Temper Tantrums in Children: What To Do Before, During, and After
If there’s one problem that seems to be universal to all parents, it’s temper tantrums. It never fails. You’re just walking along minding your own business, and one denied request brings everything to a screeching halt. Before you know it, your child is wailing in aisle 7, and with every exhale, you feel increasingly foolish for thinking this latest trip to the grocery store would ever go off without a hitch.
The bad news? Temper tantrums are a part of your child’s development, and if there is one, there will likely be another. The good news? You’re not alone; we’ve all been there, and they don’t last forever.
Ahead we’ll take a look at temper tantrums in children. We’ll share some expert advice on the causes of temper tantrums and what parents can do before, during, and after their kid pitches a fit.
What are temper tantrums?
According to Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, and Board Certified Psychiatrist, “Temper tantrums are physical, verbal, (or sometimes both); manifested outbursts of anger, resentment, and frustrations displayed by children of growing years — more specifically in toddlers and early childhood years.”
Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios also explains that tantrums tend to happen when kids need something, but they cannot express it healthily using their words. They are unpleasant when they occur as the child may “act out, become disruptive and aggressive, and parents and caregivers may find it difficult to handle them.”
She goes on to say that temper tantrums are equally common in both sexes, and they are a completely normal part of child development. Tantrums typically begin around 18 months, and they tend to peak by ages 2-3 (aka. the toddler years) — quite possibly the reason that ‘terrible twos’ have such a bad rap.
Why do temper tantrums happen?
Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios explains that most times tantrums are how little ones communicate their anger and frustration when their needs are not met by the caregiver. She goes on to say parents will usually find that temper tantrums can be caused by any of the following:
- Frustration when they don’t get something that they want
- Hunger and tiredness
- To avoid doing something asked by parents
- Emotional immaturity
Essentially, these spontaneous (and often emotional) outbursts are a child’s way of dealing with their emotions.
Parents are cautioned to remember that their child’s language skills are still under construction. At this point in their lives, it’s difficult for them to express their feelings and emotions effectively. Without these verbal skills, children will express their feelings the only way they know how – in the form of an outburst. Parents may also find that as language skills develop and take shape, temper tantrums will eventually come to a stop.
Temper tantrums can also stem from children wanting more control over what’s going on around them and what’s happening to them. Kids are almost always looking for a bit of independence. Very often, what they want and what they need are two different things. Once they discover that they’re in over their heads, you can cue the tantrum.
Are temper tantrums and meltdowns the same?
While temper tantrums and meltdowns may look pretty similar and often play out the same, the truth is they are different. One of the main differences is how they begin and how they end.
Temper tantrums have a purpose and an obvious trigger, while meltdowns are often due to sensory and emotional overload. Moreover, both of these emotional rollercoasters end differently as well. With a temper tantrum, the mayhem tends to end when the child gets what he wants, whereas, in the case of a meltdown, the tumult only ends when the child wears himself out.
What are the signs of a temper tantrum?
It’s pretty easy to spot a temper tantrum in progress, but for good measure, here are some common signs to look out for:
- loud crying
- kicking and hitting
- self-harming tendencies/violent behavior
- tensed body stance
- shouting continuously to seek adult attention
- throwing things
- rolling on the floor
How to handle tantrums when they happen
When a tantrum strikes, it’s understandable that you’d want to head for the hills. But alas, you’re a parent, and the only way around is through. The good news is temper tantrums don’t last forever, and there are a few things you can do to hasten their conclusion.
While temper tantrums can be frustrating and possibly even embarrassing, the best way to respond is to stay calm. Children are pretty good at sniffing out our desperation, and if your child senses that you are flustered or angry, she might use it to her advantage and continue with her campaign. Additionally, don’t forget that your child may imitate your behavior, and in the end, nobody wins.
Don’t give in
When your child’s tantrum reaches a fever pitch, you’ll probably want to do anything to make it stop. And you’re not alone; most parents will lean toward giving in to their child’s demands (particularly in restaurants and other social settings). But giving in is ill-advised. Norland Trained Nanny and founder of Teething to Tantrums, Paula McLaren, advises parents to “try their best not to give in to tantrums as this will only reinforce in the child that this behavior works.” The moral of the story here is if your child throws a tantrum and eventually gets their way, you can bet that they will try it again.
