Temper tantrums: How to keep the peace
Temper tantrums: How to keep the peace
Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.
You're shopping with your toddler in a busy discount store. He or she has spied a toy that you don't intend to buy. Soon you find yourself at the center of a gale-force temper tantrum. Everyone is looking at you, and your face is burning with embarrassment. Could you have prevented the tantrum? What's the best response? And why do these emotional meltdowns happen in the first place? Here are some tantrum tips from Jay Hoecker, M.D., an emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Why do tantrums happen?
A tantrum is the expression of a child's frustration with the physical, mental or emotional challenges of the moment. Physical challenges are things such as hunger and thirst. Mental challenges are related to a child's difficulty learning or performing a specific task, or difficulty using words to express thoughts and feelings. Emotional challenges are more open to speculation. Still, whatever the challenge, frustration with the situation may fuel a child's anger — and erupt in a tantrum.
Consider this: Most 2-year-olds have a limited vocabulary. Parents may understand what a toddler says only 50 percent of the time. Strangers understand even less. When your child wants to tell you something and you don't understand — or you don't comply with your child's wishes — you may have a tantrum on your hands.
Do young children have tantrums on purpose?
It might seem as if your child plans to misbehave simply to get on your nerves, but that's probably giving your child too much credit. Young children don't have evil plans to frustrate or embarrass their parents. A young child's world is right there in sight, at the end of his or her nose. Your child doesn't enjoy throwing a tantrum any more than you enjoy dealing with a tantrum.
Can tantrums be prevented?
There may be no foolproof way to prevent tantrums, but there's plenty you can do to encourage good behavior in even the youngest children:
What's the best way to respond to a tantrum?
If you can, pretend to ignore the tantrum. If you lose your cool or give in to your child's demands, you've only taught your child that tantrums are effective.
If your child has a tantrum at home, you can act as if it's not interrupting things. After your child quiets down, you might say, "I noticed your behavior, but that won't get my attention. If you need to tell me something, you need to use your words."
If your child has a tantrum in public, pretending to ignore the behavior is still the best policy. Any parent who witnesses the scene is likely to sympathize with you as you ignore the tantrum. If the tantrum escalates or your child is in danger of hurting himself or herself, stop what you're doing and remove your child from the situation. If your child calms down, you may be able to return to your activity. If not, go home — even if it means leaving a cart full of groceries in the middle of the store. At home, discuss with your child the type of behavior you would have preferred.
Should a child be punished for having a tantrum?
Tempter tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Rather than punishing your child, remind him or her that tantrums aren't appropriate. Sometimes a simple reminder to "use your words" is adequate. For a full-blown tantrum — or a tantrum that caused you to abandon an activity in public — try a timeout.
During a timeout, seat your child in a boring place — such as in a chair in the living room or on the floor in the hallway — for a certain length of time, usually one minute for each year of the child's age. You can pretend that you don't even see your child during the timeout, but you can still assure his or her safety. If your child begins to wander around, simply place him or her back in the designated timeout spot. Remind your child that he or she is in timeout, but don't offer any other attention.
When might tantrums be a sign of something more serious?
As your child's self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children outgrow tantrums by age 4 or 5. If your older child is still having tantrums, the tantrums seem especially severe or the tantrums have pushed you beyond your ability to cope, share your concerns with your child's doctor. These may be signs that something else is going on. The doctor will consider physical or psychological problems that may be contributing to the tantrums, as well as give you additional tips to help you deal with your child's behavior.
Last Updated: 2010-06-11
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