Managing Children’s Tantrums with Effective Strategies and Understanding

Young girl crying and throwing a tantrum

There are many parental milestones, and unfortunately, one of those is managing a child with temper tantrums. These can happen anytime, anywhere, and often over the most trivial of circumstances

As unpleasant as they can be, especially when they happen in public, tantrums are a normal part of childhood development. You may not realize it, but every other parent is looking at you like “OMG I’ve been there”. This parent’s guide to kicking and screaming includes what you need to know to recognize the signs of an oncoming meltdown and how to deal with them when they happen.

What is a Temper Tantrum?

A tantrum is characterized by a burst of overwhelming emotion, screaming, falling to the floor, flailing, running away, aggression, and generally losing their cool. Extreme tantrums can even lead to vomiting or injury if a child can’t rein in their feelings.

What Age do Tantrums Start?

Tantrums can happen at any age (even adults have meltdowns sometimes, right?), but they’re most common between the ages of 1 and 4. Between ages 1 and 2, kids start experiencing more complex thoughts and emotions than they can effectively communicate. Comprehension exceeds speech and verbal skills. The gap between what they want and what they are capable of expressing can be a source of frustration, leading to emotional outbursts. It’s like beginning to understand a foreign language but not being able to speak it. Imagine feeling like nobody understands you all the time!
As your little one gets older, they get better at communicating. Still, they need to develop social and emotional skills to understand or express their feelings in behaviorally appropriate ways. The combination of frustration, overwhelming emotion, and not knowing how to express those feelings can cause your child to boil over.

How Can I Manage my Children’s Tantrums?

While it’s not possible to avoid temper tantrums entirely, you can understand what triggers them, how to avoid those triggers, and how to work through temper tantrums when they happen.
The first step in fighting temper tantrums is to pay attention. Track when tantrums happen and try to identify any triggers or patterns. Pay special attention to what was happening in the moments leading up to an emotional outburst. Tantrums can be more common when a child is tired, hungry, ill, bored, or overstimulated.
Identifying the triggers that lead to overwhelming emotions is only the beginning of dealing with temper tantrums. Knowing what’s likely to set your kid off can help you avoid those situations, but kids must also learn how to feel and work through their feelings.

Create and Keep a Predictable Routine

When kids know what to expect from their day, they’re less likely to become overwhelmed. As a bonus, scheduling naps and snacks will help prevent tantrums from rumbly tummies and exhaustion.
When you do need to break the routine, or when transitioning from something your child likes to do to something they don’t like as much, give them a reasonable warning. Something as simple as “You can watch one more episode before bed” or “You can go down the slide two more times, then we have to leave” can be enough to prime them for the transition. Avoid using times like “bedtime is in 10 minutes” with small children, as they may not be able to conceptualize time accurately.

Make Age-Appropriate Accommodations

Even adults don’t like running errands, so we can’t expect our kids to. If you’re taking your child to the store, let them take a snack or a favored toy to help pass the time. Let your child get involved in some way. Going grocery shopping might be boring, but letting them choose a new fruit or help them decide between different types of pasta sauce can make outings fun instead of a source of stress. It’s that easy!

Model Healthy Behavior

Demonstrating appropriate parental behavior is essential in the aftermath of a temper tantrum. That means showing how to deal with stressful situations calmly so your child has a good example of how to handle them, too. During tantrums, that means avoiding yelling and spanking. If you lose your cool, it’s difficult for a child to understand why they can’t do the same.

Talk About Your Feelings Together

Communicate what you’re feeling and why you feel that way with your child. Say things like “I feel mad when I’m stuck in traffic” or “I feel sad because that person wasn’t nice to me” to help your child recognize feelings in themselves. It also helps them to see your experience and process those feelings calmly. Kids are little sponges who soak up everything we do; if they see you getting frustrated and overreacting, they’re more likely to do the same.

Focus On Positive Reinforcement

Encourage and reinforce when your child handles a frustrating situation appropriately. “I noticed your brother pushed you out of the way and you didn’t push back. Good job! I’m going to talk to him right now about the rules!” Kids need to see that you notice when they do things correctly, not just when they act out. If they need attention, they’ll get it by acting out if they don’t get it from praise. Spend 90% of the day reinforcing good behavior and 10% of the day correcting it. “Oh you picked up your toys, thank you! That makes mommy so happy!” “You ate all your carrots?? Wow, that’s fantastic! I’m so proud of you!” Everyone wants to be praised, so the more you give that to your child the more you reinforce the good behavior.

Acknowledge And Unpack Tantrums

Talk calmly about tantrums after they happen. Ask your child what they felt, why they felt that way, and how they could have expressed those feelings differently. Allow time between the tantrum and the talk when necessary. Tantrums happen because kids can’t express their emotions appropriately and forcing them to talk through them in the moment might increase the stress.

Let Kids Cut Loose Sometimes

Sometimes, screaming about something is a perfectly normal way of expressing your feelings. If the situation and the environment are appropriate and the child is not going to get hurt, there’s nothing wrong with letting the child just get it out.

Don’t Give In

Once you’ve set an expectation, stick to it, assuming it is fair and age-appropriate. If your child throws a fit because they want a toy, the worst thing you can do is give it to them. That only teaches them that tantrums are an excellent way to get what they want! When they throw themselves on the ground and repetitively bang their head on the floor, don’t rush over to pick them up. No one gets positive reinforcement from hitting your head on the floor unless they get attention for it. Significant head trauma seldom occurs from this behavior provided they are in a safe spot. Ignore this behavior and it will pass. While tantrums aren’t inherently intentional, they can condition a child to throw them more often if they get the desired result.
With patience, understanding, and a little know-how, you’ll navigate these challenging moments like a pro. Stay strong and follow through on your word. And remember, if you feel like you could have managed your child’s tantrum better, you’ll have another chance right around the corner!

Chris Cook, NP

Chris Cook, NP

Chris practices pediatrics in our Riverton office.

a happy father receives a kiss from his son

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