even the smallest success.
Giving in to a tantrum will not help your child. It will teach him that tantruming is an effective way to get what he wants.
Steps to take when your child tantrums:
Keep your temper in check. You won’t get anywhere with your child if you are screaming at each other.
Tell your child firmly that tantrums are not an acceptable way to behave.
If you know the tantrum is a ploy to gain your attention, ignore the behavior and continue with what you are doing, even if this means dragging your screaming child through the store.
If your child is tantruming because she is frustrated or bored offer an alternative. Say, “I know you are frustrated. Are you done screaming? When you are you can look at your favorite book.”
If that doesn’t work, remove her from the situation and give her time alone to calm down. Create a “safe place” or “cozy corner”; one that is soothing and relaxing such as a tent or a pile of big pillows. Provide sensory objects that can help soothe her such as stuffed animals, music or crayons. The goal is for your child to calm herself, not to be punished.
If your child is upset to the point of being inconsolable or out of control, hold him tightly to calm him down. Tell him gently that you love him but that you’re not going to give him what he wants.
Other strategies to try:
When your child starts to tantrum do some silly. Put a pair of pants on your head, talk in a funny voice or use a banana to make a “phone call”. It’s pretty easy to make a toddler laugh and laughter releases all sorts of feel good chemicals in the brain, stifling the stress causing ones. Young children find the unexpected especially funny so your silly behavior may distract your child enough to stop the tantrum from escalating.
If your child is screaming at the top of her lungs; start to whisper. This will only work if she is looking at you but once she notices you are speaking quietly she may stop yelling long enough to figure out what you are saying. Make sure you are saying something soothing like “mommy loves you and will help you calm down”. It’s okay to quietly offer a distraction like a short walk or a quick tickle as a reward for calming down.
As mentioned earlier, ignoring a tantrum can be a very effective way to stop attention seeking behavior, as long as your child is not completely out of control and is not a danger to herself, others or her surroundings. When you are sure she is safe, turn away from your child and give her no attention until she is calm. Do not look at her or speak to her. You may even want to loudly hum a song or turn up the tv to strengthen your message that a tantrum is not rewarded with attention. Do not use this strategy if the attention seeking behavior is due to a change such as a new baby or a death in the family; situations in which your child likely needs more attention than usual.
Go on autopilot. For example, when your child wants a cookie 10 minutes before dinner and your refusal has prompted a tantrum, repeat the limit you have set over and over; “We don’t eat cookies before dinner, we don’t eat cookies before dinner, we don’t eat cookies before dinner…” Stay calm, keep your voice even and your face neutral. Be sure to use the same words over and over. The repetition may bore the tantrum out of him.
Play an attention game to distract your child at the beginning of a tantrum. For example, start a game of “I Spy” in the restaurant prompting your child to look for something red or square in his surroundings. Or make a game out of grocery shopping; challenging your child to find the box of cheerios on the shelf before you do. This can distract your child from tantruming and provide her with the attention she wants.
Change your child’s location. If she is tantruming in the living room, pick her up and bring her to the kitchen. Then distract her with a game or a way to help you with something.
When your child is calm establish some choices he can make at the start of a tantrum to help him gain control. For example, some choices may be “go to the cozy corner”, “wrap up in a blanket”, “have a hug”. At the start of the tantrum (or when you notice one about to start) reflect on his feelings (“I can tell you are feeling mad because your face is getting red”) then remind your child of the choices he can make (“You can choose to go to the cozy corner or wrap up in your blanket until your feel calm. Which do you choose?”). It may be helpful to have a picture chart showing each choice your child can make. That way your child can point to his choice if he is too upset to use words.
Refrain from yelling at your child. It will only make the situation worse and actually models the exact behavior that you want your child to stop!
Validate your child’s feelings and establish boundaries for his emotional response. For example you might say, “I understand that you feel so mad that you want to bite your brother. I feel really mad sometimes too so I get it. But when we are mad we are not allowed to hurt others.”
