Most of us have been there at one time or another – in the grocery store, shopping cart full of much needed food, and our child is flipping out on the floor of the store because we’ve refused to buy them “super sour fruit twirlies” or some other “gotta have it” pseudo food. Our child is having a tantrum and we’re feeling helpless. What’s our first response? Give him as many “super sour fruit twirlies” as they want. Although giving in will temporarily stop our kids’ temper tantrums, rewarding their inappropriate behavior will only teach them that tantrums “get me what I want,” and then they’re likely to have more outbursts. Here’s the one positive thing about grocery store fits: a screaming child in the check-out line makes everyone speed up the process of bagging those groceries. So stay calm, make your escape and take some tips on taming the temper tantrum.
What is a Temper Tantrum?
A temper tantrum is an irrational, immature way of expressing anger or frustration. Throwing a tantrum usually involves exactly what it implies—a child throwing themselves on the floor complete with kicking, screaming and crying. While tantrums are inappropriate, they are perfectly normal for children aged one to three years. By three years, tantrums become less frequent as children learn other coping skills for dealing with anger and frustration. By school age, tantrums are rare.
What Causes Temper Tantrums?
Ever try to work some new sort of electronic gadget, only to find yourself tossing the manual, saying some choice words and contemplating hurling the gismo out the window? That’s the adult version of a tantrum. Most of the time, a child who has a tantrum is also struggling with extreme exhaustion, frustration, the inability to communicate, hunger, over-stimulation or just having too many things happening at once. Makes sense.
In addition, tantrums are often the result of a child's frustration with the world. Frustration is a normal developmental part of our children’s lives as they learn how the world works and their place in it. Our young children use the only tools they have available to them for expressing their frustration and that means crying, screaming, hitting or throwing things. Children want to become more independent, exert control, make things work, accomplish their goals—even if their goal is securing “super sour fruit twirlies”—and all those are good skills for our children to learn. We can tame the tantrum by helping our children develop more socialized responses.
Dealing with Temper Tantrums
When we’re in the middle of dealing with a child who’s having consistent tantrums, it’s hard for us to remember that these outbursts generally diminish as our children get older and develop better coping skills. So, how do you respond to your child during their temper tantrum? Some tantrums are brought on by a child’s frustration and fatigue while outbursts may be due to attention-seeking or demanding behavior. We can respond to different types of temper tantrums in different ways to help our children regain control.
Frustration or Fatigue Related Tantrums
Young children may be frustrated when we can’t understand what they are dealing with and older children may upset because they are unable to put something together or get something to work. In these situations, the best response is encouragement and understanding. Here’s the trick: the encouragement and understanding have to come before our children reach a full speed, no turning back tantrum. How do we encourage them? Try saying, “I know you want to tell me something. Show me what you need,” or “I know it’s hard to work this toy, but you’ll get better at it. Can I help you?” Praise also helps. Praise them for trying, praise them for not giving up and praise them for not having a full-blown tantrum. For tired children? We all know the answer to that.
Attention-Seeking or Demanding Tantrums
Our children also throw tantrums to get their way. And in lots of situations, us tired, embarrassed parents “give in.” We’ve all done it. We all shouldn’t. This type of tantrum involves more violent behavior: kicking, slamming a door, hitting or even breath holding. Blue children are not our favorite color. How do we deal we these fits?
1. Let the tantrum run its course. If you are at home and they are safe, let your child tire. Pick your child up and remove them from public places for the consideration of others.
2. Avoid giving your child attention. Consider moving to another room so they no longer have an audience.
3. Avoid trying to reason with your child. You may say nothing or try saying, “I can see you are very angry. I’ll leave you alone until you cool off.”
Tantrums can be scary for our children too. For some children who are having rage type tantrums, they will be better able to regain control if we help by holding them.
What are some ways to help our children avoid tantrums?
The best way to deal with temper tantrums is to avoid them in the first place. Is this really possible? Sometimes. Here are some ideas to try:
1. Give your child positive attention.
Some children require a great deal of attention and that can be exhausting for us. And it’s usually those children who may act up because they want even more attention. They may feel that negative attention—our response to a tantrum—is better than no attention. Try getting into the habit of catching your child being good and rewarding them with attention for positive behavior.
2. Give your child control by offering choices.
By giving our children choices and some control over their lives, even toddlers, it’s possible to avoid some tantrums. Ask questions like, “Do you want to sit next to me or your brother?” Consider your child’s perspective at the grocery store, which is that “Parents get to decide all the things that go in the shopping cart. Try letting your child participate. Say, “You get to choose the juice at the store. Do you want apple or orange?”
3. Redirect your child.
When your child is upset or acting out, divert their attention by guiding them to stop or leave what they’re doing and find interest in something else. Redirection can be used in absolutely any situation or place. In restaurants, say, “Count how many chicken dishes they have on the menu” or “Name all the things you see that are the color blue.” In playgroups, try, “I know you want to play with that car, but Katie has it right now. Look at this car. It goes fast.” Riding in the car, ask, “What do you think is in that truck?”
4. Have appropriate expectations.
Try to limit waiting time for young children. Avoid taking them to places where you must be quiet or sit still for long periods of time. Hungry, tired children are more likely to act out. Be prepared with snacks. Make time for rest.
5. Choose your battles.
When your child wants something, consider the request carefully. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn't. Choose your battles; accommodate your child when you can.
Remember, temper tantrums don’t last forever, although it can feel like that. They’re usually not cause for concern and lessen in frequency and severity as our children get older and learn to control their emotions. As our children gain a better grasp of themselves and their world, their level of frustration decreases. Less frustration and more control means fewer tantrums—and that makes everyone happier.
Gigi Schweikert is the president and COO of Lightbridge Academy and an expert in the field of early childhood education and balancing work/life. She has managed corporate childcare centers and their educational programs for more than 30 years. Schweikert is a bestselling author of over twenty books focused on how to create excellence in early childhood education. Follow 1851 Franchise as she shares her tips on parenting and childcare.