How to Deal with Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums are frustratingly common during the toddler stage. Stop a meltdown in its tracks with these 13 expert-approved tips.
Temper tantrums can strike fear into the hearts of parents, and for good reason. "The biggest problem with temper tantrums is the threat of embarrassment," says Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., the Glen Ellyn, Illinois-based author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. "You fear that you're going to look like a totally inept parent in front of everyone. And by the time kids are 13 months old, they sense that."
In the heat of the moment, though, it may help to remember that tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting; they're an essential developmental stage. "Tantrums help kids learn to deal with their negative emotions," says Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the master's program in marital and family therapy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinoiss. "Sometimes children get so overwhelmed with their new independence that they get overstimulated and melt down."
While there's no one right way to handle a tantrum, most experts agree on what doesn't work. At the top of the "don't" list are yelling and hitting, but short-term solutions such as bribing, begging, and giving in are also poor strategies. "If you give in, you are rewarding the tantrum and ensuring that it will happen again and again," says Dr. Rubinowitz.
- RELATED: A Parent’s Guide to Temper Tantrums
On the other hand, when kids know that "no" means "no" and when parents react calmly and consistently when their kids begin to act out, everyone feels happier and more in control. "When disciplining, it's important to focus on behavior and not emotionally attack your child," says Murray Strauss, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and co director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory in Durham. "People say, 'That's unrealistic.' But it's not unrealistic to refrain from yelling at coworkers. We have to treat our children at least as well as we treat our colleagues.
Here are 13 tips for dealing with your toddler’s temper tantrums.
1. Try ignoring the situation.
Ignore your child unless he is physically endangering himself or others. By taking away your attention completely, you won’t reinforce his undesirable behavior. Walk out of the room and set a timer for a few minutes to check on him.
2. Handle aggressive behavior immediately.
If your child starts hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things during a meltdown, stop him immediately and remove him from the situation. Make it clear that hurting others is not acceptable. Take away a privilege and put him in a time-out if necessary. But save time-outs for harmful behavior; the more you use them, the less effective they become.
3. Refrain from yelling.
Remember, you are your child's role model for handling anger. If you yell, your child will end up matching your volume because, ultimately, she wants to engage with you. Remembering that she’s feeling frustrated or sad may help you stay calm.
- RELATED: How to Prevent Temper Tantrums
4. Let your child be angry.
“Sometimes a kid just needs to get his anger out. So let him!" says Linda Pearson, a nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle. (Just make sure there's nothing in tantrum's way that could hurt him.) "I'm a big believer in this approach because it helps children learn how to vent in a nondestructive way. They're able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together, and regain self-control—without engaging in a yelling match or battle of wills with you."
5. In some cases, give in to the tantrum (within reason).
Sometimes this is a smart strategy. While bribery ("I'll give you some ice cream if you stop crying") should never be an option, if you want to have a peaceful car ride, you might give in to your child's request to hear the same tape over and over again.
6. Create a distraction.
"Children have pretty short attention spans—which means they're usually easy to divert,” 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. If your kid is about to go off the deep end at the supermarket because you won't buy the super-frosted sugar-bomb cereal, try quickly switching gears and enthusiastically saying something like, "Hey, we need some ice cream. Want to help me pick a flavor?" or "Ooh, check out the lobster tank over there!"
7. Give her a hug.
"This may feel like the last thing you want to do when your kid is freaking out, but it really can help her settle down," Dr. Levy says. "I'm talking about a big, firm hug, not a super cuddly one. And don't say a word when you do it—again, you'd just be entering into a futile battle of wills. Hugs make kids feel secure and let them know that you care about them, even if you don't agree with their behavior."
8. Help undo frustration.
If your toddler is frustrated because he can't put on his shoes, help him master that art so that he can feel a sense of accomplishment instead. In cases of safety, acknowledge your child's desire to, for example, climb a ladder, but restate your rule firmly: "I know you want to climb up high, but that's not allowed." Offer an alternative, if possible: "Later we can go to the park and you can climb the slide ladder."
9. Move locations during public tantrums.
When your child is having a public tantrum, pick him up and carry him calmly to a safe place. Take him to your car or a public bathroom, where he can blow off steam. Once you're in a quieter place, calmly explain your position, and try to ignore the tantrum until it stops. Sometimes just touching or stroking a child will soothe him. If your child continues to scream, place him securely in his car seat and head for home.
10. Laugh it off.
Public tantrums cause some parents to give in simply to reduce embarrassment, but this response will only serve to ensure that your child will repeat the tantrum the next time you're out. "Kids, even very young ones, are smart," says Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. "If you get angry or stressed or cave in and let him get his way just to end the meltdown before more people start staring, he'll learn that—aha!—it works." Your best bet, Kazdin says, is to suck it up, plaster a little Mona Lisa smile on your face, and pretend everything is just peachy. And what are others thinking? "We know from studies that the only thing people judge is your reaction to the meltdown," says Dr. Levy. "If you look calm and like you've got it under control—yes, even though you're not doing anything to stop the fit—they think, “Now that's a good mom.”
11. Stick with your demands.
Post-tantrum, follow through with the original demand that started the fit in the first place. If she got upset because you told her to pick up a toy, she should still pick up that toy once she’s calm. If she went off the rails because you said she couldn’t have a cookie, then don’t give her the cookie after the tears stop. Once your child follows through and picks up the toy, praise her. After all, that is the positive behavior you want her to remember and repeat.
12. Move on right away.
Many children just seem to snap out of a tantrum as quickly and inexplicably as they got into it in the first place. Once the tantrum is over, go to your child, give him a hug and a kiss, tell him you love him, and move on. Dwelling on the outburst only makes them feel bad and may even cause the tantrum to start up again. If you want to have a discussion with your 3- or 4-year-old, talk about the tantrum several hours after it's over. Ask your child to tell you what set off her outburst, and help her think about problem-solving strategies for the future.
13. Don't take your child's tantrum personally.
Don't allow yourself to feel guilty or out of control because your child has had a momentary breakdown. Though having your child shout "I hate you" can be hurtful, it's important to keep in mind that your child's actions are not so much directed at you as they are simply a show of his own frustrations.