Preventing a tantrum:
Instead of having to stop a temper tantrum after it starts, prevent it by following these tips:
Avoid situations in which tantrums are likely to erupt. Try to keep your daily routines as consistent as possible and give your child a five-minute warning before changing activities.
Communicate with your toddler. Don’t underestimate his ability to understand what you are saying. Tell him the plan for the day and stick to your routine to minimize surprises.
Allow your child to take a toy or food item with her while you run errands. It may help her stay occupied.
Make sure your child is well rested and fed before you go out so he doesn’t blow up at the slightest provocation.
Put away off-limit temptations (for example, don’t leave candy bars lying on the kitchen counter close to dinnertime) so they don’t lead to battles.
Make tasks that are likely to prompt a tantrum fun. Challenge your child to see who can put away the most toys or brush your teeth with your child and try to talk with your mouthful of toothpaste. Make up songs that you and your child can sing while getting dressed or make up a story that you act out while getting ready for bed.
Give your young child appropriate control. Let your child choose which book to bring in the car or whether she wants grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly for lunch. These little choices won’t make much of a difference to you, but they’ll make your child feel as though she has at least some control over her own life.
Similarly, give your child limited choices, or a choice within a choice in situations that require structure. For example, when your child needs to hold an adult’s hand to cross the street ask your child, “Would you like to hold mommy’s hand or daddy’s hand when we cross the street?” When it is time to get dressed for school ask her, “Would you like to wear your red pants or your green pants to school?” At bedtime ask him, “Would you like to brush your teeth first or put on your pjs first?”
You can even offer choices with timed activities; “Would you like to watch tv for 5 minutes or 10 minutes?” The same goes with treats; “Would you like one cookie or two cookies?” Just make sure you are okay with both choices given to your child.
Pick your battles. Sometimes you can give in a little, especially when it comes to small things. Would you rather let your child watch 15 extra minutes of television or listen to her scream for 30 minutes?
Distract. A young child’s attention is fleeting and easy to divert. When your child’s face starts to crinkle and redden in that telltale way, open a book or offer to go on a walk to the park before it can escalate into a full-blown tantrum. Sometimes, humor is the best way to distract. Make a funny face, tell a joke, or start a pillow fight to get your child’s mind off what’s upsetting him.
Set expectations then practice behaviors you want to reinforce before you expect your child to use the behavior. For example, set the stage for a visit to a relative by explaining to your child what will likely happen and how you expect them to behave. Then role-play the situation. You can pretend you are the relative and help your child practice saying “hello” then sitting on the floor to play quietly with their toy. You can also review things that might go wrong during the event and role-play appropriate ways to handle the trigger. For example, say “At Lucy’s birthday party you might not win the games that you play. If that happens you can take a deep breath and say, “Oh well I had fun”, then play another game.”
Give your child a job to do in situations where they may want control. For example, if your child struggles while you get dinner ready, make her the official “table decorator”. She can fold the napkins into fun shapes and put them on the table while you finish cooking or she can make colorful name cards to place in each family member’s spot. This may ease the frustration your child feels with the lack of attention they want.
Keep your child busy when out in public. Give him jobs to do to help with shopping such as finding a box of crackers or looking at the lobster tank. Ask him to hold things for you and help push the cart. Bring along a bag of items that will hold his attention such as books, games, snacks- keep the bag full in order to provide many different distractors.
Give your child fair warning before a transition from a fun activity to one that is less desired. Tell him when he has five minutes left to play and what will happen when time is up. Do the same at one minute. For example, “You have five minutes left to play with your dolls. When time is up you will put your doll down and come into the kitchen for lunch.”
Use a “First…then…” approach to getting your child to do what you want and giving him what he wants. For example, if your child does not want to eat his peas and insists on eating dessert, say “First you will eat your peas, then you can have your ice cream.” If your child does not eat his peas say, “I can see that you have chosen to not eat your peas. That means you have also chosen to not eat your ice cream” then let the situation go even if the peas are not eaten. Through repetition and sticking to your limits, your child can learn the cause and effect relationship between his choices and getting (or not getting) what he wants.
