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What is a temper tantrum?
An emotional outburst of anger and frustration, a tantrum isn't a pretty sight. In addition to kicking, screaming, or pounding the floor, your preschooler's hissy fit may include throwing things, hitting, or even holding his breath until he turns blue. (Don't worry – he'll eventually come up for air, but talk to your child's doctor if this happens.)
Tantrums are normal and common, especially with 2- and 3-year-olds. Take heart – they typically occur much less frequently by age 4.
Why does my child throw temper tantrums?
Emotional triggers: The most likely reason for a temper tantrum is that your 2- or 3-year-old is feeling overwhelmed emotionally. Toddlers and preschoolers have all of the big emotions – good and bad – that adults do, but they don't yet have the ability to understand and manage them. Those parts of the brain haven't developed yet. Tantrums happen when feelings such as frustration, fear, or rejection are too much for your little one to cope with on her own.
A tantrum can also be caused by something that's been bothering your child over time. For instance, say she sees a picture of a scary monster in the afternoon that puts her on edge emotionally. When you put her to bed, she might be more agitated than usual and throw a tantrum that's linked to that heightened anxiety earlier in the day.
Physical triggers: Fatigue, hunger, and discomfort are frequent tantrum triggers.
Reinforced behavior: Depending on how you respond, your child may learn that throwing a tantrum is a way to get what she wants. (See "When should I ignore a tantrum?" below.)
How to handle your child's temper tantrums
Over time, you can teach your child how to express feelings in appropriate ways. In the meanwhile, try these strategies:
- Distract your child. This works better before he's in full tantrum mode. You might offer him a chance to do something he likes ("Would you like to get out your paints or bake some bread?") when you see his frustration mounting.
- Talk softly and soothingly. The tone of your voice can help calm your child. Keep your words simple: "I see how upset you are. I'm here to help you calm down."
- Stay with your child. The storm of emotion your child is feeling can be frightening to him, and he needs to know you're nearby. Leaving the room can make him feel abandoned.
- Offer physical comfort. Quietly go to your child. If he's not flailing too much, pick him up and hold him. Chances are he'll find your embrace comforting and will calm down more quickly.
- Empathize. Teach your child coping skills by validating how hard it is to feel negative emotions like disappointment, anger, or sadness. You could say, "I know you're disappointed because you really wanted to go to the park, but it's raining too hard. Here, let's play inside with this puzzle instead."
- Prioritize safety. If your preschooler's outburst escalates to the point where he's hitting people or pets, throwing things, or screaming nonstop, pick him up and carry him to a safe place, where he can't harm himself, others, or things. Tell him why he's there ("Because you hit your sister – hitting hurts and is not okay"), and let him know that you'll stay with him until he calms down. If you're in a public place, be prepared to leave with your child.
When should I ignore a tantrum?
If your child is having a tantrum because she doesn't want to do what you've asked of her or you've said no to something, calmly acknowledge that you can see she's having a hard time and doesn't like what you said. Then continue to go about your business if possible.
For example, you might say, "I see you're mad that I said no to a cookie before dinner. It's hard to wait. They look so good and smell yummy. I'm looking forward to having one after dinner. Here, help me put the napkins on the table."
Of course, this is easier to do at home. If you're in public, you may need to leave and find a place to wait out the storm.
Above all, be consistent and firm about your request or the limit you set. Otherwise, you're teaching your child that a tantrum is a good way to get her way.
What not to do when your child has a tantrum
- Don't lose your cool. No matter how infuriating you find your child's behavior, remember that you're the adult. Don't yell at, mimic, or threaten your child. A tantrum is frightening enough without your child feeling that you're not in control.
- Don't try to reason with your child. In the midst of a meltdown, your child is unable to listen to, much less understand, reason. His brain simply will not be able to process logic.
- Don't tell her that she's overreacting. Telling him that he shouldn't be upset isn't helpful. Instead, let him know you understand that he's upset.
- Don't burden your child. Don't tell your child that his tantrum is making you sad or angry. Your child doesn't need that responsibility, and you shouldn't give him that power.
Talk to your doctor if you feel that you can't handle your child's tantrums or if you're feeling sad, angry, anxious, or overwhelmed a lot of the time.
What to do if your toddler has a tantrum in public
- Remove her from the situation. Pick up your child and take her to a safe space. If you can't because she's flailing too much, clear space around her and remove any potentially dangerous items that she could throw, hit, or kick.
- Keep those around her safe. Separate your child from other children, for example, at the park or on a playdate. If she's biting or hitting, be very firm about that being unacceptable. Be clear that hurting others, including you, is never okay. For example, say, "I see that you're upset, but I can't let you hurt anyone. Let's get out all those mad feelings by jumping up and down, and growling like tiger."
- Don't give in to quiet your child. It's especially tempting when your child has a temper tantrum in public to cave in as a way of ending the episode. No matter how long the tantrum goes on, don't give in to unreasonable demands or try to bribe or negotiate with your screaming child. Conceding teaches your child that pitching a fit is the way to get what she wants and sets the stage for future behavior problems. See below on tips for "How to avoid triggering a temper tantrum."
What to do after the tantrum
- Be affectionate. When the storm subsides, hug him. Show him with your actions that you still love him and are there for him, no matter what.
