Taming temper tantrums

They are what put the “terrible” in “terrible twos”—although perhaps that’s giving 2-year-olds a bad rap. Temper tantrums are, in a sense, a result of normal development, and with a little understanding, a lot of patience, and a few preventive steps, you will find that the terrible twos don’t have to be so terrible. And while tantrums are most associated with 2-year-olds, they don’t necessary begin on a child’s second birthday or magically end by the time he turns 3. Older children (and even adults) have temper tantrums. Parents can watch for triggers and learn tricks that can ward off tantrums and help their children learn constructive ways to handle anger and frustration.

The start of temper tantrums 

More often than not, temper tantrums are born out of frustration. A toddler doesn’t have the emotional experience to react to frustration appropriately, and so it often turns into a loud display of anger and an emotional meltdown: the temper tantrum. The first step in preventing temper tantrums requires developing an understanding of normal child development. According to pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, the age of temper tantrums begins when a toddler is old enough to realize that there are many choices to be made—and to be frustrated by his lack of power over those choices. Typically, this happens around 2 years of age, hence the cliché.

A 2-year-old child is growing fast. He’s talking and finding new ways to explore his world. The only part of him that isn’t keeping up with all these developmental changes is his ability to understand and cope with limits of safety and appropriate behavior. How frustrating to be able to see what you want to do and then be restrained from doing it! Two-year-olds are also masters at testing limits. How far can he run? How high can he climb? He’s learning about his environment, learning about the laws of physics, and he’s learning the house and family rules. Testing limits is not necessarily a bad thing, although it does require patience and vigilance on the part of parents and caregivers. How the adults around him react to frustration and anger are helping to shape how he will react. 

Temper tantrum triggers 

What can turn a smiling, happy toddler into a screaming, kicking fireball of emotion? According to pediatrician Dr. William Sears, there are two types of tantrums: manipulative tantrums and frustration tantrums. Manipulative tantrums are the classic battle of wills—“If I don’t get what I want, I’m going to scream and kick until I do!” Frustration tantrums arise out of the developmental disconnect between what the child wants to do but can’t. For example, he wants to build a tall tower with his blocks and for whatever reason, his efforts to achieve it are thwarted. Because he is too emotionally immature to deal with the frustration and disappointment, his reaction is to meltdown.

Some children seem more prone to tantrums than others, although certain situations are likely to trigger a meltdown: fatigue; hunger; boredom; excessive activity; overstimulation; illness; and the need for attention. 

Preventing temper tantrums 

Understanding the triggers can help parents prevent a full-blown temper tantrum. It’s really a two-prong approach: short-term planning and long-term practice.

Short-term planning tips & techniques. Understand what triggers a meltdown for your child, and employ some simple strategies to stop the tantrum in its tracks: 

  • Build variety into your toddler’s day—periods of physical activity to help him burn off excess energy and quiet times (including naps!) to help him recoup some energy for the next round. 
  • Supervise your toddler at play and use distraction (i.e., switching to a new activity) to head off a tantrum before it starts. 
  • Carefully schedule outings. Errands and playdates can spell disaster for a toddler who is getting progressively more fatigued or hungry. Be selective about the best times (i.e., after a meal or following a nap) to take a trip to the grocery store or meet other children at the playground. 
  • Always pack a healthy snack and some water to be sure you’re equipped to stave off hunger. If your toddler is still nursing, find a quiet place for a nursing break.  

Long-term practice tips & techniques. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends building confidence and security to help your child be more independent and well-behaved. This is an ongoing effort and not one to be started mid-tantrum. Steps: 

  • Try to create as many “yes” opportunities as you can for your toddler. For some toddlers, the word “no” is a light switch for a brewing tantrum. If you create a safe play environment for your child with few areas that are off limits, then you can save “No!” for those non-negotiable times. 
  • Provide lots of opportunities for your toddler to practice new skills safely. This can include physical activities like running or jumping or throwing a ball, but it can also include social skills such as sharing toys, taking turns, and other cooperative play. 
  • Praise your toddler’s efforts. Let him know he’s behaving appropriately or that he’s done a good job. This will help him build self-confidence, and that may lessen the frequency of tantrums. 
  • Be a good role model by allowing your toddler to see how you handle frustration. Talk about your emotions—help him learn the language of emotions.

Dealing with a temper tantrum 

No matter how well you plan ahead, you may find yourself in the middle of the grocery store aisle with a toddler in a complete meltdown. Some children, by their very nature, are more prone to tantrums than others, but even the calmest toddler can dissolve into a tantrum at one time or another. Now what?

  • Take a deep breath! If you stay calm, not only will this help to keep the tantrum from escalating, you’ll be able to think more clearly. 
  • Don’t worry about what onlookers are thinking. Those who are parents are commiserating, and those who are not are probably clueless! 
  • Keep your child safe. You may need to hold him to keep him from hurting himself or others. By holding him, you’ll provide comforting limits, and you can let your toddler know everything’s okay. 
  • Change the scenery! Sometimes, the best course of action is to pick up your screaming child and walk away. Go outside or to the car or move to another room. Give your toddler a few minutes to calm down and then you can decide what to do next. 
  • Don’t give in. Giving him what he wants might stop the tantrum this time, but only sets up a power play for the next time. Try distracting him with another activity or focus. This is especially important for those manipulative tantrums.
  • Avoid spanking your child. Punishment—especially spanking—is not likely to stop a tantrum or prevent another one in the future. The AAP strongly opposes spanking and a study in Pediatrics found that children who are spanked frequently at age 3 are more likely to be aggressive at age 5. The fact is, toddlers don’t understand the difference between spanking and hitting and it doesn’t allow them to develop a sense of right versus wrong.
  • Talk about what happened once your child—and you—have calmed down. For example, “You were really upset and angry because we had to leave the park today. I wish we could have stayed longer too.” This will help him begin to pair words with his emotions and validate his feelings.

The tantrum will subside, your child will calm down, and eventually he will grow out of this stage. Toddlers need to learn how to react to frustration and disappointment, and part of that learning will come in its own good time as your child matures. Temper tantrums are usually (but not always) a thing of the past by the time a toddler is 3 years old. And whether your toddler is one of those prone to frequent tantrums or one who rarely has one, he’ll still grow up to be a caring, rational adult.

Last updated August 29, 2017

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