Former Extension Educator, Family Life
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Monday, April 25, 2016
Most parents have been in that uncomfortable position where their child is having a major melt down in the middle of the grocery store. Temper tantrums often begin between 12-18 months old and are commonly seen in 2-4 year olds. There are many reasons why a child will throw a fit.
He may be tired, hungry, ill, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or just may want attention. It might be as simple as the child is being prevented from doing something he wants to do or have something he isn't allowed to have. The child may be frustrated because he is trying to be independent and do more than he is able to do, and is not fully able to do the task. Tantrums also happen because a child's feelings develop before their ability to understand and manage those feelings. They need time to learn how to regulate their emotions. They are also often the result of a child's high energy but inability to verbalize what they need or want.
One strategy in dealing with tantrums is to stop them before they even start. Great prevention techniques include:
* Being clued in to your child. Pay attention to whether they are getting tired, hungry, overstimulated or anything beyond their normal routine. Offer support to them by recognizing their signs and helping them name their emotions. Also, plan accordingly – do not take a hungry child to the grocery store!
* Offering assistance to a child who is working with a frustrating task or offering them an easier alternative activity.
* Setting expectations – like giving a 5-minute warning before having to leave a friend's house or going to bed.
* Talking to the child about tantrums when they are not upset. Talk about how they feel and what they could do instead when they are frustrated. Bring attention to or praise them when they have done a good job of managing their feelings.
* Introducing self-calming tools and problem-solving strategies. This could be done using children's books.
* Being a good role model – The children should see you use appropriate words to express anger, remain calm and problem solve.
* Offering praise to the children when they are good. Support and reinforce appropriate behavior. "I like the way you shared your toys today"; "You did a good job cleaning your room."
* Teaching them "feeling" words and how to express their anger using those words – i.e." I am sad when you won't let me play with you" instead of "You're mean and I hate you".
When a child is throwing a tantrum, it is important to stay calm and under control. First check for the safety of the child and others – make sure the child is not hurting anyone, including himself. If a child is in a safe place, you could ignore the tantrum. This may be more helpful with older children that are just trying to get attention. Make sure and praise them later if they find a more positive way to get your attention. You could also try to get them interested in something else. A book, toy, or different activity may be all they need. Another option is to take the child to a quiet place and get them to calm down – you cannot talk or reason with a screaming child. After the child calms down, talk about their behavior. Reinforce what you hopefully already taught them about asking for help, using feeling words and comfort the child because tantrums can scare them. Tell them you didn't like their behavior, but you still like them. Restrain the child only when necessary. If they lose control so completely that they may hurt themselves or others, you may have to hold them until they quiet down. Sometimes closeness and holding the child may help – you can tell them you will hold them until they are calm.
An additional technique that parents can use to help with tantrums is to teach their child how to manage his anger and what types of activities he could do when he's feeling angry. A few ideas include:
- Teach them about emotions – help them to name anger.
- Help them cut out magazine pictures of different emotions – talk about how they physically feel and look.
- Help them to know what they are NOT to do when they are angry (hit, bite, use rude words break or destroy things, hurt an animal, himself or others).
- Give them alternatives to tantrums (play with play dough, draw pictures, ask for help, go someplace quiet, rip up paper, listen to music, stomp or run, tell someone how they feel)
- Help them find a cooling off place.
Sometimes parents report that they have tried everything with no success, and occasionally fits of temper and violence persist into elementary school and may signal serious problems. If someone is getting hurt or if you feel you have exhausted all the recommendations for taming tantrums, you may need to enlist professional help. You may have to check with your physician, school guidance counselor, psychologist, or therapist for help. If temper tantrums last more than 15 minutes or occur three or more times a day at younger than 1 year of age or older than 4 years old, you should probably seek assistance.