Every parent has been there – whether in the living room, on aisle 5 of the grocery store or elsewhere – your child is in the middle of a temper tantrum and you must determine how to handle it. Unfortunately, it’s probably not the first, or last, time you’re facing a similar situation. Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough offers some insight into why kids have tantrums, and tips for tackling them that won’t send you into a tailspin.
Kids express their stress and anxiety in different ways. It can bubble up as aggression, anger, defiance, frustration or several other emotions. Your child may scream, cry, fall on the ground, hit or kick.
“Tantrums are a normal part of development, but as a mom of two, I certainly understand how challenging they can be in the moment,” said Dr. Kimbrough. “Tantrums tend to occur when kids aren’t able to express their emotions with words or as they begin to learn that what they perceive to be needs won’t always be met immediately. It can be helpful to remember that tantrums mean our kids trust us enough to let their guard down and show their feelings.”
Addressing tantrums as they’re happening
In the middle of chaos, kids look to adults to calm their storm. We can help by:
- Being consistent with rules. Sometimes the easiest thing in the moment is to give in to whatever might make the tantrum end – but this can be problematic in the long run. For instance, if your child is screaming because you said no to a cookie, giving them the cookie to make the tantrum stop teaches them that they’ll get what they want if they throw a big enough fit. If you say no, mean no and stick to it. If you don’t mind them doing or having something, don’t say no in the first place. This helps them know what to expect from you moving forward.
- Letting them feel their emotions. Everyone experiences times of anger, sadness or frustration. Giving your child a moment to feel their emotions helps to validate their feelings and can sometimes make it easier to move past them. It’s important to stop unsafe behavior, such as hitting or kicking, but allowing a little time to express themselves can go a long way.
- Shifting focus to something else. Distracting a child with a toy or another activity can be helpful, especially with toddlers who are too young to reason (12 months – 2 years or so). This isn’t a reward for the tantrum, but rather a way to break the tantrum cycle.
- Giving them a minute to calm themselves. Older toddlers (2-3 years) are not as easily distracted, so this age group can often benefit from a moment to calm themselves. Leave them in a safe spot but walk out of their immediate eyesight. Usually when kids don’t have an audience, they stop their tantrums pretty quickly.
- Working on coping skills. This strategy tends to be helpful with kids beginning at about age 3. You can start by helping them name their feelings. “It looks like you’re feeling really frustrated right now. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Then you can help them implement coping skills, such as showing them how to breathe deeply, or providing them with their comfort object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal. Counting is another good way to help center their breathing and take the focus away from what’s upsetting them.
Reducing (but not eliminating) tantrums
All kids throw tantrums at times – there’s no way around it – but there are some things that can help keep tantrums at bay. Try:
- Sticking to a schedule. Tantrums tend to happen more when kids are hungry or tired. Trying to keep consistent timing for bedtime, naps, meals and snacks can build structure into the day and prevent kids from getting over tired or over hungry.
- Preparing for transitions. Tantrums can also be triggered by transitions. If your child is playing and then you tell them it’s time to put shoes on and go somewhere, they may get upset that they have to stop what they’re doing. It can be helpful to give them a heads up, such as a five-minute warning, so they know what to expect and what will be expected of them.
- Providing a change of scenery. Changes of scenery can break up monotony throughout the day. This can be going outside if you have a yard or park nearby, or even into another room in your home. It helps everyone re-set and face the next part of the day with a fresh mindset.
- Catching good behavior and giving positive reinforcement. This one can be especially important on tough days when negative thoughts and emotions can get the best of everyone. Look for positive behaviors – listening the first time, sharing a toy with a sibling, an unprompted hug, etc. Praise your child when you see these actions. It’s not only good for their confidence and self-esteem, but it’s good for your attitude too!
- Taking care of yourself so you remain grounded. No one can pour from an empty cup. Make sure you take some time for self-care, so you’re equipped to care for those who depend on you. Gratefulness (thinking of things you’re thankful for) and mindfulness (looking around the room for things you can see, feel, smell, etc.) exercises are another excellent way for adults to get in the right frame of mind to tackle tantrums that might crop up throughout the day.
If your child is doing something unsafe, it is perfectly okay – and suggested – to have a discipline program. While spanking isn’t recommended, timeouts (approximately one minute for every year of age) in a consistent place can be effective. At the end of the timeout, talk about why the timeout occurred to make sure they understand the problematic behavior and how to make a better choice next time.
Remember – no one is perfect, and you are not alone. If you don’t have your best parenting moment (or day), give yourself some grace. Your child will continue to love you unconditionally and you can start fresh at any moment.