Temper Tantrums: How To Deal With Them

A woman holding hands and speaking with a young girl

Tantrums occur when your child is battling big emotions, feeling overwhelmed and unsure how else to express themselves. These outbursts may have you feeling frustrated, embarrassed and isolated, but they’re a completely normal part of early childhood development. Below are some steps you can take to help your child through their big feelings. 

Understanding Temper Tantrums

Step one is learning what, when and why temper tantrums occur. Temper tantrums are physical and verbal explosions of frustration. Children may scream, flail, kick, bite or scratch. Throwing a tantrum happens most often in children 1 to 3 years old because they’re at a very early stage of development socially, emotionally and linguistically. When they’re overstimulated, overtired or just plain over a situation, they don’t know how else to express their feelings. 

While temper tantrums are a normal part of childhood development, they can sometimes be a sign of something else. If your child frequently physically harms themself or others or if their tantrums increase in intensity and frequency after the age of 4, you should speak with your child’s doctor. For the most part, though, tantrums are nothing to worry about, and as your child matures, their tantruming will fade away. 

Prevention Strategies for Temper Tantrums

Avoiding tantrums is the goal, and you can do that by learning your child’s tantrum triggers and employing some well-known prevention strategies, setting clear boundaries and praising good behavior.

Meet your child's basic needs. We all need food, water and shelter, but small children cannot provide for themselves or express what they need. Fulfilling your child’s basic needs means consistently providing them with balanced meals, ensuring they stay hydrated and get enough sleep and making sure that they have a safe space with intellectual and physical stimulation. 

Set boundaries and expectations. Tantrums often happen when a child feels unmoored. Set rules, boundaries and expectations that are clear, predictable and consistent so your child knows what’s expected of them, including potential consequences and rewards. This creates feelings of safety and security that your child needs. 

Use positive reinforcement. When children receive frequent positive attention for good behavior, they are less likely to seek out negative attention. Praising good, specific behaviors can go a long way. For example, “Thank you for sharing the cookies with your brother” or “I like how you remembered to ask before petting that dog.” 

Avoid triggers and overstimulation. Common tantrum triggers in daily life include too-advanced toys that frustrate your child, feeling cooped up, being ignored or changes in their environment. Similarly, identifying when your child’s nerves are already frayed (if they’re hungry, thirsty, overtired or ill) gives you the opportunity to remove them from areas of high stimulation before a tantrum happens. 

Dealing with a Temper Tantrum in Progress

Your behavior provides a blueprint to your child on how they should respond to the outside world. If you deal with temper tantrums calmly, patiently and with empathy, your child will learn to do the same with their own feelings and the feelings of others. 

Stay calm and patient. Children mirror the behavior they see. If you raise your voice, they’re likely to raise theirs, too. Instead, if you model patience and understanding, they will learn to do the same. In short, stay calm when facing a tantruming child, so you can provide them with an alternative way to respond to their own emotions, naturally deescalating the situation. 

Use empathy and active listening. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Even if you cannot fully understand the intricacies of your child’s emotional reaction, or it seems disproportionate, you can use empathy and actively listen to what they say, validating their feelings and helping them through the emotions. 

Offer choices and alternative behaviors. Giving children simple choices is a great way to help stave off a tantrum. Keep options simple and limited, like would they prefer milk or water at snack time. You can also offer alternatives in the face of a trigger. For example, if your child is too small to ride on a certain ride at an amusement park, you can direct them to another ride they can go on instead. 

Follow consistent consequences. When you enforce natural consequences, consistency is key. If you tell your child that they can’t go outside without their shoes, but then one day allow them to, your child will be confused. They will try to go outside without shoes the next time and then will melt down when you tell them they need shoes. Stick to your boundaries to avoid a battle of the wills. 

It's best to wait until a tantrum is over before trying to reason with your child. Stay calm and remember that your child is struggling at the moment. It’s not a reflection on you or your parenting, but a normal part of childhood. 

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