6 Tips You Need to Know for Effectively Handling Temper Tantrums
Though draining and often embarrassing for caregivers, temper tantrums are a normal part of child development that aren’t usually a cause for concern. They’re especially common in toddlers, and children typically outgrow them before the age of 4 years old. Let’s take a look at what causes temper tantrums, how to manage them, and how to prevent them in the first place.
What Is a Temper Tantrum?
A temper tantrum is the manifestation of a child's anger or frustration with their limitations. Maybe your little one is having difficulty performing a task or needs attention. Perhaps they don’t have the language skills yet to convey their feelings or desires. This may lead them to act out and misbehave either physically, verbally, or both. If your child is fatigued, hungry, feeling sick, or has to make a transition, their breaking point is probably even lower, making a tantrum more likely.
During a tantrum, your child may cry, scream, hit, kick, thrash around, hold their breath, tense their body, or go completely limp. Generally speaking, the misbehavior is typically excessive or disproportionate to the circumstances that caused it. For example, you may tell your child they aren’t allowed to have a piece of candy, triggering an outburst of screaming, flailing, and hitting.
Tantrums are a normal part of development as children grow from toddlers into older, more autonomous preschool-aged children. They may even occur daily. A temper tantrum may last only a few minutes or up to 15. By the time a child begins school, their occurrence decreases significantly. A temper tantrum in 5-year-olds is far less common since children this age have learned to express their needs and feelings better verbally.
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Tips for Dealing with a Temper Tantrum
If you find yourself in the midst of dealing with a full-scale meltdown by your child, try these temper tantrum tips to help them calm down.
1. Identify a distraction
If you feel your child is on the verge of a tantrum but isn’t quite there yet, try to divert their attention. Get them interested in looking at something else or participating in a new activity.
2. Remain calm, cool, and collected
If your child is in the middle of an outburst, avoid debating with them, yelling at them, or scolding them. Doing so will only escalate the situation. Instead, try whispering to them in a calm, gentle voice while they’re looking directly at you. As soon as your little one realizes you’re speaking, they may calm down to try to figure out why you’re talking so quietly. Try saying something soothing like, "I’m sorry you’re so upset. Why don’t we take a walk?" Wait to talk to them about their behavior after they have calmed down.
Never, ever hit, bite, or kick them back. While you may think this teaches them that this behavior hurts others, it often has the opposite effect. In other words, seeing a parent engage in the behavior legitimizes it. Instead, use your words to be clear that they’re doing something harmful and that it is not allowed.
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3. Ignore the behavior
Though your child may be genuinely frustrated, they also know that fussing and crying will get your attention. If your child doesn’t seem to be exceptionally stressed and isn’t doing anything to harm themselves or their surroundings, try to ignore the tantrum. Not reacting shows your child that a tantrum is unacceptable and won’t get them what they want.
4. Stay consistent
Repeating the same message may simply bore them out of their tantrum. For instance, if your child throws a fit when you won’t let them eat candy before bed, you can repeat the rule: "We don’t eat candy before bedtime. We don’t eat candy before bedtime."
The key is to remain calm and stand your ground. Keep your face and voice neutral and free of emotion. They’ll figure out that you’re serious and that acting out won’t get them attention or candy before bedtime.
5. Keep an eye on them
If you’re experiencing the dreaded public temper tantrum, keep an eye on your child (and be sure they can see you) at all times. If you’re concerned your child may injure themselves or others, take them out of that environment.
6. Monitor their safety
Sometimes distractions and non-reactions just don’t work during a full-on raging tantrum. Your child may be so upset they can’t hear or see you. Try holding them firmly, but gently so that they don’t hurt themselves or others (losing control can be scary for a little one). If necessary, pick them up and move them to a safe space until they calm down. Remove any potentially dangerous objects around them.
Tips for Preventing a Temper Tantrum
While it’s not possible to avoid every tantrum, the American Academy of Pediatricians does offer a few practical ideas to help you prevent them.
- “Catch them being good.” Offer your little one lots of attention and specific praise in successful moments. (e.g., "Thank you for asking so nicely and using your words.")
- Offer small, directed choices with options. This helps your child feel they have control over little things. (e.g., “Do you want the green one or the blue one?”)
- Distract them. Go outside. Choose a different toy. Blow bubbles. Sing a song.
- Pick your battles carefully. Occasionally you may have to give in on something, and that’s alright.
- Understand when your child has hit a wall. Some days they’re tired or hungry or overly stimulated or just don’t feel well.
- Don’t tolerate physically harmful behavior – ever. Don’t allow biting, hitting, throwing, or kicking.
When to Talk to a Doctor
Temper tantrums are a normal, if exhausting and frustrating, part of development in children. As your child gets older and their self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. In some cases, however, you may want to have your pediatrician consider possible physical or psychological issues contributing to the tantrums. Talk to your child's doctor if your child's tantrums are:
- happening more than twice daily
- accompanied by rage, intense sadness, or despair
- followed by disturbing behaviors like aggression, sleep issues, loss of appetite, and extreme separation anxiety
- daily beyond the age of 4 years old
- made up of violent conduct that hurts your child, other people, or objects
You should likewise talk to your child’s doctor or your own if you're having difficulty controlling your anger or can't seem to endure your toddler's tantrums. Help is available.
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