We all have seen the 2-year-old at the supermarket having a fit because he didn’t get what he wanted. The parents take him out of the store crying, begging, screaming or kicking. Temper tantrums are a common occurrence. While some parents — the lucky ones — never have to deal with them, most of us are not so fortunate.
What is a tantrum?
Temper tantrums are out-of-control emotional outbursts, episodes of extreme anger and frustration characterized by crying, screaming and violent body motions, including throwing things, falling on the floor and banging one’s head, hands and feet against the floor. They happen most frequently between the ages of 2 and 4, but can start as young as 15 months.
Tantrums are a normal developmental stage during the toddler years, when children are establishing their autonomy. For the most part, they are caused by anger and/or frustration. The anger causing the tantrum is actually a secondary emotion that is usually fueled by fear, hurt or frustration.
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Young toddlers might be frustrated because they are not able to communicate their feelings, needs or desires. This can trigger a tantrum. Or children might be too tired, hungry, sick or bored. Most commonly, especially in strong-willed children, temper tantrums occur when they do not get their way.
All behaviors are a form of communication and have a function. Tantrums can occur when your child wants access to an object or an activity, or is trying to avoid doing something he or she does not want to do, like taking a bath. They can also happen if your child is uncomfortable for any reason and cannot explain it. Also, your child could be having tantrums to seek your attention. In their young mind, sometimes negative attention is better than no attention.
How do I stop tantrums?
Every child is unique, but children typically have one of three types of temperament: easy, slow to warm up or difficult. Each temperament will require different parenting approaches. The child with an easy temperament will require only a stern look to know he needs to stop misbehaving. Not so the child with a difficult temperament or the so-called strong-willed child.
To solve your child’s tantrums, you need to pay attention to what happens right before the tantrum starts. What triggers it? You need to make sure your child is not trying to communicate something to you and is unable to. This is very common in children with speech delay or other developmental disorders. In those instances, you need to attend to the child, soothe them and try to figure out what they are trying to say.
When your child is being outwardly defiant and it is clear that she is trying to get her way, the best way to respond is with selective ignoring. This means that whenever possible, your best reaction is to actively ignore the tantrum with a matter-of-fact, calm attitude. You can engage in another activity, like starting a conversation with your spouse, and not talk to your child or show you’re upset or angry.
As soon as your child engages in any form of calm or positive behavior, give her all your attention, praising the appropriate behavior. This tactic is easier said than done as our nature makes it easier to attend to misbehavior and try to correct it.
It is also crucial that you don’t give in to your child’s demand during a tantrum. That will only reward and reinforce the behavior you do not want.
Warning! Things might get worse before they get better. When something has been working, and suddenly it does not, we try the same method with greater intensity to get our way. So, when you start ignoring a tantrum, your child might escalate his behavior in an attempt to get the previous results.
There are times when a temper tantrum cannot be ignored — for example, if your child is hurting himself or others, being destructive or becoming disruptive in a public place. In those cases, you need to intervene to keep your child and others safe by removing him from the situation.
Can I prevent a tantrum?
Tantrums can be prevented by distracting your child, creating routines, warning your child before changing activities, giving some choices, such as picking out the color of their shirt, and labeling feelings for them. Spend at least five minutes a day playing with your child. Pay attention, and praise positive behaviors throughout the day. Also have clear consequences for misbehavior, such as time-out.
If your child’s tantrums are getting worse or the child is causing harm to himself or others, share your concerns with your pediatrician. He or she can refer you to a behavioral health specialist who can help you finally tame those trying tantrums.
Dr. Janellie R. Azaret is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.