Temper Tantrums: How to Help Your Child and Understand Their Outbursts

Temper tantrums are a completely normal way for your child to communicate how they are feeling when they are frustrated, hungry, angry, or otherwise upset. Temper tantrums are common in both boys and girls, and they typically happen between the ages of 1-3 years old, though older kids may experience them from time to time. If you are a parent with a child who experiences temper tantrums, you know that these outbursts do not discriminate in time or place, which can sometimes be uncomfortable, or even embarrassing. But don’t fret! There are ways for you to understand and tame these outbursts, as well as to help your child understand why they have these outbursts in the first place. 

So, what does a temper tantrum look like? KidsHealth says that they can vary from short bouts of whining and crying to full-fledged fits of screaming, thrashing, stomping, pounding fists on the floor, kicking, hitting, and breath-holding. These actions are in response to your child reaching an age where they want independence and control of situations, but they have instead encountered a situation in which they can’t have their way. While it is a positive sign of growth that your child wants to do things that they can’t yet manage physically or emotionally, it is important for you as their caretaker to stand your ground on the boundaries that are set to keep them healthy and safe. It is important to remember that these tantrums are a sign that your child is just trying to communicate with you, but does not yet have the maturity in language or emotional management to tell you they are feeling frustrated or angry in a more productive way.

What Can Cause a Temper Tantrum?

Since temper tantrums can be caused by your child feeling general frustration or anger, they can be fairly unpredictable and happen anywhere, at almost any time. However, Stanford Children’s Health says that there are common causes that can trigger your child’s emotional eruption. Some children may experience temper tantrums when they:

  • Want to be on their own, and get upset when they can’t do what they want
  • Are in a transition such as from their daycare to home
  • Are trying to get attention to test the rules
  • Have something taken away from them
  • Have not learned all the words to tell you what they are feeling or want and this upsets them
  • Don’t understand what you want them to do
  • Are tired or hungry
  • Are worried or upset
  • Feel stress in the home

How You Can Help Prevent Temper Tantrums?

One of the best ways to reduce the frequency of temper tantrums, or to eliminate them completely, is to be proactive. It makes sense that children are likely to have tantrums when they are hungry or tired, seeing as even adults tend to get grumpy when the same is true for us. The difference is, we as adults have the capacity to understand what happens to our emotions when we get too tired or too hungry and have the foresight to prevent this issue ourselves. You are responsible for doing the same for your child, so, the number one tip for avoiding sudden outbursts is to prevent your child from getting too tired or hungry in the first place. Seems pretty simple, right? If that alone works for your child, kudos to you! But, for the rest of us, there are likely many other reasons children have tantrums. Here are some productive ways to avoid them altogether:

  1. Stick to predictable routines so that your child will understand at what time and in what setting they will take their nap and eat meals.
  2. Likewise, know your child’s limitations. Try not to run errands if you know it will be encroaching on their nap time.
  3. Set reasonable expectations for your child without expecting their behavior to be perfect. Just because they were able to soothe themselves before a tantrum erupted once, doesn’t mean they won’t ever have one again. 
  4. Set concrete rules for your child to follow, and explain them clearly. This way, whether they have a tantrum or not, they understand what is expected of them and their behavior.
  5. Communicate changes, transitions, or events before they happen so that your child can know what to expect. Sudden changes can be jarring for a toddler who finds comfort in a stable routine, so differences in their routine need to be made clear to them ahead of time.
  6. Give your child control over making small decisions. When your child lashes out in frustration, what they are really communicating is that they want control over a situation that you are not giving them, or that they are incapable of handling on their own. Giving them control over decisions that are inconsequential, such as which fruit they will eat with their lunch, provides them with a sense of control and independence. 
  7. Keep things that are off-limit out of sight and out of reach from your child. If your child can’t see the things he or she is not allowed to touch or play with, they will be far less likely to think to ask for them or be able to get to them. After all, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
  8. Distract your child with toys and other things they are allowed to touch and play with. You can help your child forget about what they aren’t allowed to have by making something they are allowed to have seem like the more enticing option. You can create an engaging activity with the toy they are allowed to have, or go a step further by taking your child to another room to change up their environment.
  9. Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior by praising your child whenever they make a good decision. This will teach them that while there may be little immediate consequence for making a bad decision, there is a greater positive consequence for making a good decision.

