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Temper Tantrums

Your toddler's second temper tantrum of the day shows no signs of stopping, and supersonic, ear-shattering, teeth-jarring screams pierce the air. You'd run away and join the circus if only that were a real option. There must be a better way.

During the kicking-and-screaming chaos of the moment, tantrums can be downright frustrating. But instead of looking at them as disasters, treat tantrums as opportunities for education.

Why Kids Have Tantrums

Temper tantrums range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting, and breath holding. They're equally common in boys and girls and usually happen between the ages of 1 to 3.

Some kids may have tantrums often, and others have them rarely. Tantrums are a normal part of child development. They are the way young children show they're upset or frustrated.

Tantrums may happen when kids are tired, hungry, or uncomfortable; or because they can't get something (for example, an object or a parent) to do what they want. Learning to deal with frustration is a skill that children gain over time.

Tantrums are common during the second year of life, a time when language skills are starting to develop. Because toddlers can't yet say what they want, feel, or need, a frustrating experience may cause a tantrum. As language skills improve, tantrums tend to decrease.

Toddlers want independence and control over their environment — more than they may be capable of handling. This can lead to power struggles as a child thinks "I can do it myself" or "I want it, give it to me." When kids discover that they can't do it and can't have everything they want, they may have a tantrum.

Avoiding Tantrums

Try to prevent tantrums from happening in the first place, whenever possible. Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Give plenty of positive attention. Get in the habit of catching your child being good. Reward your little one with praise and attention for positive behavior.
  • Try to give toddlers some control over little things. Offer minor choices such as "Do you want orange juice or apple juice?" or "Do you want to brush your teeth before or after taking a bath?" This way, you aren't asking "Do you want to brush your teeth now?" — which inevitably will be answered "no."
  • Keep off-limits objects out of sight and out of reach. This makes struggles less likely. Obviously, this isn't always possible, especially outside of the home where the environment can't be controlled.
  • Distract your child. Take advantage of your little one's short attention span by offering something else in place of what they can't have. Start a new activity to replace the frustrating or forbidden one. Or simply change the environment. Take your toddler outside or inside or move to a different room.
  • Help kids learn new skills and succeed. Help kids learn to do things. Praise them to help them feel proud of what they can do. Also, start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
  • Consider the request carefully when your child wants something. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn't. Choose your battles; accommodate when you can.
  • Know your child's limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it's not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand.

If a safety issue is involved and a toddler repeats the forbidden behavior after being told to stop, use a time-out or hold the child firmly for several minutes. Be consistent. Don't give in on safety issues.

Tantrum Tactics

Most important, keep your cool when responding to a tantrum. Don't complicate the problem with your own frustration or anger. Remind yourself that your job is helping your child learn to calm down. So you need to be calm, too.

Your actions set an example for your child. Hitting and spanking don't help. And they send the message that using force and physical punishment is OK. That can result in more negative behaviors over the long run. Instead, have enough self-control for both of you.

Tantrums should be handled differently depending on why your child is upset. Sometimes, you may need to provide comfort. Other times, its best to ignore an outburst and distract your child with a new activity. If your child is tired or hungry, it's time for a nap or a snack. If a tantrum happens after your child is refused something, stay calm and don't give a lot of explanations for why your child can't have what he wants. Try to find something he can have. Move on to another activity with your child.

Kids who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet, safe place to calm down. This also applies to tantrums in public places.

Preschoolers and older kids are more likely to use tantrums to get their way if they've learned that this behavior works. Once kids have started school, it's appropriate to send them to their rooms to cool off.

Rather than setting a specific time limit, tell your child to stay in the room until he or she regains control. This is empowering — kids can affect the outcome by their own actions, and thus gain a sense of control that was lost during the tantrum. However, if the time-out is for negative behavior (such as hitting) in addition to a tantrum, set a time limit.

After the Storm

Do not reward your child's tantrum by giving in. This will only prove to your little one that the tantrum was effective. Instead, verbally praise a child for regaining control.

Also, kids may be especially vulnerable after a tantrum when they know they've been less than adorable. Now (when your child is calm) is the time for a hug and reassurance that your child is loved, no matter what.

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. With too little sleep, kids can become hyper, disagreeable, and have extremes in behavior. Getting enough sleep can dramatically reduce tantrums. Find out how much sleep is needed at your child’s age. Most kids' sleep needs fall within a set range of hours based on their age, but each child has his or her own distinct sleep needs.

When to Call the Doctor

Talk to your doctor if:

  • You often feel angry or out of control when you respond to tantrums.
  • You keep giving in.
  • The tantrums cause a lot of bad feelings between you and your child.
  • You have questions about what you're doing or what your child is doing.
  • The tantrums become more frequent, intense, or last longer.
  • Your child often hurts himself/herself or others.
  • Your child seems very disagreeable, argues a lot, and hardly ever cooperates.

Your doctor also can check for any health problems that may add to the tantrums, although this is not common. Sometimes, hearing or vision problems, a chronic illness, language delays, or a learning disability can make kids more likely to have tantrums.

Remember, tantrums usually aren't cause for concern and generally stop on their own. As kids mature, they gain self-control. They learn to cooperate, communicate, and cope with frustration. Less frustration and more control mean fewer tantrums — and happier parents.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: April 2015