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How to Handle Temper Tantrums

Way to better handle temper tantrums in children.

Tips for Dealing with Temper Tantrums

When we're faced with a child in the throes of a temper tantrum, it's hard for us to pay attention to the fact that tantrums aren't all the same. Some tantrums are brought on by a child's frustration and fatigue while other outbursts may be due to attention-seeking or demanding behavior - "I want!" and "I need!" The best way to handle temper tantrums in children is to understand the types of tantrums that exist. That way we can respond to different types of temper tantrums with the right responses to help our children regain control.

Frustration or Fatigue Related Tantrums

Young children may be frustrated when we can't understand what they want, and older children may be upset because they're unable to put something together or get something to work. In these situations, the best response is exercising positive parenting through encouragement and understanding. But the trick is that the encouragement and understanding have to come before our children reach a full-speed, no-turning-back tantrum. Try saying, "I know you want to tell me something. Show me what you need," or "I know it's hard to work this toy, but you'll get better at it. Can I help you?" Praise also helps. Give praise for trying, praise for not giving up, and praise for not having a full-blown tantrum.

Attention-Seeking or Demanding Tantrums

Children also throw temper tantrums to get their own way, and in many situations tired, embarrassed parents tend to "give in." We've all done it even when we know we shouldn't. (Remember the grocery store?) These types of tantrums involve more violent behavior: kicking, slamming a door, hitting, or even breath-holding. How can we deal with these temper tantrum fits?

  • Let the tantrum run its course. If you're at home and your child is safe, let him tire himself out. In public, remove him from public places for the consideration of others. If the child is too big to pick up, it's better to grin and bear it rather than give in - almost all parents have gone through the humiliating experience and will hopefully be empathetic. Instead of focusing on the disapproving stares, look for the sympathetic smiles of other parents.
  • Avoid giving your child attention. Consider moving to another room so she no longer has an audience.
  • Avoid trying to reason with your child. You may either say nothing or try something like, "I can see you are very angry. I'll leave you alone until you cool off."
  • Avoid "giving in." In particular, avoid the dreaded "no, no, no, no, no, yes" response - which is the most effective way to teach children that they can win by exhausting our defenses. Ideally, you want to establish that throwing a tantrum is one way your child will not get what he or she wants. You want to reward and teach good behavior in children with appropriate responses and positive discipline. Treats and surprises can be given as an occasional reward for good behavior, but be careful not to become dependent on them to control your child's outbursts.

Tantrums in toddlers and young children can be scary, especially for the kids who are having them. For some children who are having rage-type tantrums, they may be better able to regain control if we hold them until they relax. When school-age children are having tantrums, often the best solution is to walk away and not engage in battle; take your own time out. Tantrums are embarrassing to older children. They may not want to talk about them afterward, but it's important to acknowledge them rather than pretend that it didn't happen. Instead, have an empathetic but firm discussion to problem solve how your child can avoid similar out-of-control behavior in the future.

What are some ways to help our children avoid tantrums?

The best way to deal with our children's temper tantrums is to avoid them in the first place. Is it really possible to stop temper tantrums from happening? Sometimes. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Give your child positive attention. Some children require a great deal of attention which can be exhausting for us - and it's usually those children who may act up because they want even more attention. They may feel that our response to a tantrum is better than no attention at all. Try getting into the habit of catching your child being good and rewarding her with attention for positive behavior.
  • Give your child control by offering choices. It is sometimes possible to stop tantrums from happening by giving children choices and some control over their lives. "Do you want to sit next to me or your brother?" Try to consider your child's perspective at the grocery store. Maybe your standing rule is: "Parents get to decide all the things that go in the shopping cart." Try letting your child participate. "You get to choose the juice at the store. Do you want apple or orange?" With older children, establishing limits and boundaries is important, especially when giving them choices. Make sure you set the parameters of negotiation ahead of time as well. Avoid protracted public discussion that will inevitably lead to disappointment and possibly a tantrum.
  • Redirect young children to avoid a full out tantrum. When your child is upset or acting out, divert his attention by guiding him to stop or leave what he's doing and find interest in something else. Redirection can be used in absolutely any situation or place. In restaurants, try suggesting to your child: "Count how many chicken dishes they have on the menu" or "Name all the things you see that are the color blue." You can also redirect your child's attention in playgroups by saying, "I know you want to play with that car, but Katie has it right now. Look at this car. It goes fast."
  • Have appropriate expectations. Try to limit or make waiting time fun for young children. Avoid taking them to places where they must be quiet or sit still for long periods of time. Hungry or tired children are more likely to act out with tantrums, so be prepared with snacks and make time for rest. With older children, recognize their ability to assume some responsibility for their decisions; including how they spend their time and their money.
  • Choose your battles. When your child wants something, consider the request carefully. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn't. Choose your battles and accommodate your child when you can. 

Remember, temper tantrums don't last forever (although sometimes they may feel like they do). They're usually not cause for concern, and they decrease in frequency and severity as our children get older and learn to control their emotions. As our children gain a better grasp of themselves and their world, their level of frustration decreases. Less frustration and more control mean fewer tantrums - and that makes everyone happier.

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