By Katilyn Thomas
The first thing we have to do to manage tantrums is to understand them. That is not always as easy as it sounds, since tantrums and meltdowns are generated by a lot of different things: fear, frustration, anger, sensory overload, to name a few. And since a tantrum isn’t a very clear way to communicate (even though it may be a powerful way to get attention), caregivers are often in the dark about what’s driving the behavior.
Why do children have temper tantrums?
Temper tantrums are about feelings.
Young children lack the physical, motor and language skills to get what they want, which can understandably lead to frustration. As Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist, and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, wrote in their book, “The Whole-Brain Child,” young children “haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment.” This is why they seem oblivious to your concerns for safety, propriety, punctuality or whatever other reasons you may have for wanting your child to stop or start doing something.
Toddlers-2 and 3-year-olds–have twice as many tantrums as preschoolers–4 to 5-year-olds. As kids grow, they get better at managing their negative emotions and behaviors.
It may help to remember that tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting; they’re an essential developmental stage. “Tantrums help kids learn to deal with their negative emotions,” says Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the master’s program in marital and family therapy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “Sometimes children get so overwhelmed with their new independence that they get overstimulated and meltdown.”
What to do when your child is having a tantrum:
Here are a few ideas for how to respond when your child is having a tantrum:
- Take some deep breaths. Those few seconds can mean the difference between flipping your lid and keeping it (somewhat tightly) sealed. You may even need to leave the room for a minute. If you stay calm, you will be able to help your child become calm. You’ve got this!
- Investigate what triggers your child’s tantrums. And then plan. If your child has tantrums when they are hungry, be sure to bring snacks when you go out.
- Resist the urge to punish right away. Tantrums are upsetting for parents and kids. It doesn’t feel good when your emotions are out of control! Try to have compassion for your child. Growing up can be hard!
- Offer your child choices. Offer your child two acceptable options for how they can manage their emotions in safe and healthy ways. For example, “You can hug your teddy bear or color. Which one would you like to try to help you feel better?”
- Be patient and offer praise. Once the tantrum has ended, reinforce your child’s positive behavior by praising them for calming down. For example, “I really like how you colored in your notebook to help yourself feel better.” When children receive attention for positive behavior, they are more likely to do it again. A good rule of thumb is to try and give more attention for positive behaviors than for undesirable behaviors.
Improving the way you react to your child’s tantrums may take some practice, and you’re not going to get it right every time. Be kind to yourself, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve made a mistake.
If you react in a way that you’re not proud of, let your child know that you are sorry and will try to do better next time. It’s beneficial for children to recognize that adults make mistakes too and to learn from how you recover after a mishap.