Use positive words to tell your child what you want rather than what you don’t want. Words like “don’t, stop and no”, if overused may exacerbate your child’s tantruming. Instead of saying “Don’t jump on the couch” say “The couch is for sitting on. Go outside to jump on your trampoline”. Instead of saying “Stop hitting your brother” say “Hands are not for hitting. Hands are for hugging. Love your brother even when you are mad.”
Teach your child other ways of dealing with frustration. Every child should have a “bag of tricks” with a variety of calming strategies to use when frustrated or mad. Belly breaths, funny faces, singing, dancing, and drawing are all quick, easy ways to calm down.
Praise your child for getting it right. When he stays cool in a situation that would normally have triggered a tantrum, tell him he did a good job of controlling his temper.
Praise your child’s good behavior as often as you can. Be specific (“I like how you put away your toys”) and explain how her choice was good for her (“Now you’ll know where all of your toys are next time you play”) and how her choice was good for others (“Now our living room is clean and tidy”). Follow up with a smile or a touch on the shoulder to make the praise both verbal and non-verbal. Look for reasons to give specific praise and be sure to offer praise immediately following the desired behavior. Remember, what you notice will happen more!
Use a correction, rather than punishment, when your child makes an inappropriate choice. Be specific and explain how the behavior benefits her and others. (“I need you to put your shoes on now. This will be helpful because you will be ready to go and mommy can be on time for work”). Remember to only comment on what you want your child to do. Not what you want them to stop doing.
Practice being mad and using appropriate behaviors in a pretend game. For example, mommy says “no” and your child pretends to be mad but then takes a belly breath and says ‘Okay.” Switch roles and let your child be the mommy!
Remove pressure from your child to be perfect. Tell him it is okay if he does not do the desired behavior or does it only minimally. Be nonchalant when talking about his behavior (this is staged indifference). Tell him he shouldn’t worry about not knowing how to do the desired behavior- he will be able to do it when he is older. If he uses the desired behavior independently don’t go overboard with praise. Make note of the behavior with a “I like that you…” statement and a smile or touch then move on.
Look at your child’s emotional outbursts from a competency building standpoint rather than a symptom relieving standpoint. Rather than talking to your child about the things she is doing wrong, focus on what she can be better at. For example you might say “Let’s practice ways that you can be better at staying calm when we say no” rather than “You need to stop screaming every time we say no!”
Teach your older child a mantra and use it when you see him becoming angry. Something like, “It’s okay to be mad. I use my words to tell how I feel” or “Taking a belly breath helps me calm myself.”
Help your younger child with their receptive vocabulary. Hang a bunch of “feelings faces” on the refrigerator. When you notice your child’s emotional response point to the corresponding feelings face. Say, “You are feeling mad. What are you mad about?” Then offer a suggestion for an appropriate response. “When you are mad about _____ you can _____.” When he is calm and outside of the trigger situation help him practice this appropriate response through role play or pretend play.
Make sure your child knows what to do in situations that may trigger a tantrum and can SHOW you what they need to do. You can teach your child expected behaviors using the following steps:
Specify what you want your child to do in trigger situations. Explain how it benefits him and others.
Practice the behavior many times outside of the trigger situation. Reward successful practice!
Model the behavior yourself as often as you can.
In a trigger situation, prompt your child with clear instructions. You can shape the behavior at first by helping your child do what is expected. Fade away support as your child becomes more successful. Reward success. Even if it is only partial success at first.
Continue practicing outside of the trigger situation as much as possible until the behavior becomes a habit.
Suggestions for your child:
At the start of tantrums try the following:
Be silly to surprise her out of tantrum
Ignore the behavior
Distract attention to something funny, interesting or different
Whisper rather than yell
Use cozy corner
To avoid tantrums try the following:
Give limited choices
Pick your battles
Distract during possible trigger situations
Set expectations for possible trigger situations
Give a job during possible trigger situations
Use positive words to direct behavior
Praise, praise, praise!!
Practice what to do during possible trigger situations