For a young child, temper tantrums are often a simple reflection of frustration. They may last only a few seconds, or as long as an hour. Tantrums are actually a normal form of communication. Temper tantrums range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting, and breath holding. They’re equally common in boys and girls and usually occur between the ages of 1 to 3. Kids’ temperaments vary dramatically — so some kids may experience regular tantrums, whereas others have them rarely. Unlike adults, kids don’t have the same inhibitions or control.
Tantrums are common during the second year of life, a time when children are acquiring language. Toddlers generally understand more than they can express. Imagine not being able to communicate your needs to someone — a frustrating experience that may cause a tantrum. As language skills improve, tantrums tend to decrease.
Several basic causes of tantrums are familiar to parents everywhere: The child is seeking attention or is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. In addition, tantrums are often the result of kid’s frustration with the world — they can’t get something (for example, an object or a parent) to do what they want. Frustration is an unavoidable part of their lives as they learn how people, objects, and their own bodies work.
A small child encounters lots of frustrations in daily life, such as trying to put shoes on, and being too short to get a favorite toy off a shelf. A tantrum may be the child’s way of dealing with these frustrations.
Tantrums also can be a way to test rules and to see how far the child can push the parent.
- Don’t expect too much, or not enough. After a long day, it would be a miracle for a child to get through a 45-minute grocery trip without a tantrum. A parent who believes a 2-year-old will be able to sit still for a nice, long restaurant meal is probably in for a rude awakening. Set limits and rules for children to follow, but don’t be too strict. Balancing your child’s needs with your own, and planning your child’s day to prevent frustration overload, can help prevent the possibility of temper tantrums.
- Try not to say “no” too much. You’d cry, too, if that’s all you heard all day. Find ways to say “yes” by offering diversions and alternatives: Maybe the child shouldn’t have candy, but there are lots of healthful snacks to substitute. Or promise that he can play outside after you get back from the photography studio.
- Think ahead. Prevention starts with planning: It’s no wonder the child loses control at Grandma’s birthday dinner after an eight-hour drive to her house. Better to have made the trip the day before.
- Keep a consistent routine. A child who is used to dinner at 6 p.m. may have a temper tantrum even if it’s delayed only a few minutes. Give an apple slice or two to tide that tummy over. In general, keep to a schedule. Children like to have a routine.
- Pay attention to your child. Sometimes, a child throws a tantrum to get attention. It may be the child’s third or fourth attempt to get you to do something that you might have done under much more pleasant circumstances a few minutes earlier, if you had just been paying attention. Make sure you give your child the attention she deserves.
No matter what you do to prevent tantrums, they do still happen. Here’s how to handle them:
- Wait a few seconds before you react. Try to determine quickly why it’s happening so you react appropriately. Stay calm. -- Remember, never, ever shake a baby or a child in anger or otherwise. If you have to, leave the room until you are able to get control of your own emotions.
- Don’t give in. That will just encourage the child to use disruptive behavior to get what he wants.
- Don’t try to reason with your child while he is having a tantrum.
- If you’re in a public place, try to take the child to a private place, such as a restroom or your car, and stay there until it’s over.
- If you’re at home, tell your child you can see that he’s angry, and then leave the room. You could say, “I’m going in here until you can get control of yourself.” That puts the responsibility for the tantrum on your child and gives the child practice at calming himself. Return after a short time to reassure the child and talk about his feelings. Show you understand.
- Praise efforts at self-control and good behavior.
- If tantrums are frequent in an older child — say, a 3-year-old — choose a calmer moment to tell the child that you will have to withdraw certain privileges if the child has another tantrum. Talk about values including patience. Suggest ways the child can prevent from having a tantrum, such as using words, punching pillows, jumping on an exercise mat or scribbling on a sketchpad.
Remember, a child who has tantrums isn’t “bad” — just needful of a parent’s loving help and understanding. Above all, remain calm and keep your sense of humor.
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR
Seek professional help, starting with your child’s physician, if your child:
- Has tantrums several times a day that increase in intensity or duration
- Hurts himself or others
- Destroys things
- Seems negative and sad even between ¬tantrums
- Has frequent nightmares
- Has toileting accidents past age 4
- Has frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Is overly “clingy”
- Has major tantrums past age 4