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7 ways to avoid temper tantrums – and how to handle them when they do occur

Your toddler’s second temper tantrum of the day shows no signs of stopping, and supersonic, ear-shattering, teeth-jarring screams pierce the air.

During the kicking-and-screaming chaos of the moment, tantrums can be downright frustrating. But instead of looking at them as catastrophes, treat tantrums as opportunities for education.

Why kids have tantrums

Temper tantrums range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting and breath holding. They’re equally common in boys and girls and usually occur between the ages of 1 and 3.

Tantrums are a normal part of development and don’t have to be seen as something negative. Unlike adults, kids don’t have the same inhibitions or control.

Tantrums usually happen when a child is seeking attention or is tired, hungry or uncomfortable. They may also be the  result of their frustration with the world. Frustration is an unavoidable part of their lives as they learn how people, objects and their own bodies work.

Tantrums are common during the second year of life, when children are acquiring language. Toddlers generally understand more than they can express. Imagine not being able to communicate your needs to someone. As language skills improve, tantrums tend to decrease.

Toddlers also have an increasing need for autonomy. They want a sense of independence and control over their environment.

This creates the perfect condition for power struggles as your child thinks “I can do it myself” or “I want it, give it to me.” When kids discover they can’t do it and can’t have everything they want, the stage is set for a tantrum.

Avoiding tantrums

The best way to deal with temper tantrums is to avoid them in the first place, whenever possible. Here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Make sure your child isn’t acting up simply because he isn’t getting enough attention. To a child, negative attention (a parent’s response to a tantrum) is better than no attention at all. Studies show that any attention, including negative attention, results in an increase in that behavior.

    Try to establish a habit of catching your child being good, which means rewarding your little one with attention for positive behavior. Even just commenting on what they’re doing when they aren’t having a tantrum can help increase those positive behaviors.

  2. Try to give your toddler some control over little things. This may fulfill the need for independence and ward off tantrums. Offer minor choices such as “Do you want orange juice or apple juice?” or “Do you want to brush your teeth before or after taking a bath?” This way, you aren’t asking “Do you want to brush your teeth now?” — which inevitably will be answered “no.”
  3. Keep off-limit objects out of sight and reach.
  4. Distract your child. Take advantage of your little one’s short attention span by offering a replacement for the coveted object or beginning a new activity to replace the frustrating or forbidden one. Or simply change the environment. Take your toddler outside or inside or move to a different room.
  5. Set the stage for success when your kids are playing or trying to master a new task. Offer age-appropriate toys and games. Start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
  6. Consider the request carefully when your child wants something. Is it outrageous? Choose your battles; accommodate when you can.
  7. Know your child’s limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it’s not the best time to go grocery shopping or to squeeze in one more errand.

If a safety issue is involved and your toddler repeats the forbidden behavior after being told to stop, use a time-out or hold him firmly for several minutes. Be consistent. Kids must understand that you are inflexible on safety issues.

Tantrum tactics

When you’re faced with a child in the throes of a tantrum, keep cool. Don’t complicate the problem with your own frustration.

Kids can sense when parents are becoming frustrated. This can make their frustration worse, and you may have an escalated tantrum on your hands. Instead, take deep breaths and try to think clearly.

Your child relies on you to be the example. Hitting and spanking don’t help; physical tactics send the message that using force and physical punishment is OK and can actually result in an increase of negative behaviors over the long run.

First, try to understand what’s going on. Tantrums should be handled differently depending on the cause. Try to understand where your child is coming from. For example, if your little one has just had a great disappointment, you may need to provide comfort.

It’s a different situation when the tantrum follows a child being refused something. Toddlers have fairly simple reasoning skills, so you aren’t likely to get far with explanations. Ignoring the outburst is one way to handle it, if the tantrum poses no threat to your child or others.

Continue your activities, paying no attention to your child but remaining within sight. Don’t leave your little one alone, though.

Kids who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet, safe place to calm down. This also applies to tantrums in public places.

Preschoolers and older kids are more likely to use tantrums to get their way if they’ve learned that this behavior works. Once kids have started school, it’s appropriate to send them to their rooms to cool off.

Rather than setting a specific time limit, tell your child to stay in her room until she regains control. This is empowering. Kids can affect the outcome by their own actions, and thus gain a sense of control that was lost during the tantrum.

However, if the time-out is for negative behavior (such as hitting) in addition to a tantrum, set a time limit.

After the storm

Don’t reward your child’s tantrum by giving in. This will only prove to your little one that the tantrum was effective. Instead, verbally praise a child for regaining control.

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Sleep is very important to their well-being and can dramatically reduce tantrums.

The link between lack of sleep and a child’s behavior isn’t always obvious. When adults are tired, they can be grumpy or have low energy, but kids can become hyper, disagreeable and have extremes in behavior.

Most kids’ sleep requirements fall within a range based on their age, but each child is a unique individual with distinct sleep needs.

When to call the doctor

Consult your doctor if:

  • You have questions about what you’re doing or what your child is doing.
  • You’re uncomfortable with your responses or you feel out of control.
  • You keep giving in.
  • The tantrums arouse a lot of bad feelings.
  • The tantrums increase in frequency, intensity or duration.
  • Your child frequently hurts himself or others.
  • Your child is destructive.
  • Your child displays mood disorders such as negativity, low self-esteem or extreme dependence.

Your doctor also can check for any physical problems that may be contributing to the tantrums, although this isn’t common. These include hearing or vision problems, a chronic illness, language delays or a learning disability.

Tantrums usually aren’t cause for concern and generally stop on their own. As kids mature developmentally and their grasp of themselves and the world increases, their frustration levels decrease.

Less frustration and more control mean fewer tantrums — and happier parents.

© 2012.  Article adapted from The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. Used under license.