Temper tantrums are one of the most difficult challenges of raising children; here’s a guide to help you manage your little one’s outbursts and restore calm
Human beings love to be in control. We like to know what time our flight will take off for our next vacation, what time to be at work and what time our favorite TV show will be on. Conversely, when life becomes unpredictable, it makes people uncomfortable and sometimes even nervous. Before becoming a parent, most adults enjoy a mostly predictable and planned out life, involving a good sense of order. After becoming a parent… not so much.
Before having my first child, I worked as a Paralegal in NYC and enjoyed the predictability of my Long Island Railroad train leaving every morning at exactly 8:17AM, lunch promptly at 1pm and a return trip home on a train leaving from Penn Station at 5:37. My how things changed afterward.
Just after a child is born, most of us retain this feeling of control and the early days of infancy are often fairly easy and predictable with the baby sleeping most of the time. Not long after this, as the temporary false sense of ease slips away, many parents begin feeling a loss of control when the baby starts to cry and the real frustration comes in not knowing what is wrong: Sometimes the baby is hungry or tired or they have soiled their diaper. Usually the parent will figure out what to do. Once we discover the solution, we can regain a reasonable sense of control.
Fast forward to the age of 18 months when the child’s ego starts to enter the picture — now the parent has to begin dealing with the anxiety-laden experience known as a temper tantrum.
There is no way to know exactly when or where a temper tantrum will happen – but it WILL happen.
I remember my friend relaying her first experience of her daughter having a temper tantrum at the checkout line at a big box retailer. She was already in the process of paying when suddenly, her daughter was screaming at the top of her lungs about wanting something that she had dropped or lost. Time suddenly stood still for her; she was paralyzed and mortified. She relayed to me that this was most awful experience of her life and she was afraid to go anywhere with her then 3-year old child again. She needed strategies, a plan; she half-wished that she could exchange her child for one with no temper. No such luck, children come with a no exchange, no return policy. They do, however, come with a lifetime guarantee of hard work.
But when it comes to temper tantrums it seems that parents are actually off the hook.
A recent study reveals that the best thing to do when a child has a temper tantrum is nothing. Yes, you read this right…nothing.
Do nothing, say nothing, don’t react, and don’t respond. Even I was surprised to learn this, although I think I had figured out through trial and error that there really was nothing I could do when my kids were having their respective ‘moments’. A Psychiatrist told me this when I was having trouble with the temper tantrums of my son who has ADD, but I thought the Dr. must be mistaken… because I wanted to hang onto some thread of hope that I had even a minute level of control over my son’s tantrums. It is basic human nature for people to want to control things, fix things or manipulate our world.
Although there may be little you can do to ‘fix’ your child’s temper tantrums, there are many things you can do to avoid them. This is a subject that I have specialized in, both as a teacher and a parent.
Here are my tried-and-true methods for avoiding temper tantrums in kids, and if there are any cranky adults that you know, you many want to test these out on them as well!
Why Parents Hate Tantrums
- They embarrass us.
- Their timing is always inconvenient.
- They conjure up unwanted emotions in us: anger, sadness, hopelessness.
- They are often uncontrollable and unpredictable.
- They get worse before they get better.
- Public tantrums are a display of our parenting out there for everyone to judge.
- One thing doesn’t work for every kind of tantrum.
- Communication and reasoning break-down.
- It’s ugly… well, it is!
What Can Parents Do?
Temper tantrums are the one stage that every parent has experienced with their child; nobody’s child has skipped this stage no matter how perfect someone may say their kid is. When the tantrums occur in public, everyone observes in shock as if they’re passing a bad accident on the freeway. They stop and stare, sometimes judge. Sometimes you get people who are happy to give advice, but I also liken that to a bad auto accident — advice on how to drive better isn’t going to help the people in the car wreck at the moment.
Focus on the child and the tantrum and tune out everyone else, even your own logical thoughts — tantrums are not a time for adult logic.
Keep your child’s perspective in mind, but of course, handle it in an adult manner. This isn’t easy, but it has to be done to make the situation better.
Some children are a bit more high maintenance than others; you know who you are if you have one of these challenging children. I raised my hand on that one. These toddlers are smart and especially sensitive to their environment. An itchy tag on clothing can set them off, but I’ve noticed they are more apt to throw tantrums when they are hungry or tired.
