How to Prevent Temper Tantrums

Does your child tend to lose it in the middle of the grocery store? While you can't always avoid temper tantrums, these 10 tips might prevent one from happening.

asian child throwing tantrum
Yusuke Murata—Getty Images.

Every mom and dad dreads temper tantrums. "They touch a parent's deepest insecurities: What kind of child did you produce? A kid's behavior reflects on his parents' self-esteem," says Stan J. Katz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, California.

It might be reassuring to know, however, that tantrums are a normal part of toddlerhood, says Ray Levy, PhD, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. Your child is constantly learning to control his impulses, his bodily functions, and his behavior. If his ability to maintain self-control breaks down, it might result in a temper tantrum.

While you may not be able to avoid tantrums all the time, you can minimize their frequency and intensity. Experts say that anticipating how an environment may affect your child and responding appropriately are key. Here are 10 strategies for preventing temper tantrums from your little one.

1. Offer Choices

One way to prevent tantrums before they occur is to give your toddler the illusion of control. Instead of phrasing questions to elicit a "yes" or "no" answer, try to give the child a choice. If he likes to pick out his own clothes, set out two or three outfits and ask him which one he'd prefer to wear. Or you might ask, "Would you like to have peas or carrots with your chicken?" or "Would you prefer potatoes or corn with your roast beef?" Giving the 2-year-old a sense that he wields some influence will make him more accepting of the outcome.

2. Give Advance Notice

At other times, tantrums can be avoided simply by giving your toddler some advance notice about what lies ahead. For example, several hours before a night out, you might tell your child, "Mommy and Daddy are going out to dinner tonight, and Marian, that nice babysitter, will stay here with you. She'll put you to bed, and we'll be here when you wake up tomorrow morning." This works well as your child approaches the age of 3 and her sense of time gradually begins to improve.

3. Use Questions Instead of Commands

It also helps to avoid commands whenever possible; opt for questions instead. Saying, "Put those toys away!" may provoke a negative reaction. Asking, "Where do these books go?" or "Where should we put that paint set?" is more likely to promote cooperation than issuing directives.

4. Know Your Child's Limits

If your day has been particularly busy—a new activity, outdoor play, a visit from Grandma and Grandpa—cancel your plans to take her to a restaurant for dinner. Remember, fatigue and changes in routine take the greatest toll on your child's behavior.

5. Consider Incentives for Positive Behavior

Certain situations are trying for kids. Maybe it's sitting through a long meal at a restaurant or staying quiet in church. Whatever the hissy hot button, this is the trick: "It's about recognizing when you're asking a lot of your child and offering him a little preemptive bribe," says Linda Pearson, a nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle. "While you're on your way to the restaurant, for example, tell him, 'Alex, Mommy is asking you to sit and eat your dinner nicely tonight. I really think you can do it! And if you can behave, then when we get home I'll let you watch a video." For the record, Pearson says this kind of bribery is perfectly fine, as long as it's done on your terms and ahead of time—not under duress in the middle of a tantrum.

6. Don’t Leave Your Child Out

When you're in a public place, don't forget to include your child in the conversation. "Look at the evening from his point of view," says June Solnit Sale, the Los Angeles-based coauthor of The Working Parents Handbook and a childcare expert for "Two adults who go out after not seeing each other all day have a lot to say. If the child just sits there, he's going to feel left out and restless."

7. Praise Good Behavior

Look for opportunities to point out your child's good behaviors, even the small ones. The more favorable attention she gets for a desired behavior, the more likely she is to do it again. You can also model healthy ways to handle frustration in the heat of the moment, such as taking deep breaths. Equally important, fess up after you lose your temper by saying something like, "Oh, Mom really overreacted."

8. Try Sign Language

"Children under 2-and-a-half years old usually have a vocabulary of only about 50 words and can't link more than two together at a time. Their communication is limited, yet they have all these thoughts and wishes and needs to be met. When you don't get the message or misunderstand, they freak out to release their frustration," says Jay Hoecker, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic's Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, in Rochester, Minnesota. One solution, he says: sign language. Teaching your child how to sign a few key words—such as more, food, milk, and tired—can work wonders.

9. Get Enough Food and Sleep

According to Dr. Levy, lack of sleep and food often trigger temper tantrums. "Parents often come to me wondering why their child is having daily meltdowns. And it turns out they're happening around the same time each day—before lunch or naptime and in the early evening. It's no coincidence!" Think how cranky you get when you miss out on sleep or your blood sugar hits rock bottom, he says. With young kids, who have greater sleep and food needs, the effect is magnified tenfold.

10. Provide Distractions

Does embarrassing toddler behavior always seem to happen in public places like waiting rooms and grocery stores? With a bit of planning, you can have an array of distractions on hand to prevent a temper tantrum. Here are some ideas.

Search for objects. Plan a makeshift treasure hunt with real-life objects or pictures in magazines. ("Who can find a picture of a flower?")

Play a guessing game. Encourage your child to close his eyes. Then take something out of your purse, put it in his hand, and see if he can guess what it is.

"Draw" on your child's back. Use your finger, and see if she can tell which feature you're drawing. Try letters, numbers, or even words. Let her draw something on your back as well.

Let him color. Bring some crayons, coloring pencils, and coloring pages if you anticipate a wait. If you don't have something to draw on at a restaurant, ask the waitress to bring over some paper place mats or extra napkins.

Tell a story together. Make up a story with your child, taking turns adding one line at a time.

Try "I spy." Say, "I spy something yellow" or "I spy something that begins with the letter S." Whoever guesses correctly picks the next thing to find. A variation that's easier for young children is to say, "Follow my eyes to something blue" and have them guess what you're looking at.

Make predictions. For example, the next person to come in the door (or get in line) will be a woman with short brown hair.

Demonstrate how to draw. Pick up a pen and show your child how his name looks in cursive, in huge block letters, or in shaky writing.

Read your lips. Can your child figure out what you're saying just by watching your lips move? Start out with some easy words like "hi" and "wow," and then work your way up to longer phrases.

Improve his memory. Here's a memory game to play with your kid: Have him look at you and then tell him to close his eyes. What color is your shirt? Are you wearing earrings? Is your hair in a ponytail?

Make up stories about people. Look out the window or around the restaurant, and tell tales about the people you see ("See that man who's crossing the street? What do you think he's up to?")

Create a dual drawing. Let your child make a squiggle or a line, then add something to it and pass it back to him. Together you can make a complete masterpiece!

Play tabletop concentration. Take six things out of your handbag and lay them on the table. Have your child close her eyes while you remove one. Can she guess which item is missing?

Ask questions. Parents can also distract children with no supplies. One strategy is asking questions, which lets you learn more about your little one. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What do you want to do for your next birthday party?
  • Where would you rather be right now?
  • What would you change your name to if you could?
  • What do you think the world would be like if there were no such thing as money?
  • What would happen if dogs were in charge and people were their pets?
Updated by Nicole Harris
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