Understanding and Managing Temper Tantrums

By Danae Lund PhD, LP Jul 18, 2016

Your young child is lying on the floor in the grocery store screaming and kicking as other shoppers avoid eye contact with you. Take a deep breath and silently reassure yourself, “This will be okay,” -because it will.

Temper tantrums are a common way in which young children express strong emotions when they have not yet developed the skills to express those emotions in socially appropriate ways. Also, young children have trouble waiting, and they haven’t developed complex perspective-taking skills, so they often don’t understand why they can’t just have what they want when they want it.

Causes of Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are usually a normal part of childhood development, and represent an opportunity for you to help your young child develop social-emotional communication and behavioral regulation skills. Tantrums often begin when a child is about 1 and continue until age 2 or 3. As your child learns to communicate in more effective ways, tantrums diminish.

Reasons for a tantrum may be as simple as your young child not getting what he or she wants or having something taken away, to more complex reasons such as testing you to see if you stick to the rules. Generally, young children having temper tantrums haven’t learned the words that help them verbalize their feelings and needs.

Understandably, young children end up frustrated by their limited communication skills, as they don’t always feel understood or don’t understand why they aren’t getting what they want. Other factors that can contribute to tantrums can include stress at home, transitions such as changes in daycare providers and other lifestyle factors. Hunger, fatigue and illness can all lower thresholds for tantrums.

Preventing Tantrums

  • If you know certain situations are more likely to lead to a tantrum, take steps to avoid them. For instance, if your child gets upset easily when hungry, keep a snack handy in case your schedule doesn’t go as planned. When possible, don’t take your child to the store when he or she is likely to be hungry, or when he or she is tired or needing some quiet time or personal attention.
  • Children do better with routines. Keep triggers such as fatigue, hunger and over stimulation at bay by sticking to meal and sleep schedules.
  • Make sure you understand what is reasonable to expect in terms of social development relative to your child’s age. Young children have trouble waiting and have trouble being still or quiet. Making sure that situational demands are reasonable for your child’s age can prevent lots of potential problems.
  • Have a distraction on hand. If you see a storm brewing, provide your child with a toy he or she really likes that you have just for an occasion like this. If you don’t have something handy, distract your child by moving to a different area or engaging him or her in a song or conversation.
  • Help your child avoid frustration by letting him or her know what to expect. Talk to your child about changes or things that are happening in advance so your child is prepared.
  • Let your child know your rules, in simple and age-appropriate words. And then stick to them. When parents give in during tantrums, by providing the desired object in order to stop the tantrum, children learn to use inappropriate behavior to get their way.
  • Consistently give your child positive personal attention, particularly during times of good behavior. Offer praise for desired actions. Pay attention to your child often, by noticing and verbally describing what he or she is doing, or by joining in with his or her play.

Responding to Tantrums

  • Stay calm. You getting upset or yelling at your child will only intensify the tantrum and make it more difficult for your child to calm down.
  • Make sure your child understands that hitting, kicking and biting are never tolerated. Do not hit or spank your child as punishment for a tantrum.
  • Do not offer a reward to your child in exchange for stopping the tantrum. Your child will interpret this as confirmation that future tantrums will result in rewards.
  • For children who are 2 or older, use a very brief time-out in a designated area. This teaches your child there are consequences for outbursts. In order to be effective with very young children, a time out has to be provided immediately when the tantrum occurs; delays can cause your young child to be confused about what the time out is for, and will minimize its effectiveness.

Sometimes tantrums are more severe, or don’t subside as your child gets older. Reasons to call your health care team include temper tantrums that get more severe, frequent or longer; tantrums that keep getting worse even as your child gets older; and more severe tantrum behaviors such as your child holding his or her breath to cause fainting or trying to cause self-harm or hurt someone else during a tantrum.

Although it can be hard work and take extra planning and patience, preventing tantrums before they get out of hand is really the most effective approach. Remember though, even with your best prevention efforts, tantrums probably will happen at times. When tantrums do occur and you model calm, logical responses, your child begins to learn self-control and learns ways to respond more appropriately to stressful situations. As those social-emotional skills increase, temper tantrums are likely to subside and eventually stop.