“What should I do when my child throws a temper tantrum?” This is a question I get all the time from parents. Let me answer by saying that there is a science behind tantrums and most are a normal part of growing up. But, how should parents deal with tantrums? The answer is to prevent them if possible; but, if your child does throw one, try to work through it with the child, rather than mirror the behavior (adults can have tantrums, too!).
First, let’s talk about the causes of tantrums. More often than not, a tantrum is an emotional reaction to a source of frustration. If your child is hungry, thirsty or tired, their frustration level will be elevated. Therefore, a tantrum will be triggered quickly when they are challenged in some way. Both children and adults go through life at a standard level of comfort. When something uncomfortable happens, it can trigger a response of agitation. If the trigger continues to be a source of anxiety, it turns into a crisis for the child. At this point, the child is completely emotional and can’t reason because the child can’t think in a cognitive state. Once the child works through this state, they will regain cognitive function and will start to calm down. This is where the parents can then talk with the child and work through what caused the problem. This cycle happens to adults, too. Think of this analogy as the tantrum cycle: You are digging a hole and halfway down, you run into a rock (your trigger). You get frustrated and end up throwing your shovel across the yard. You are in a full temper tantrum, adult-sized. You can’t think; you are just really angry. After a few minutes go by, you realize anger does not help your situation and you sit down to figure out another way to dig the hole. At this time, you have reached a cognitive state again and can think clearly. Road rage incidents, marital arguments…these are the result of triggers that cause emotional states. Adults can monitor themselves and self-regulate a bit easier than children, however. When your child is challenged and can’t find a solution, a tantrum typically follows. When they are at the peak of anger, it is best to leave them alone. Don’t force them to stop by using angry words or spanking. Remember, the child cannot think clearly during this time. Do not ask questions and do not offer a bribe. Let cooler heads prevail before continuing the conversation.
So now, how do you prevent these often embarrassing tantrums in a store or at home? First, as parents or caregivers, be sure you are providing structure in the household. Do things in the same order at about the same time, and in the same manner. For instance, breakfast is eaten at the table right after getting out of bed. Then, it’s time to brush teeth before getting dressed. Children like routines and predictability. If the schedule is off, they feel agitated. Another way to prevent a tantrum is to pay attention to the trigger or agitation once it begins. If you see the child is getting frustrated because they can’t move their toy truck, quietly help them move it. Additionally, to prevent agitation, give the child choices. If you are in the store and the child wants a toy, offer the child a choice of something you are already going to buy as a distraction. This provides the child a voice in the day’s decisions. Ask, “Do you want blue toothpaste or red toothpaste today?” Because the child is in a cognitive state, redirection and conversation can help avoid the dreaded in-store tantrum.
Now, if conversation and redirection fails and your child continues to push for the toy, you have a couple of options. You may say, “We are not buying a toy today.” If your child does not throw a tantrum, be sure to praise their good behavior and move on. However, if a tantrum ensues, do not give the child any more attention. Do not make eye contact or acknowledge the fit. Even though you may feel embarrassed, let the child work through the tantrum. If this is too difficult, your other option is to leave the store. This is very hard to do since you really need to complete your shopping, but unfortunately, it must be done. If you do this effectively, it will not take more than a few times for your child to realize that tantrums do not work to get what they want. Remember, you are the parent and you control the power struggle. Make one statement and then close the subject. My pediatrician used the phrase, “The subject is closed.” So, I would tell my children, “No, you can’t have the toy and the subject is closed.” Yes, we had a few tantrums along the way, but it didn’t take long until we were enjoying pleasant shopping trips without endless “I wants.”
Tantrums are tough, but you can do this. Just remember, you are the parent and you can remain calm, even in the face of temper tantrums.
Owner and Academic Coach, KinderReady
KinderReady Parenting Blog
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