How to Handle a Temper Tantrum

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You're standing in the snack aisle of the supermarket. Lying at your feet is your toddler, who has just been informed that, no, she cannot have that sweet. Her face has turned a shade somewhere between red and purple. Her fists are pounding the floor in fury as she emits a shriek that can be heard in the farthest reaches of the parking lot. The other shoppers are staring at this spectacle as you wish desperately for a hole to open in the floor and swallow you up.

 

Many a parent has been through a scenario like this, although the tantrum itself might have taken a slightly different form; crying, hitting, kicking, stomping, throwing things, and breath holding are all popular tantrum techniques.

Temper tantrums are extremely common in children, especially between ages 1 and 4, the early part of which is sometimes called the "terrible 2s," when kids are still learning how to communicate effectively.

More than half of young children will have one or more tantrums a week as they vent their frustrations and try to push back against a world they want desperately to have some control over.

Though they are a normal part of the toddler stage, temper tantrums can be distressing to parents. When they occur infrequently, tantrums aren't a big deal. It's when they become regular or intense that parents need to look into what's causing them and find ways to stop them.

Tantrum Triggers

Some children are more prone to tantrums, particularly kids who are intense, hyperactive, or moody or kids who don't adapt well to new environments. For most toddlers, tantrums are simply a way of getting out their frustration and testing limits.

The smallest things, from asking them to take a bath while they're in the middle of watching an animation movie, to requesting that they share a favorite stuffed animal with a younger sibling, can set off young children. Any situation that involves change may trigger a tantrum. Add fatigue or hunger to the equation and children are even more likely to throw a tantrum.

How to Stop the Screaming

The easiest way to stop a temper tantrum is to give the child what he wants. Obviously, that strategy won't do you any good in the long run because your child will constantly go into tantrum mode whenever he wants something.

The first step in diffusing a temper tantrum is to keep your own temper in check. You're not going to get anywhere with your child if both of you are screaming at each other. Spanking your child is also not a good option, and it will only make the tantrum worse. Take a deep breath, gain control over your emotions, and then discipline your child by calmly but firmly letting him know that tantrums are not acceptable behavior.

If your child still won't calm down and you know the tantrum is just a ploy to get your attention, don't give in. Even if you have to walk through the supermarket dragging your screaming toddler, just ignore the tantrum. Once your child realizes the temper tantrum isn't getting her anywhere, she'll stop screaming.

If your child is upset to the point of being inconsolable or out of control, hold him tightly to calm him down. Tell him gently that you love him but that you're not going to give him what he wants. If that doesn't work, remove him from the situation and put him in a time-out for a minute or two to give him time to calm down. The general guideline for the length of a time-out is one minute per year of the child's age.

Prevent a temper tantrum by following these tips:

  • Try to keep your daily routines as consistent as possible and give your child a five-minute warning before changing activities.
  • Communicate with your toddler. Don't underestimate his ability to understand what you are saying. 
  • Allow your child to take a toy or food item with her while you run errands. It may help her stay occupied.
  • Make sure your child is well rested and fed before you go out so he doesn't blow up.
  • Give your toddler a little bit of control. Let your child choose which book to bring in the car or whether she wants grilled cheese or Peanut Butter & Jam for lunch.
  • Sometimes, humor is the best way to distract.
  • Teach your child other ways of dealing with frustration.
  • Praise your child for getting it right.

If temper tantrums are becoming more frequent, they haven't stopped by around age 4, or your child is in danger of hurting him or herself or others, it's time to call your child's health care provider.

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