Temper Tantrums: The Parental Armageddon

by Dr. Kyle Pruett, Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member
A mother comforting a sad-looking little girl

It’s a universally recognizable parenting scenario: A red face; ear piercing, soul scratching, vocal cord hemorrhaging screams and body thrashing the temper tantrum. As a father of four, and grandfather, I’ve seen hundreds of temper tantrums. Each and every one has left me feeling more or less spent, not to mention saddened as a parent. Where do they come from and what can be done about them?  

The most common age for this behavior is between 3 ½ and 4 ½ years the 12 to 18 months before they start kindergarten. Tantrums seem to cluster around those moments when your children and often you are hungry, tired, running late and/or stressed out. It’s important to remember that they don’t usually come out of nowhere they tend to be a last straw for your child. Developmentally, they occur when children are struggling to manage their bodies, independence and emotions. 

My colleagues at Yale’s Parenting Center have been looking at temper tantrum management for years. They have highlighted the single most critical component of the parent/child temper tantrum interaction the parental tendency to equal the child’s emotional intensity. This is not helpful. Your child is almost completely unaware of the storm they’re making, so when you leap in emotionally and physically charged to get your child’s attention and stop this, your child reacts to your intensity and escalation is the name of the game. 

Their advice (and mine): 

  • Forget punishment and yelling. It could terrify or confuse your child, often has no relevance to their distress given their immature sense of cause and effect, and only briefly satisfies your need to be in control. 
  • Stay calm. Count to ten, turn away briefly, bite your lip, and above all, breathe. This allows you and your child to recover more quickly without adding fuel to the fire. 
  • Ignore the negative behavior. This de-escalates the tantrum faster than any other single thing a parent can do. 
  • Praise the next ‘good thing.’ Be very specific about what you appreciate and why, be sincere in your tone and behavior, and look them in the eye. 

After a few weeks of these tactics, you’ll notice the tantruming is less frequent and less severe. One day you’ll look back and say, “Wow, it’s been months since the last meltdown.”

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