It’s a familiar scene: you’re standing in line at the grocery store, almost finished checking out. For the fourth time in a row, your child asks for a piece of candy strategically placed at kids’ eye level in the checkout line.
You’ve repeatedly said no when suddenly, the tantrum starts. Their legs and arms flail, and then they let go with an ear-piercing scream and begin hitting the floor.
Meanwhile, between muffled apologies and frantic bagging, you attempt to get as far away from the store as possible.
Why do children have such loud and embarrassing temper tantrums? And what can you as a parent do to help make them stop?
“One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to try to help their child ‘work through’ their tantrum. Behaviors associated with tantrums should not be acceptable to you or your family.”
One important fact to recognize is that we all have temper tantrums occasionally. Think back to the last time you felt frustrated trying to get your printer to work. You may have thrown something, yelled out loud, or even sworn at it. This is an adult tantrum.
The screaming, crying, and hitting that your young child shows is their version of a tantrum. Kids are no different than us—they get frustrated and angry too.
The first thing to keep in mind is that your child’s temper tantrums are not directed personally at you. Temper tantrums usually occur between one and three years of age, a time in your child’s development when they see themselves as the center of the universe, but older kids have temper tantrums too. Between the ages of four and seven, it’s not uncommon for children to yell, throw things, or just plain fall apart when they don’t get what they want.
In both cases, your child’s tantrums are all about the perceived lack of control of their surroundings, so try not to personalize them. While this may be difficult to do, remember, your child lacks the daily self-control that we adults take for granted. Temper tantrums are the only way your child knows how to express their frustration with the world around them.
It’s best to curtail the tantrum before it ever begins. This may not always be possible, but below are some strategies that can help you nip tantrums in the bud.
Often, kids act up simply because they want a little more independence from you. From the time they wake up, begin giving them choices for little decisions such as whether they want toast or cereal for breakfast or choosing which shoes to wear outside for the day.
However, one thing to avoid is giving your child an open-ended option to do something such as, “Do you want to brush your teeth?” because the answer will almost always be a resounding “NO!”
Instead, consider offering your child two options, such as, “Would you like to brush your teeth now or after you put your socks on?”
Young children have short attention spans. The average two-year-old will change the focus of their attention approximately every minute, so you can use this to your advantage if you feel a tantrum brewing.
At home, redirect your child to a new task or toy and calmly talk about something new.
When going out, bring a bag of distractions in case your child begins to squirm or reach for items you are not going to buy. When you feel a tantrum coming on, take something out of the “fun bag” and offer it to your child. Examples can be a colorful notepad and a bag of bright markers, a small sack of their favorite action figures, an interactive picture book, a small musical recorder or radio, or a small snack when all else fails.
Remember to rotate these items regularly so that your child does not tire of them. By using a steady, cheerful voice, you can distract your child from the object of their desire.
Understand that your child will not do well if you drag them on twelve errands in a row. Kids get tired and bored quickly, and no amount of distractions will ward off a tantrum if they’re tired, hungry, or need a change of scenery.
Be aware of the signs that your young child is heading towards a melt down, such as whining, crying, or complaining. These behaviors are the red flags you will need to learn to recognize.
When they occur, respect that your child may be unable to continue as planned and curtail your plans for the day. Consider hiring a babysitter or trading off play dates with another parent so you can get through your weekly errands quickly.
Lastly, remember that kids often have temper tantrums because they are not getting enough attention. Children are smart and know that even negative attention, including a parent scolding them, is better than no attention at all.
Work hard at recognizing the times when your young child is doing something well and comment on it. If you can, set aside some special time each day for an activity—even if it is a short one—whether it be doing a puzzle together, storytime, or taking a short walk with your child. This rewards your child for their positive behavior and makes them strive for better behavior in the future.
Despite all of your attempts to avoid temper tantrums, know that they will occur anyhow. What do you do when your child is in the middle of a tantrum and you’re stuck feeling helpless?
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to try to help their child “work through” their tantrums. Behaviors associated with tantrums should not be acceptable to you or your family. As adults, we would not sit back and accept a person screaming, swearing, or throwing things at us, so we should not accept this from our children either.
Children need to learn early on that when this behavior starts, they will be isolated from the rest of the family until they find more appropriate ways to act.
When your child is done with their tantrum, they may feel embarrassed or sad. This is a good time to talk about why their behavior was inappropriate and ways to do better in the future. Coach your child about what to do next time, and give them lots of encouragement. A lot of love, patience, and hugs can go a long way at this point.
When a child is having a tantrum, they are signaling that they are out of control and helpless to rectify the situation. Although you may also feel helpless, this is the time to take control of the situation. Your child needs to see that you are confident and able to handle things. Model the behavior you want your child to have, which is calm in a stressful situation.
If you are at home, and the tantrum will not stop, place your child somewhere to ensure their safety until they can calm down. Pick the same place and put your child there each time they cannot calm down.
If you are in public, calmly tell your child you are leaving, even if that means your shopping doesn’t get finished or you have to leave a play date. Children need to know that their parent is handling the situation for them when they cannot do so themselves.
Don’t try to avoid or stop a tantrum by giving in to your child. Your child is brilliant at knowing how to get what they want from you. If you hesitate and give in even once when a tantrum starts, they have learned that tantrums will get them whatever they need in the future. If your child is in full tantrum mode, say to them:
“You can’t always get everything you want.”
Follow up by removing them from the situation or isolating them temporarily until they calm down. Be firm and consistent, and your child will learn that having a tantrum will not get their needs met.
Temper tantrums are a part of all of our lives, whether we are children or adults. Your job as a parent is to help your child recognize that the behaviors associated with a tantrum are not acceptable ways to act either at home or in public.
A loving parent also helps their child through this phase by setting firm boundaries, creating consistent rules, and modeling appropriate behavior for their child, both at home and in public. You may not be able to eliminate all temper tantrums from your lives, but you can create an environment that allows both you and your child to get through them together.
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.