Stopping a Temper Tantrum in its Tracks: What to Do When Kids Lose it

By

126
Shares

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. His legs and arms flail, and then he lets go with an ear-piercing scream and begins 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 basically 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.

One of the best things to do is curtail those tantrums before they ever begin. This may not always be possible, but below are some strategies that can help you nip tantrums in the bud:

  • Give your young child some control over his life. Many times 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 allowing them to choose which shoes to wear outside for the day. One thing to avoid, however, 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?”
    Offer for FREE Empowering Parents Personal Parenting Plan
  • Think of ways to distract your child. Young children have a very short attention span. 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. If you are at home, redirect your child to a new task or toy and calmly talk about something new. Before 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, when all else fails, a small snack. 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.
  • Keep it quick. Understand that your child is not going to do well if you drag her on twelve errands in a row. Kids get tired and bored easily, and no amount of distractions will ward off a tantrum if they are 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.
  • The attention factor. 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, story time 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.

What to Do When a Tantrum is in Full-Swing

Despite all of your attempts to avoid a temper tantrum, 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? Below are some tips to help:

  • Do not give attention to the tantrum. 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. 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 wrong and also ways to do better in the future. A lot of love, patience, and hugs can go a long way at this point.
  • Take control of the situation. When a child is having a tantrum, they are signaling to you 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. If you are at home, and the tantrum will not stop, place your child somewhere to ensure his safety until he can calm down. Pick the same place and put your child there each and every 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 are unable to do so themselves.
  • Teach your child the importance of the word “No.” Don’t waffle when your child acts up as a way to avoid a confrontation or to stop a tantrum. 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, tell 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.
Advertisement for Empowering Parents Total Transformation Online Package

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 for their child appropriate ways to act, 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.

Related Content:
Acting Out in Public: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage?
Explosive Child Anger: Taming Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrum

About

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.

Comments (10)
  • Rasheed Langworth
    Thank you so much for this!
  • Madhuparna Adhikary
    Hi Rebecca....i tried giving her a small piece of chocolate at times of transition and I wanted to let you know that it worked well...other than the cell phone...she enjoys holding the candy and just loves staring at the shiny wrapper of the candy ....all this ...while she quietly entersMore the apartment without much fuss....ohh and this reminds me that even if we hold back on the chocolate on some days... something glittery, sparkly or shiny would definitely keep her engaged during difficult times.....thanks for your input and I really appreciate your prompt response and kind comments and suggestions....happy holidays to you and your loved ones and happy New year.
  • Madhuparna Adhikary
    Can you list some more distractions to keep a 2 year old from getting into meltdowns other than as listed in the article? .... that is toys, snacks or story books....my 2 year old used to have severe meltdowns on the way home from playschool...we tried giving her a cellMore phone to hold when she approached home....it worked to some extent. She likes cell phones...we exposed her to only 2g cell phones.. .the ones with small screens and buttons...we are totally against exposing her to smartphone....somehow she liked it...but I'm concerned she may develop screen addiction too soon....so I decided to drop the cell phone off the list....please suggest some more ideas for distraction...ohh apparently, she loves to color...and is enamoured of crayons. :-) thanks.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      That’s a great question! Many parents find using things that a child enjoys can be useful as a distraction to redirect attention. Your examples of a coloring book or getting to hold a cell phone are great illustrations of this! When tantrums tend to occur around timesMore of transition, it can also be useful to develop a ritual or a routine to help young kids feel more stable and secure. For example, it might be holding a specific stuffed animal on the trip home from playschool, or singing a special song as you prepare to leave the house. Please be sure to let us know how this goes! Take care.
      • Madhuparna Adhikary
        Am taking note of this...will try out soon and let you know... thanks a million.
  • Tanesha C
    My 3yr old daughter has serious anger problems.Im at my whits end trying to stop her.Ive tried to spank,time out and putting her in her room.If I spank her she becomes enraged and the tantrum lasts longer.If I put her in time out she kicks the walls and hits.I putMore her in the room and shut the door she punches the door and kicks it until she has bruises.Her father has had issues with his anger and I believe he is possibly bipolar.Could it be possible she is bipolar as well.I want to ask my pediatric doctor but I'm afraid they will take her and my son away from me because something is wrong with her.Please someone steer me in the right direction my children are my everything,my heart and soul and I don't want people to look at me as a bad mom or at my daughter like she is a bad child because we aren't bad people.My daughter is my miracle baby and almost didn't make it when she was born and my son is my little man who has an enormous heart.Please give me advice.Thank you in advance from a very loving concerned mommy
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I’m sorry to hear about the issue you are facing with your daughter, and her anger. I hear how worried you are about her, and the way she expresses her anger during outbursts. The truth is, it’s not uncommon for young children to have difficulty managing their angerMore appropriately. This is because they tend to have a low threshold for frustration, poor impulse control and few appropriate coping skills to use when they become upset. You might find some useful tips to use with your daughter in Explosive Child Anger: Taming Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrum. In addition, if you worry that there might be an underlying issue contributing to your daughter’s anger and outbursts, it can be a good idea to share your concerns with your daughter’s doctor. Because s/he is able to directly observe and interact with your daughter, her doctor will be in a better position to assess what, if anything, might be going on for your daughter, and provide referrals for follow-up as necessary. I recognize what a challenging situation this must be for you, and I wish you and your family all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • JaneCopper

    My 4 year-old

    daughter has always had, and still has, crying/tantrum episodes every single

    day. it’s humiliating. Bedtime is so stressful EVERY DAY! And this is not the

    only time she is out of control.

    I have tried it

    all; routine, stories, positive reinforcement, games, etc, etc., still, nothing

    works.  We can't figure it out...we would

    appreciate your input...I'm all ears!!! Thanks!!

    • sadafazharali
      Same problem here. Help me roo
      • Darlene EP

        sadafazharali 

        It is not uncommon for young

        children to have tantrums when they are not getting their way, are angry,

        and/or frustrated. In general, younger children have a low tolerance for

        frustration and lack the appropriate skills to manage their emotions and solve

        their problem effectively. In the above article, Dr. Joan has some great tips

        for what you can do when a tantrum is going on, and how to follow up so that your

        child is learning new ways to handle themselves next time, instead of having a

        tantrum. Staying calm and in control is really important. When your child is

        having a tantrum they need to see that you are confident and can handle the

        situation. You can do this by making sure they are in a safe place and then

        ignoring their behavior until they are calm. If tantrum behaviors occur daily,

        over a period of time, they are getting attention and working for your child on

        some level. Ignoring the tantrum completely, no matter how difficult it may be,

        will help to take the power and attention away from the behavior. Also,

        following up and discussing what else your child can do when they are feeling

        overwhelmed is necessary in changing these behaviors. James Lehman wrote the

        article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/managing-the-meltdown/ that may also be helpful for your situation. We encourage you

        to check it out. We know this can be a challenging stage in development. Hang

        in there. Thank you for writing in.

Advertisement for Empowering Parents Total Transformation Online Package
Like What You're Reading?
Sign up for our newsletter and get immediate access to a FREE eBook, 5 Ways to Fix Disrespectful Behavior Now
We will not share your information with anyone. Terms of Use
×