Most children share the same basic needs:
A Need to be Understood
Take the time to let them know you hear them, even if it will be a disagreement. Try to be fair and explain simply, even if they are hollering. Kids are fair and just-minded. You can’t leave them hanging by taking away a toy. You must explain “mommy is taking this toy because ____. You will get it back when ____.”
All this explaining is worth it — even if it seems your child isn’t listening, it helps with transitions. Transitioning from one activity to another is especially hard for high maintenance toddlers. Simple explanations can be used as transitional phrases.
A Need for Routine and to Know what to Expect
Tell your toddler, in simple language, “First we go to the store, then lunch.” “First and then” sentences are great to give your toddler some control over her world.
Help Feeling Peaceful
If you weren’t especially intuitive before having a high maintenance child, you will become intuitive — or crash and burn. When your toddler starts a tantrum, check how you feel first, then calm yourself down, then speak clearly and expectantly with what you want. They’re less likely to be able to communicate at this time so keep your words and request simple — maybe one sentence.
It is really important to keep others who are being negative away from your child until the tantrum is done. During a tantrum one day, my father stood by and watched and kept nagging in the background “I’d spank her” repeatedly. Did this help either my child or me? No. My daughter got louder. I asked him to wait in the car — like the bad child he was acting like. My daughter was fine after he left and I explained to her she’d get a snack soon.
Get a feel for the environment and people around you. If you’ve ever seen Bambi II, Bambi’s father kept a watch over the whole herd and the forest — he told Bambi to “feel the forest around him.” It’s a learned gift and worth practicing and mastering.
These kids are sensitive so don’t get in their face— you just might end up slapped by them, and that would be your fault. And a corollary to that—don’t yell. While it’s human nature to want to react emotionally and impulsively, a calm response is always the best path.
Are they hungry? Did you feed them before your outing? Are they tired? Arrange your schedule so that you don’t have to take care of errands when they are tired.
Focusing on the reason for the tantrum is exactly how to ease it or end it. Please consider your child’s age, perspective, and abilities before assuming they are just being ‘bad’.
Public tantrums are typically triggered by oversensitivity and over-stimulation. We wonder why kids have tantrums in a toy store. It must because they are greedy? No! How about, I take you in a store with everything you’ve ever wanted and said you can’t have anything ever… not even in the future. Toddlers don’t live for the distant future; they want it all now because they live in the now. They don’t know their birthday is in two months and they could have some of what they want then.
Many parents believe in giving their children choices, but with toys that is almost futile. You may present them with two toys in front of them, but they also see the many other toys all around them on the shelves too — sensory overload! Malls, grocery stores, etc. are way too over stimulating, but I understand you can’t stay away from them all the time. Although I once read a book that stated to stay away from these places with your child — to take care of your errands without your child. Not bad advice if it was practical.
Sometimes public tantrums are also caused by bad timing on the parents’ part. The child may be hungry or tired. In these cases, prevention helps a lot. Simply avoid doing errands at that time. If you must take a hungry or tired child, bring a favorite toy in the store with them and make sure they’re buckled in so they can’t run around or have tantrum-squirming room.
What to Do
If the public tantrum occurs, the best thing to do is take your child to a quiet corner of the mall or store, especially the bathrooms — merely removing them from the site of the tantrum can be helpful. Bathrooms are great because you don’t have to completely end your trip or leave your purchases — that’s so inconvenient!
Once you find a quiet spot, relax and let your child see you being calm. Wait for them to calm down and the crying to stop, then use a cheerful or monotone voice to tell them the plan.
Again, try a ‘first… and then’ approach. Tell them “First we get food (groceries), then we go home.” Most of the time if they know what’s going to happen (the plan), they feel more in control. I use this ‘first… and then’ approach with my daughter very successfully. It’s also helpful to include something they will look forward to: First groceries, then, home, and then ____ (fill in the blank— watch cartoons, see grandma, play, go outside, etc.). Keep the unhappy child looking forward to something — it helps to get them out of the bad moment.