Distract your child
Distraction can be a pretty powerful tool in the toddler years. So when your little one is in the throes of a kerfuffle, try to distract them with a new activity or an approved toy. Getting their focus on something else will help you pull the plug on their tantrum in no time.
How to prevent tantrums
While there are things parents can do to restore a sense of order during their child’s tantrums, preventing them in the first place might be better.
Offer plenty of positive reinforcement
Parents should do their best to notice their child’s good behavior and offer extra attention and praise when they see it. If your child is sharing with a sibling or following directions, for example, be sure to give them a nod and shower them with praise.
Give them control over a few little things
Remember that one of the reasons for temper tantrums is that children often feel they have very little control over the world around them. To that end, parents should be on the lookout for opportunities to let their child “run the show.” McLaren suggests that to help kids feel more in control, parents should “offer a couple of acceptable choices when you want your toddler to do something you think may trigger an outburst.”
This should only be with the little things that don’t make a big difference either way, like picking which shirt to wear or choosing to read a book versus playing quietly. Giving your child the opportunity to make these decisions gives them a sense of independence and however, you spin it, it’s not the end of the world, no matter what they choose.
While this is good advice for what you should do in the middle of a tantrum, it’s also a great tool for stopping them before they start. Children have short attention spans, so if you sense a temper tantrum brewing, try to distract your child with something else. If they can’t have one toy for whatever reason, offer them another. If they’re doing something you don’t particularly like, try redirecting their attention to a new activity.
Help them learn new skills
Again, temper tantrums often stem from the fact that your child is trying to assert their independence. They’re essentially communicating that they want to learn and grow, but they don’t quite know how to say so. By showing them how to do a new task, not only are you checking another box on their growth and development, but you’re also keeping temper tantrums that bay.
Meter your knee-jerk reactions
An easy way to thwart a temper tantrum (or two) is to pick your battles. Most parents will confirm that we often have knee-jerk reactions when our kids ask us for something – and that knee-jerk reaction is usually a resounding “no.” But the truth is, if you stop to consider every request more carefully, you can mitigate the risk of a temper tantrum. If the request doesn’t bring the house down, it could be worthwhile to say yes.
Try to keep them informed
Little kids like routines, and they don’t particularly like it when those routines get disrupted. So, an easy way to keep temper tantrums to a minimum is by giving your kid as much information as you can so they know what to expect. By keeping them informed, they won’t feel like their day has been upended by minor tweaks to their normal routines.
What to do after a tantrum
What you do after a temper tantrum is just as important as what you do before or during. After your child has calmed down, you should ideally reassure the child that everything is ok and take a moment to evaluate the situation for yourself. Following a temper tantrum, parents should:
Offer some praise
While praising your child after they’ve gone nuclear might be a hard sell for most, parents must take a moment to offer their kid some recognition. Not for the tantrum, mind you, but for how they calmed down and settled. By praising your child, you will help them realize that calming down is a good thing, and it makes them more likely to calm themselves when subsequent tantrums happen.
Remember that no matter how annoyed or angry you are, you should refrain from humiliating your child in front of others for what is essentially normal behavior and a big part of their development — they’re still a work in progress.
Acknowledge their feelings
McLaren suggests that parents should acknowledge their child’s feelings. Let them know that you understand how frustrated or angry they felt. At the same time, be sure to make it abundantly clear that tantrums are not the way to deal with these feelings.
Reevaluate your child’s schedule
Parents must ensure that their child’s needs are being met, especially when it comes to basic life processes like hunger, thirst, and sleep. Following a tantrum, it may be best to reevaluate your child’s schedule and determine if changes are necessary. Getting on the best schedule for them and sticking to it can do wonders to keep tantrums in check.
Lead by example
McClaren shares that if toddlers witness the adults in their lives acting up or falling apart when things don’t go their way, they will see this as an appropriate way to act. Parents must lead by example. She urges parents to show children productive ways of dealing with frustration.
Monitor their sleeping and eating habits
Temper tantrums can be caused by poor sleep and hunger, so Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios reminds parents to keep tabs on these important activities. On this topic, she says, “help your child sleep and eat well so that they are not tired or deprived of their essential needs.”
A good bedtime routine and healthy sleep habits can go a long way toward dialing down the crankiness and keeping temper tantrums in check. If you find that your little one is not getting a restful night’s sleep, or even if they’re in the middle of a sleep regression, Moshi has a comprehensive library of soothing music, stories, and meditations that can help them catch some zzz’s.