Every parent dreads them. The relative peace of your home is shattered by a wail, a cry or a scream. Your child is thwarted in one his or her goals or simply at their wits end and they cannot help it. What do you do?
First of all it can help to know some things about tantrums. Tantrums are a normal part of child behavior between the ages of 18 months and 6 years. How often and how bad they are should get better as children are getting older. They usually have two distinct emotional phases, one characterized by anger and another characterized by sadness. The first initial anger phase is usually triggered by either being blocked in a goal or becoming overwhelmed with emotions. Tantrums often have a particular goal in mind and are a form of communication. For example a child may want a forbidden food item or may want to leave an undesirable place. The second phase of tantrum is characterized by sadness and a need to be close to caregivers to cope with the disappointment of not getting what they want or the discomfort of being intensely emotional. As children’s language skill improves and they find alternative ways to express their wants and needs, tantrums have a tendency to go down. Children with greater verbal skills also have a lower tendency to engage in less tantrum behavior.
It is tempting during both phases of the tantrum to give in to a child’s demands. Having a child lose control of their emotions in a supermarket, around relatives or on an airplane can be embarrassing. You may even hear things like “huh, why can’t they control their kid”. Remember all kids have tantrums and that it is not always a reflection on your parenting that your child has tantrums! There are some things that you can do thankfully to lower the probability both during, before and after a tantrum to reduce how often they happen.
What to do
Do not give in to “the demand” of the tantrum either in the anger or the sadness phase. It is tempting to want to take away the intense emotions of your child and if you give in to the tantrum it could make the tantrums occur more frequently. Think about it; if asking for something makes someone more likely to give you something then you will ask more often. Tantrums are a form of communication and are no different than a request, an inappropriate request! Children need to learn that they should ask for things without resorting to intense emotional displays. During the anger phase it is best to give a concrete single command “Put your shoes on!” and wait out your child. If your child intensifies his or her behavior you may have to ignore them until they reach the sadness phase. In the anger phase of a tantrum do not ask questions or respond to child verbalizations “I HATE YOU!” or give child attention beyond monitoring their safety. In the sadness phase it is appropriate to comfort your child, validate their emotions (I get angry when I do not get what I want too!, No one likes being at a place they do not want to be!) and remain firm in not giving your child the desired item or outcome if avoidable. Everyone occasionally gives into a tantrum and this does not have to be done perfectly every time for it to start working. Even if you do the “right” thing every time this will not eliminate all tantrums. There is no way to make this task easy but in time and with practice you can reduce the number of tantrums that your child will have!