If you have children, you’re probably all too familiar with temper tantrums: the crying, the kicking, the screaming. (Oh, my!) These emotional outbursts occur frequently in children between 12 and 18 months of age, typically worsening between ages 2 and 3, before tapering off after age 3.
Adults and children process feelings differently. When adults are frustrated, they have a range of productive outlets to which they can direct excess emotional energy. They can talk it out, go for a walk or pound a punching bag. Young children, on the other hand, have a limited ability to express their desires and aversions, so they resort to what they know: screams and tears.
For the most part, temper tantrums are completely normal. They can crop up when children don’t get their way, or when they’re hungry, sleepy or just plain irritable. And although tantrums are common, that doesn’t mean they’re inevitable. Here’s how to peacefully handle your child’s emotional outbursts, plus some signs to look for that may indicate a more serious problem.
Can you prevent a temper tantrum?
Many children have temper tantrums simply because they want to exert control over their circumstances or express their individuality. Try letting your child have some control in situations where the outcome isn’t important. For example, you might let them choose the type of snack they wish to eat or the movie they want to watch. Giving them a few options allows them to feel a sense of agency. If they’re allowed to exercise control in some circumstances, they may be more likely to cooperate in other cases when choices have to be made for them.
The way you speak to your child and your tone of voice also makes a difference. Try asking your child to do something instead of ordering them to do something. Another way to create conditions that reduce the likelihood of tantrums: Make sure your child’s physical needs are met. That means setting—and sticking to—regular bed times and nap times, keeping a predictable schedule for daily activities, serving nutritious and filling meals, and keeping healthy snacks on hand in case of flare-ups.
What to do if your child has a tantrum
If your child starts wailing, remember that it does not reflect poorly on you as a parent or on your child. Tantrums come and go like the weather, but what matters is how you handle the situation when it arises:
- Stay calm: If your child has a temper tantrum, don’t resort to hitting, spanking or shouting. Punishing a child in this way when they express frustration or anger can set a negative example for how one deals with normal emotions. Take a few deep breaths and get your own emotions in check. Remaining calm will teach your little one to stay calm, too, because children model their parents’ behavior.
- Use a distraction: If your child can’t stop crying, distracting them with a book, toy or coloring book is a good bet. If you’re at home, offer up an activity that they enjoy, like Legos, a doll or a game, especially if you know it will change their focus. If you’re out in public, distraction is a good first resort, but if that fails, try to remove them from the situation at hand.
- Do not give in: Abide by your own rules. If you say no to candy, stick to it. Caving in to a tantrum to make it go away quickly can reward your child’s uncooperative behavior, giving them the green light to use tantrums to get their way in the future. Another strategy: Try ignoring your child’s tantrum. This can help demonstrate that crying and screaming are ineffective.
- Offer praise: When the tantrum finally passes, praise them for calming down. Explain exactly what they did right. This positive reinforcement will motivate them to react differently the next time they feel frustrated.
How to tell if it’s something more serious
The occasional squall is nothing to worry about, unless your child’s tantrums last longer than 15 minutes, or if they continue or worsen after age 4. Another red flag to seek professional guidance is if your child hurts himself or others. Some children, when upset, forget to breathe and end up holding their breath to the point of almost fainting, while others may refuse daily necessities such as sleeping or eating. Issues such as anxiety, headaches, stomachaches or nightmares that accompany tantrums should also be checked out, as these might be evidence of a more serious underlying condition.
And remember: If your child’s tantrums are causing you distress, making you anxious or aggressive, that’s a sign you should take your child to see a pediatrician—and that you may want to seek professional help, such as that of a therapist, for your own peace of mind. Click here to make an appointment for your child at The Medical Center of Aurora.