Taming the Tantrums

Taming the Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are often stressful and exasperating for parents. However, they are a common behavior in children ages two through four.  Although these episodes may case you stress and worry as a parent, it is important to note they are both age and developmentally appropriate.

What is a temper tantrum?

Common characteristics of temper tantrums are:

  • Emotional and physical “meltdowns” common among children in the 2- to 4-year-old age range.
  • Common behaviors may include: screaming, crying, kicking, lying on the floor, and occasionally holding breath
  • Studies indicate that 23%-85% of children between 2 and 4 years of age will commonly have temper tantrums.
  • Children who are having a tantrum are often inconsolable
  • During temper tantrums, children often do not have the ability to rationalize, make a choice, or change their behavior

What causes temper tantrum in toddlers?

A toddler’s view of the world is egocentric; “I want what I want, when I want it!” This narcissistic view of their world is coupled with an incomplete and unbalanced development of expressive language skills when compared with their more complete receptive language skills. The receptive language of a 2-year-old child is numbered in the thousands, while the expressive skill generally is 150-200 words. Perhaps more frustrating for the toddler is the receptive ability to understand complex sentence structure while only able to express his thoughts in two- to three-word phrases.

The toddler world is full of exploration and discovery. Commonly, young children learn by observation and attempting the same or similar task. This (from a parental perspective) is fine when it comes to desired behaviors (such as toilet training). However, playing with the TV remote control is not part of these desired behaviors, unless you are a toddler and don’t discriminate with regard to goals. When a parent’s desire for safety and limiting chaos clashes with their young child’s fierce struggle for autonomy and limited language capabilities, the temper tantrum is almost inevitable.

Prevention for Parents and Teachers

It is much easier to prevent temper tantrums than it is to manage them once they have erupted. Here are some tips for preventing temper tantrums and some things you can say:

  • Acknowledge children for positive attention rather than negative attention. During situations when they are prone to temper tantrums, catch them when they are being good and say such things as, “Nice job sharing with your friend.”
  • Give children control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the child can stave off the big power struggles later. “Which do you want to do first, brush your teeth or put on your pajamas?”
  • Set the environment up for success to prevent any temper tantrums.  Create a safe environment that children can explore without getting into trouble. Childproof your home or classroom so children can explore safely.
  • Distract children by redirection to another activity when they tantrum over something they should not do or cannot have. Say, “Let’s read a book together.”
  • Change environments, thus removing the child from the source of the temper tantrum. Say, “Let’s go for a walk.”
  • Choose your battles. Teach children how to make a request without a temper tantrum and then honor the request. Say, “Try asking for that toy nicely and I’ll get it for you.”
  • Make sure that children are well rested and fed in situations in which a temper tantrum is a likely possibility. Say, “Supper is almost ready, here’s a cracker for now.”
  • Establish routines and traditions that add structure. For teachers, start class with a sharing time and opportunity for interaction.
  • Signal children before you reach the end of an activity so that they can get prepared for the transition. Say, “When the timer goes off 5 minutes from now it will be time to turn off the TV and go to bed.”
  • Provide pre-academic, behavioral, and social challenges that are at the child’s developmental level so that the child does not become frustrated.

Intervention for Parents and Teachers

There are a number of ways to handle a temper tantrum. Strategies include the following:

  • Remain calm and do not argue with the child.
  • Think before you act. Count to 10 and then think about the source of the child’s frustration, this child’s characteristic temperamental response to stress (hyperactivity, distractibility, moodiness), and the predictable steps in the escalation of the temper tantrum.
  • Try to intervene before the child is out of control. Get down at the child’s eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up, slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.
  • You can positively distract the child by getting the child focused on something else that is an acceptable activity. For example, you might remove the unsafe item and replace with an age-appropriate toy.
  • You can ignore the tantrum if it is being thrown to get your attention. Once the child calms down, give the attention that is desired.
  • Hold the child who is out of control and is going to hurt himself or herself or someone else. Let the child know that you will let him or her go as soon as he or she calms down. Reassure the child that everything will be all right, and help the child calm down. Parents may need to hug their child who is crying, and say they will always love him or her no matter what, but that the behavior has to change. This reassurance can be comforting for a child who may be afraid because he or she lost control.
  • Talk with the child after the child has calmed down. When the child stops crying, talk about the frustration the child has experienced. Try to help solve the problem if possible.

Teach the child new skills to help avoid temper tantrums such as how to ask appropriately for help.  Teach the child how to try a more successful way of interacting with a peer or sibling, how to express his or her feelings with words and recognize the feelings of others without hitting and screaming.

This article was written by Heather Grocott, Director of Education and Training at The Children’s Workshop in Lincoln, RI.

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