Some people say to punish their behavior in public, not when you get home, but that is effective mostly for older kids. Toddlers, with a more limited sense of time relationships, will soon forget their tantrum and wonder why they are in a time-out when they get home. Most toddler tantrums aren’t punishable; they usually appear for a good reason — even if we don’t know that reason — and we need to just remain calm, reassuring and weather the storm.
Distraction rarely works in public — usually distraction and too much stimulation is the cause in the first place. If they want and are begging for something in the store…
Don’t give in… and in most cases, don’t even try compromising.
Compromising, negotiation and reasoning are all things to avoid during a public tantrum.
Tantrums that occur at home are mostly because of boredom and seeking attention. Kids, whatever age, will get in trouble when they need attention or they’re bored. We love our kids but sometimes we need to take attention away from them to cook dinner, say hi to our spouse, etc… These tantrums are hard to avoid.
What to Do
A way to avoid these tantrums is to give your child short bursts of attention interspersed with your chores and if your toddler is old enough, they can help you with laundry, etc. My 2-year old hands me clothes out of the hamper and then helps me put them in the dryer. This may take more time but so does taking the time to punish them.
The home is a fairly controlled environment so there should be rules, expectations, and consequences.
Rules such as no hitting, screaming, throwing toys, and kicking are basic young toddler expectations and punishable when broken.
Time-outs are great because you would hate to be spanked every time you were bored or wanted a little attention. Maybe you would like to be spanked if it gave you attention. Some toddlers actually think this way. Of course, we’ve all heard any attention is still attention. Time-outs are true punishment — no attention and only time to think, reflect, and deal with their anger and frustration all by themselves. When adults are angry, nothing gets solved if you engage with the other person; many of us will take our own time-out and hopefully come back and talk later. Spanking only engages you and the child during a bad time for both of you.
Some people have a time limit for time-outs, but personally I think that when the child calms down and is able to apologize, etc. then the time-out has done the job.
Top 5 Ways to Avoid Temper Tantrums in Kids
Always, always (did I mention ‘always’?) have snacks for you kids. Children have stomachs that are proportionally small and their energy output is large so you really need to allow your child to graze. If your child gets hungry with no food in sight, you are creating the possibility of a temper tantrum. Each child is different and some need more grazing while still others can stick to more consistent meals. If you are away from home, always have snacks. Some on-the-go snacks can include fruit, crackers, healthy cereal, applesauce and milk. Make it a habit of leaving the house with an arsenal of snacks. (Of course, healthy snacks are best; avoid sugary snacks, as they can further trigger metabolic ‘spikes and crashes’).
Early bedtimes give kids the sleep they need, naps are good too. A tired child equals a cranky child and that is a recipe for temper tantrum disaster.
3. Healthy food
While this is not as pivotal as the first two methods, the tail end of lots of sweets could easily set the stage for some uninvited drama. Stick with healthy, whole, unprocessed food as much as possible.
4. Don’t over-schedule your day
Plan out a reasonable amount of activities for your child; each child is different in this regard, so know your child and act accordingly. Children need both activity and down time within a day. Too much activity will over tax your child and may possibly lead to a temper tantrum.
5. Prepare your child for what will happen
Whenever possible, such as before you enter a store, birthday party, friend’s house etc., let her know what’s coming. One of the most difficult examples is if you are going to a toy store to buy a gift for their friend’s Birthday party. Try explaining that they will not be getting a gift that day; this is tough news for anyone. Although this method is effective, kids and toy stores do have a high level of temper tantrum frequency. Forewarned is forearmed.
If after using all of these techniques you still manage to find yourself face to face with a child in the midst of a temper tantrum, try to take deep breaths and repeat to yourself, “this too shall pass.”
Spanking is an option for many parents, but like any punishment, it should be consistent and not just used to vent the parent’s anger. The more you use any form of punishment the more it becomes less effective so try to be creative sometimes, too. If you usually use time-outs and then save spanking for something truly serious, it will be much more effective.
Warnings are another option, but consider the child’s attention span. Use one warning, not two or three; most parents can’t even keep track of more than one, so one is enough. Further, the child will benefit from learning that your words mean something — the first time. The caveat, of course, is that you must follow through with your warnings.
If all else fails, take your own time-out or even ignore a tantrum if you just can’t deal with it.
You may also enjoy reading The Kindness Contagion: Cultivating Lovingkindness in Our Children by Christopher Willard