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Temper tantrums: Helping children through temper tantrums

Written By | Apr 24, 2014

SILVER SPRING, Md, April 24, 2014 – According to the Mayo Clinic a child’s tantrum is just the expression of frustration. That frustration can come in a variety of forms, whether it is finding the right way to communicate their desires or feelings, or because they are frustrated they are not getting their way, toddlers can break down. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) says that tantrums cans start at age 1 and last through age 4 and are equally common among boys and girls.

The NASP breaks down the developmental stages children go through and outline how the temper tantrums and their triggers may change. From age 1 ½ through age 2 children try to test their own limits as they try to become more independent, and tantrums can result in frustration that is manifested through hitting, crying and yelling.

This is especially true if a child cannot reach their goal because of safety limits and boundaries set by parents and caregivers. Hunger, thirst, and fatigue can also lower the threshold for the onset of a tantrum.

Tantrum are part of toddler hood, but there are ways to minimize their frequency. Photo by Mindaugas Danys.

By age 3 tantrums begin to subside because most children are more capable of expressing their needs and desires. However, both the NASP and the Mayo Clinic caution not to reward tantrums by giving the child what they want every time they start to scream, since children may learn that throwing tantrums will get them what they want and continue to do so past age 3. The NASP says that by age 4 tantrums have stopped almost altogether due to the further development of language and motor skills. They say the most common cause of tantrums in these older children is when they are greeted with challenging academic or interpersonal challenges that they do not know how to solve.

You cannot prevent tantrums all together, but there are ways to limit them. Here are some suggestions based on the advice given by the Mayo Clinic and the NASP.

Try to establish a routine and be consistent

When a child knows what to expect , such as a bedtime routine or time to clean-up before leaving the house, they will be less likely to throw a tantrum because rather than being something they want to control, the routine becomes a familiar part of the day. It is known and anticipated, rather than something that suddenly spoils their fun.

Ask your child to use words

For most toddlers, a large part of the reason for tantrum is frustration at not being able to communicate. Encourage your child to use words when he starts to whine and point. Try giving him the words for the things he points at and ask him to repeat them. Sometimes breaking them down into syllables will make it easier. Just remember, as he moves through the second year his vocabulary will grow, and this type of tantrum will lessen.

Let you child make decisions

Since children are trying to become independent during this time, letting you child feel like they have some control can help lessen tantrums. When possible give your child choices. Give him two options for a snack. Does he want apple slices or yogurt? When getting dressed in the morning, does he want to put on his shirt or his pants first?

While giving your child decisions in appropriate situations can make him feel in control, do not give him a choice for things that he might fight you on. Do not ask if he wants to eat, simply say it is lunch time. Do not ask him if he wants his bath, just start your bath routine.  Asking if he wants to do something that he has to do regardless just sets you up for a battle.

Offering a distraction can be a way to diffuse a tantrum. Photo by Lori Ann.

Distract your child

If you child starts to have a tantrum, try to distract him. This can be with a different activity, by giving him a toy they already has and loves, asking if he wants to read a book or draw. Find an alternative that can remove his focus from the cause of the tantrum.  Changing environments can also function in the same way. Not only will there be new things to see, do and consider, but it will also remove the cause of the tantrum from sight and mind.

Try to avoid triggers

You know your child better than anyone else. So you will learn to recognize the things that can trigger a tantrum. Maybe tantrums only happen when your child is tired. Maybe tantrums only happen in the bakery of the grocery store near all the tubs of freshly baked cookies. Whatever the situation that results in tantrums, try to avoid it when possible. Obviously, there will be situations when tantrums happen that are outside the normal triggers, but if you can find the predominant causes of the meltdowns, you can work towards minimizing them.

Stay calm

Remember, just because your child is throwing a fit does not mean you should too. Tantrums may be as frustrating for you as they are your child, but by getting angry and yelling back, you are modeling the exact behavior you are trying to stop. Stay calm when talking to your child and dealing with the situation.

Reward good behavior

If you acknowledge the good behavior, then your child will be more likely to repeat that behavior again in the future. However, general praise like “good job!” are not specific enough to get your child to repeat the behavior you are praising. Instead, say things like, “I like how you cleaned up your blocks when you were done with them,” or “you did a good job eating all your food.” This helps them understand what has made you happy so they can repeat the behavior again in the future. If it is a particular challenge for your child, you might consider a physical reward. Does eating all their vegetables at dinner deserve a reward? Maybe a cookie as dessert if your child is normally a picky eater. Get creative and be attentive to all the positive things you little one does. Rewarding the good behavior will get you a lot farther than the battles that come with trying to punish every bad thing that is done.

Limit opportunities to get into trouble

Children at this age want to explore and try new things, and that means playing with all those things that are off-limits. Rather than simply trying to put them out of reach, put them out of sight. At this age of exploration and pushing of limits, a curiosity out of reach is not a deterrent, but rather a challenge. Toddlers will try to scale furniture or find creative ways to reach items they want to check out and play with, which cannot only be dangerous, but can lead to tantrums when you take away the object they are after. So, rather than setting yourself up for an eventual fight when you take the object away, just make sure it is not a temptation to start with. That may mean a second round of baby proofing to pack up any breakable or off-limit items that you do not want you little one to be tempted by.

Avoid boredom

Children have notoriously short attention spans. Boredom can trigger a tantrum just as easily as hunger or fatigue. They may want to do something else but not know what or know how to express themselves. If your child seems uninterested in his toys or starting to drift from your playtime activity, try switching gears. Whether that is playing in the yard instead of inside, or pulling out crayons and paper instead of playing with the blocks, trying a new activity can prevent a tantrum. This may also be a good opportunity to give you child the control of choice by offering two different play options.

Tantrums are part of toddlerhood, but if you can find ways to minimize them, it will be much easier to deal with the ones that do occur. Just remember, your child is not trying to misbehave and make you angry, he is trying to grow into a little independent person.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer, mother and reader. She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Find her on Twitter @BrighidMoret, or follow @BigReadsLittleH for the latest children's book reviews.