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Babysitting: Dealing With Temper Tantrums

We all know how it feels when we can't seem to move ahead with something challenging — like getting to the next level in a game or finishing a difficult math problem.

Kids are trying to master their world, too, and they get frustrated or impatient just like we do. But, because kids don't have the skills to understand or control their emotions, their feelings may come out as a temper tantrum.

Managing Tantrums

How should you react if the kid you're babysitting has a tantrum?

  • Follow the parents' rules. Ask parents in advance how they handle tantrums. Maybe they use timeouts, for example. Perhaps they distract the child with something else or ignore the tantrum altogether. Keeping your response consistent with what parents do helps kids learn and feel secure.
  • Be patient. Your role is to set an example and show kids that it's possible to manage feelings. So don't yell, spank, or lose your cool. Knowing how to control your own emotions during an outburst may help you soothe the child sooner.
  • Help the child calm down. The tantrum may be grating on your nerves, so try to remind yourself that the child feels frustrated or upset. Your goal is to help kids feel comforted and supported. Speak in a soft tone. Do what it takes to help the child calm down, whether that's comfort and hugs or removing the child from the situation (even if that means giving the kid a timeout).
  • Help kids put feelings into words. Tantrums often happen because kids can't express or manage their emotions. After the child calms down, ask what got him or her so upset. You might say, "Use your words to tell me what's wrong and what you're mad about." Offer some help if a kid struggles for words: "So that made you angry," "You must have felt frustrated," or "That must have hurt your feelings." Tell the child you understand those feelings and offer to help find a way to solve a problem or conflict — or just to get the anger out. Sometimes, feeling listened to and understood is all kids need to regain control.
  • Be firm and don't give in. Giving in to demands rewards kids and reinforces that the tantrum was effective. Instead, praise a child for regaining control after a tantrum.

Avoiding Tantrums

Tantrums can't always be avoided, but these tactics might help:

  • Know the child's limits. Don't pile too much on kids if they seem tired. It's a recipe for a meltdown. In the same way, keep your activities appropriate to the child's age. Playing with toys and games that are right for a kid's skills helps children avoid the frustration of not being able to accomplish a task.
  • Give kids control over little things. Testing boundaries is part of a child's growth and learning. Hearing a constant chorus of "no" can be disheartening for kids, so try to give them a little control over the things you can, like the extra "5 more minutes" they ask for on a game or story before bedtime.
  • Pay attention to positive behavior. Reward kids who are behaving well by making a positive comment or saying something nice about the activity that the child is doing. This can lead to more positive behaviors.

In time, you will come to know the kids you are looking after. You'll realize when a tantrum is a ploy to get more attention, when it's a reaction to frustration or tiredness, and when it's simple anger at a sibling or friend — and you'll be able to react accordingly.

If you're looking after kids with special needs, tantrums might have other meanings. For example, kids with autism can have meltdowns when faced with new situations or too much stimulation. You may not be able to reason with a special needs child in the same way you can with other kids. So ask parents for advice.

The top thing to remember about tantrums is that teaching by example is your most powerful tool. So stay cool and in charge.

Just as kids learn from us, we can learn from them. When an angry child tests your own temper, it can feel really good to resolve the situation in a cool, calm, and collected way. Next time you feel your own temper rising (and it happens to all of us at times), you can think back and remember how you helped the kids calm theirs!

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: June 2013