What Can You Do During a Temper Tantrum?

While there are many steps that can be taken to prevent a temper tantrum, your child isn’t perfect, nor should you expect them to be. It will take time for your child to learn how to better communicate and manage their emotions once you have learned how to do what you can to prevent their sudden outbursts. To reduce, and eventually eliminate all temper tantrums, you and your child must work as a team. 

As good, empathetic parents, it can be easy for you to feel the same emotions your child is feeling as a response to seeing them in a heightened state. When they are elated, we feel joyous, and when they feel sad, we feel the instinctive need to console them. Therefore, this can also be true when your child is feeling a heightened sense of anger or frustration. If we don’t stay in check with our own emotions, we surely can’t properly and effectively teach them how to manage their own. 

The most important thing to do when your child is experiencing a temper tantrum is to stay calm. When they are having an uncontrolled burst of emotions, the last thing your child needs is for you to yell or get angry with them, too. In fact, if your child is not having a tantrum as a result of an immediate need, such as exhaustion or hunger, it can be best to ignore your child’s sudden outburst altogether. Continue whatever it was that you were doing before the tantrum, and wait until they begin to calm down. Showing that you do not condone such erratic behavior will teach them that it is not socially acceptable to behave that way, and it will not ultimately get them what they want.

While remembering that you are a team with your child, and that remaining calm are the most important things you can do during your child’s temper tantrum, there are other things that you can do to help as well:

  • Never respond physically to the temper tantrum. This response will only make them more frustrated and angry, so spanking or otherwise physically intervening in the tantrum will only make it worse. 
  • If you have a hard time ignoring your child during their tantrums, move on to another activity with them. This is a way of distracting them that will help to transition them more smoothly through their emotional roller coaster. 
  • If your child is having a tantrum in public, calmly take them someplace private. This also applies to any situation in which your child may be physically putting other children at harm during their more physical outbursts. Be sure that you are removing anything they could use to harm themselves or others out of their path.
  • Don’t use bribes to get your child to calm down. This teaches your child that they will be rewarded for bad behavior, and encourages them to lash out whenever they are told “no.” 
  • Similarly, don’t give in to their tantrums. Doing so will only teach them that they can get what they want by throwing a tantrum, and encourage negative behaviors.
  • As more of a last-ditch effort, put your child in a timeout to allow them time to calm down on their own. This resolution would be recommended more for children who are over the age of three. You can tell them that they are allowed to come out of timeout once they have regained control over their emotions. This gives them the freedom to choose when they will attempt to control their behavior, and the opportunity to exercise better decision making.

Once your child has finished their temper tantrum, it is time for you to acknowledge that they have calmed down, and to praise this behavior. Make sure to both verbally and physically reward this behavior, by saying praise such as, “I see that you have calmed down. I really like how you were able to calm yourself!” You can reinforce this idea with a hug and a kiss, a high-five, or some light-hearted cheers. If you make it a big deal that they were able to successfully soothe themselves, they will be more likely to try to regain control of their emotions faster next time. What is most important is to give them the reassurance that no matter the intensity of their emotions, they are loved just the same.

When Should You Consult a Doctor about Your Child’s Temper Tantrums?

Although experiencing temper tantrums is perfectly normal for children from 1-3 years of age, there may be signs that your child needs help from a healthcare professional. You should consider talking to a doctor about your child’s temper tantrums if they do the following:

  • Their fits of rage continue and increase beyond 3-4 years of age
  • The tantrums are severe and occur frequently
  • They continue to hurt themselves or other children during their emotional outbursts
  • You keep giving in to your child’s eruptive behaviors
  • The tantrums are putting a strain on your relationship with your child
  • Your child is having trouble developing their speech in order to tell you what they need
  • They are affecting your child’s social skills because they are disagreeable, get angry often, or aren’t interested in cooperation 
  • You have any questions whatsoever about what you or your child are, or should be doing

Just know that you are not alone.  Parents at one time or another have experienced tantrums. Though at times it is not an easy situation to deal with, we hope this gives you some tools to help you cope with this situation when it arises.

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