- Talk about what happened. Using simple language, acknowledge your child's frustration and help him put his feelings into words, saying something like, "You were angry, but I didn't understand you because you were screaming. Now that you're calm, I can find out what you want." Let him see that once he expresses himself in words, he'll get better results.
- Praise him for settling down. Tell your child he did a good job calming himself.
What can I do at home to prevent (or at least prepare for) tantrums
- Practice safe ways to blow off steam. Teach your child options for expressing strong feelings like anger, such as running around outside, and ways to calm herself, like taking deep breaths. Practice these activities during calm times, so your child has safe strategies when she's upset.
- Label emotions. Teach your child the vocabulary she needs to express her feelings – good and bad – and cite real-life examples for your child and others. For example, "I see how happy you and Grandma are when we visit," or "Joe looked mad that you took his truck."
- Give opportunities to succeed. Tantrums often happen when a preschooler wants to do something beyond her ability. For example, she likely can't pour milk from a full gallon by herself, but she might be able to pour from a smaller pitcher.
- Notice good behavior. Watch for opportunities to tell her that she's doing a good job handling a tough situation. Be specific: "I noticed that you stayed calm by taking deep breaths when your sister took your puzzle piece."
- Provide a calming-down space. Don't banish your child to her room for a time-out as punishment. Instead, tell your child that she can go back to playing (or eating, or whatever she wants to get back to) when she has calmed down. Consider setting up a space for settling down, like a cozy chair or a corner full of blankets and favorite books. Stay nearby to comfort and reassure her as she tries to self-soothe.
- Let your child experience disappointment. Learning to cope with smaller disappointments and to solve minor problems on her own prepares your child for larger challenges later on and helps build resiliency.
- Model coping strategies. What do you do when you're angry or frustrated? Do you tend to yell or calmly talk about the situation? If you do lose your temper, acknowledge it and apologize to your child.
- Set realistic expectations. Learning where to set the bar for your child – not so low that she is never challenged but not so high that she's constantly discouraged – is an important parenting skill.
- Consider how you respond to tantrums. Learning new parenting skills or taking a different approach may help you manage your child's tantrums better – and teach your child valuable lifelong coping skills for handling emotions.
How to avoid triggering a temper tantrum
Pay attention to what pushes your child's buttons and plan accordingly. For example:
- Make sure he gets enough rest and food. Temper tantrums are more frequent and intense when kids are tired or hungry. Stash snacks in your bag or car to dodge a hangry tantrum.
- Schedule thoughtfully. Try to time outings that are more challenging, like grocery shopping, when he's feeling his best – maybe on a weekend morning rather than after preschool, for example.
- Give him a head's up before transitioning to the next activity. Letting him know when you're going to leave the playground, for example, gives him a chance to adjust instead of react. You might say, "Five more pushes on the swing and we'll head home." Then count down the pushes and follow up with a choice: "Would you like to wear your sweater or not on the way home?"
- Have a plan and set expectations. For example, before you go to the grocery store, tell your child, "We are going to buy food for dinner. We're buying only what's on this list. You can help me find all of the red items – apples, tomatoes, and peppers." Or if leaving the park tends to be a battle, create a departure routine. Say, "Remember, when I give the signal, it's time to take your last turn down the slide and get in the car to go home."
- Offer limited choices. No one likes being told what to do all the time. Saying, "Would you like corn or carrots?" rather than "Eat your corn" gives your little one a sense of control. Don't give him too many choices at once, though, or he'll feel overwhelmed.
- Monitor how often you say no. If you find that you're rattling off no routinely, you could be putting unnecessary stress on both of you. You could say yes to more time at the playground, but no to more dessert.
- Pick your battles. Think through which requests, such as health and safety, are absolute no's, and which could give your child the power to make his own decision, for example, wearing mismatched clothes.
- Watch for signs of overstress. Larger problems, such as an upheaval in the family, an extra-full schedule, or tension between you and your partner, can provoke tantrums.
- Problem-solve. Watch for patterns and think about ways to address the triggers. If your child seems to throw a tantrum whenever he has a playdate, maybe you can identify games that don't cause problems, or maybe you can engage the visitor and your child in an activity with close supervision (such as a craft or cooking project with you).
- Establish a consistent routine. Children of any age feel more secure when they know what to expect. Setting times for snacks, reading, play, and bedtime rituals can go a long way toward helping him feel in control.
When should I call the doctor about my child's temper tantrums?
Call the doctor if your preschooler:
- Is having a sudden increase in the number of tantrums or intensity of tantrums
- Holds her breath until she passes out
- Has outbursts that are getting worse
- Is hurting herself or others
- Has tantrums that include aggressive, violent behavior (throwing and breaking objects, hitting, kicking)
- Is very argumentative and uncooperative
- Has tantrums that last longer than 25 minutes
- Is unable to return to normal behavior between tantrums
- Is also having nightmares, regressive behavior (reversal of toilet training, for example), or other behavioral problems
Your child's doctor can make sure there isn't a physical or psychological condition contributing to the problem and offer suggestions for dealing with the outbursts.
Underlying conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression, autism, and sensory-processing issues can contribute to tantrum behavior. So can hearing loss or vision problems, learning differences (either disabilities or giftedness), or language delays.