Temper tantrums and 7 tips for how best to handle them

temper tantrumsFirst and foremost, as a parent, it is important to understand why your precious angel is acting out and what is the root cause of the tantrum. One moment your little one may be happily playing with their toys and singing along to themselves, and the next they are screaming at the top of their lungs. This can change in a matter of seconds, but the good news is that this is often just a phase that they will outgrow. Children between the ages of one and three are especially prone to tantrums, also known as the terrible twos or tantrum threes. We outline seven tips to help parents get through the next few years.

Why your child has temper tantrums

At this tender age, it is unlikely that your precious bundle is trying to be deceptive or manipulative, but trying to express themselves and their frustrations. They do not yet have the necessary skills to voice their thoughts eloquently and so resort to the primal instinct of screaming until they get what they want. Most often the meltdown is in response to frustration. To the logical adult crying and stomping our feet because our straw bent is not the way to handle things, but to your two year old crying is the only way to show that this upsets them a great deal. At this age, psychologists explain that there is a mismatch in language abilities. Although your toddler can understand a lot of what you say, they are unable to produce the same verbal patterns. This inability to fully express how they feel or what they want leads to frustration.


7 tips to handle a tantrum:

1. Keep your cool:

It is hard for any parent to watch their little one in complete distress. If your child is like ours, their tantrum dance will include moves like hitting, screaming, pounding the floor, knocking things over and holding their breath. All of this is normal behaviour used by your child to tell you something.

Toddlers are not the most of logical of creatures so trying to explain or rationalise things often does not work. Screaming back or shouting will also not work to resolve the situation. The best advice that psychologists give is to remain calm during the course of the tantrum. While in the midst of a tantrum, your child is unable to listen to reason, shouting at them will aggravate their frustrations. Experts advise sitting calmly next to them while they rant and rage. As tempting as it may be to leave the room, experts suggest that you stay near them as it may lead to abandonment issues later on in life. The surge of emotion that your little one feels may be frightening and just having you near may help them to calm down. Sometimes you may need to take a minute to calm down, step out and take a deep breath. Return when you feel calm, by staying calm your child will replicate your behaviour.

Expert opinions differ on comforting your child with a hug or embrace during their tantrums. Some advise that the hug will calm them down while others say that this tactic can reinforce negative behaviour. As a parent you will know what works best for your child, ignoring the tantrum and then rewarding them with a hug seems to work best for most parents. You will soon learn what works best for your child. All children are different and will respond to different tactics, you will discover what works best through trial and error. The key to handling tantrums is consistency when you find the tactic that works.

2. You are the adult:

Experts suggest that parents should not give in to unreasonable demands to try and stop the tantrum. By giving in, you are reinforcing that the tantrum behaviour has worked. This can set the stage for future negotiations, your child will learn that throwing a fit is a good way to get what you want. No matter how long the tantrum continues experts advise that you do not negotiate with a screaming toddler. It is really tempting to give in, especially when others are watching – but all parents have been there and will understand. As the adult your child needs to know that there are boundaries and that you are the one in control of the situation. Many children feel frightened by being out of control so consistent boundaries can help them feel safe.

Often your child will be in a space where they could hurt others or themselves. Tantrums can involve hitting, throwing or screaming nonstop. Take them to a place that they feel safe, like their bedrooms. Changing their environment can help to calm them down. Tell your child that you will stay with them until they calm down and that they can return to wherever they were before the tantrum. Although it can be difficult, experts advise even leaving a public place and returning when your child is calm. A tantrum should not disrupt others so it can be the considerate move to take your child to a quieter place.

3. Use time-outs sparingly:

From around eighteen months, some children may manage their feelings better when given a time-out. If other techniques are not working then this may be a good option. Removing your child from the situation and giving them time alone in a quiet or boring place can teach them self-soothing. Experts advise around one minute for every year of their age – for example three minutes for a three year old. This technique largely depends on the individual child and should be limited to occasional use.

Some children may feel abandoned so it is key to talk to your child about what is happening. Explaining that this is not a punishment and the reason why you are doing what you are doing. Say things like, “you are going to have a time-out now so that you can calm down. Mommy is going to be right there”. Reassuring your child that you are near will help to make them feel safe. Don’t give your little one attention while they are in time-out and avoid any interaction. If they try to leave the time-out place, be firm and place them back in the time-out area.

4. Talk it over:

When your child is calm and the tantrum has subsided hold them and talk about what happened. Acknowledge their frustration, and show that their feelings have value and that you understand them. Speak in simple terms and try use this as a teaching moment to help them learn to express themselves. By showing them how to voice their frustrations they learn how to better handle the situation next time. (For example – “You were angry because Mommy cut your sandwich into squares when you wanted triangles. If you don’t ask Mommy for triangles then Mommy won’t know. I’m sorry that I didn’t understand you when you were screaming, but now that you’re not screaming I can try and help you.”) By explaining how your child should have handled the situation and showing them love, despite their earlier frustration, you reinforce good behaviour.

5. Show the love:

Once you have calmed your child and talked about the situation, show them that you love them. It’s important to reinforce the good behaviour and let them know that you are not mad at them but rather their behaviour. Make sure to give them lots of cuddles when they do something good and they will soon learn the connection.

6. Avoid tantrum-inducing situations:

See whether you can find patterns as to where and when the tantrums happen and whether you can avoid them. Some things you won’t be able to avoid – like a meltdown at the shops. There may be a way to avoid a tantrum by explaining the situation – for example before going to the store tell your child if they behave they can get one special treat. If your little one falls apart when they are hungry, be sure to always carry snacks. Avoid certain aisles if you can, or ask for help to divide tasks if they are particularly problematic. If they get cranky in the afternoon, do all the errands in  the morning or after their nap.

Try and distract them with a fun activity. For example “if we go to the shop, then we can go play in the park afterwards”. To encourage their sense of independence try and offer them choices where possible. No one likes being told what to do all the time, so let them choose whether they would like to eat their peas or their carrots. This will give your strong willed toddler a sense of control. Try and pick your battles. If you are always saying no, this makes you feel anger and increases your stress. By allowing your child to wear gumboots even if it may seem ridiculous, they will feel like they they have some control.

7. Watch for signs of over-stress:

If you are experiencing a lot of change as a family, like a new house or change in patterns. Daily tantrums are a normal part of growing up but if they become unbearable then you may need to seek help. Try and understand the situation from your child’s eyes. If the situation is not rational, you may need medical help.

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