Effectively Dealing With Temper Tantrums
Updated: Jan 29
There is one phrase that all parents dislike: temper tantrum. Temper tantrums are as inevitable as sleepless nights when you have children. We all wish for a well behaved, rule-following, sweet child. The problem occurs when this sweet child of ours throws a fit. Then temperature starts rising, words and things are thrown around, blame is freely assigned, fingers are pointed; the whole 9 yards! You cannot avoid temper tantrums, so it is better to have a few strategies up your sleeve to deal with them.
When your child screams, yells, kicks, or punches their sibling and completely ignores your authority as a parent, you feel at loss. You feel undermined and challenged. You feel your own body temperature rising, your voice getting higher. Then it becomes a power struggle between you and your child, where both want to win. This scenario is very common. It ends up with hurt feelings and rarely a good outcome.
According to Dr. Daniel Siegel and Fay, there are two types of temper tantrums. When a child decides to throw a tantrum intentionally and when a child is acting out because he is emotionally overwhelmed.
Intentional tantrums are done on purpose, to challenge or oppose parents. When the tantrum is intentional try some of the following-
Name the feeling - It often helps to name the feeling when children are upset or angry. For young children, we are providing the vocabulary for their feelings and they are learning to name them too. For older kids, naming the feeling tells them that you understand what they are going through.
Put in boundaries - Clear boundaries or limits inform the child that you are serious. You are not going to accept the behavior and they are not going to get what they want with this behavior. The most dreadful incidence for a parent is tantrum in a public space. If your child is screaming because they did not get the toy they want, this is the time to be firm. As parents, we cringe because the kid is making a scene. We don’t like the looks other people are giving us and desperately want the screaming to stop. By yelling back at the child, we are inviting a screaming match. You have to keep your cool and give them options. “I understand that you would like the toy now, but I don't like the way you are acting. You can stop screaming and we can think about getting the toy next time or you can continue and lose a playdate.” You can insert any privilege here: movies, ice cream, video games. When we provide kids with options, they start thinking. If your child continues screaming, you always have the option of leaving the store with him and going home, even if that means you need to cancel your shopping for the day. Once the child realizes that you are following through, you will see less or no public tantrums.
Follow through - It is important to follow through on consequences to ensure results and behavior change. If you don’t, frequent behavior issues are guaranteed. You don’t have to be mean or yell to implement discipline. Be matter-of-fact and send a clear message.
Remove the audience - There is no point in putting on the show if there is no one to watch it. Temper tantrums thrive on audience and negative responses. As soon as you see a tantrum brewing, clear the room. This works for older children too. Keep calm and say that you would be ready to listen to her, when she can talk in a civil voice. Leave the room. If she follows, do not respond, just remind her that you would be happy to engage in the conversation when she is ready.
Don’t engage in power matches - Temper tantrums are a call for attention and for getting the needs met. If parents engage in a power match with their children, it’s a lose-lose situation. Parents feel that they are undermined, and children feel that they are not heard. It is important to be an adult and keep calm. You might be screaming from inside, but do not show it. Keep your voice in control and speak as little as you can.
When your child is emotionally overwhelmed, he expresses it by crying, screaming, kicking or not listening to you. If you try logic at this point, it won’t be useful because his brain is completely clogged with feelings and there is no room for thinking. So what can you do?
Offer comfort - The best strategy is a comforting touch and soothing voice. When your 4 year old refuses to go to school because it’s not fair that the baby doesn't have to go to school or because he doesn’t want a sandwich in his lunch box; give him a hug. Hold him close to you and say, “ I know, it is not fair” or “ Looks like you are not in the mood for a sandwich today.”
Make a deal - After your child has calmed down, make a deal. Give him his favorite candy along with the sandwich. Promise that the baby will go to school when she is 4. Or promise special time with him after he comes home.
Redirect - Young kids get easily distracted. When you see the signs of the upcoming tantrum, distract them by talking about something else, telling a story, or a knock-knock joke. They will soon forget that they were angry.
1-2-3 Magic - This is a wonderful tool by Thomas W. Phelan. It really works like magic for kids up to age 12. For this to work, it takes discipline on the parent’s side. When you want to stop the behavior, name it and ask the child to stop it. “I want you to stop kicking the sofa.” If he doesn't stop, start the count, “That's 1.” If the behavior continues then you say, “That’s 2.” The last count is the final one,”That’s 3 and take 5.” This tool gives the child 2 chances to correct the behavior, otherwise they have to go to their room or a quiet location in the home for 5 minutes. This provides kids and parents a break to think about positive solutions without escalating the situation.The key part is that parents are not engaging in any dialogue, or lecture while counting. It is important to inform the child about this tool before you start implementing it. Depending on the circumstances, you might have to explain the alternate behavior afterwards.
Tantrums very rarely become violent. If that is the situation, then remove all the stimuli from the room. Watch your child when he is taking a break.
The crucial factor in controlling the frequency and intensity of temper tantrums is to start addressing them when the kids are as young as 2. Providing options and consequences early sets the tone for future behaviors. It is important that you use age-appropriate language and consequences. Try out a few strategies and see what works for your family.
Cline, F & Fay, J. (1990). Parenting with love and logic. Colorado Springs, CO: Pinon Press
Phelan, T. (1995). 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. Glen Ellyn, IL: ParentMagic, Inc.
Siegel, D & Bryson, T. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child. New York, NY. Bantam Books
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