Expert View: Dealing with Children’s Tantrums

Tantrums are natural, especially in children who are not yet able to use words to express their frustrations. “Tantrums are a normal part of childhood, and even more so for children between 12-36 months. The expert shares her views.

Chandini Mehta, child psychologist and owner of Jumping Genius gives us her expert take on dealing with children’s tantrums.

Quick Facts…

  • Tantrums typically appear at age 2 or 3 and start to decline by 4.
  • 23 to 83 percent of all 2- to 4-year-olds have occasional temper tantrums.
  • How parents respond is critical in tantrum management.
  • Parents can learn to calm themselves, state clear rules, notice and compliment appropriate behaviour, and teach understanding and empathy.

What Are Temper Tantrums?

Temper tantrums are a common behavior problem in preschool children who may express their anger by lying on the floor, kicking, screaming, and occasionally holding their breath. Tantrums are natural, especially in children who are not yet able to use words to express their frustrations.

“Tantrums are a normal part of childhood, and even more so for children between 12-36 months. It can involve spectacular explosions of anger, frustration and disorganised behaviour (when your child ‘loses it’). You might see crying, screaming, stiffening limbs, arching backs, kicking, falling down, flailing about or running away. In some cases, children hit themselves, vomit, break things or get aggressive as part of a tantrum, says Chandini.”

The causes of tantrums according to Chandini include:

1. Feeling frustrated due to stress, hunger, tiredness and overstimulation, situations that children just can’t cope with – for example, when an older child takes a toy away

2. Inconsistent discipline, criticizing too much, parents being too protective or neglectful, children not having enough love and attention from their mother and father

3. Problems with the marriage, interference with play, emotional problems for either parent, meeting a stranger, rivalry with brothers or sisters, having problems with speech, and illness

Children who have temper tantrums often have other problems like thumb sucking, head banging, bed wetting and problem sleeping.

Carol Tavris,  in her book, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, writes about the pattern becoming circular and occurring hundreds of times each day. She sees the pattern as a three-step process:

  1. The child is attacked, criticized, or yelled at by an exasperated parent, brother or sister;
  2. The child responds aggressively.
  3. The child’s aggression is rewarded when the attacker withdraws and the child learns to use tactics such as whining, yelling and temper tantrums.

Dealing with tantrums:

1.  Ignore the behaviour if the child is being stubborn. Try and praise when the behaviour is good and ignore rest of the time.

2. Check the logistics are ok- food, water, temperature, weather etc are in check so your baby is comfortable. Comfortable babies generally calm down easily

3. Make sure there is no sign of sibling rivalry or bullying, due to which aggression levels might be high.

4. Be consistent and calm in your approach. If you get angry and react, then your child will be confused about your parenting style.

5. Make sure, your partner, as well as in-laws and caregivers, maintain your rules for most of the time at least. Otherwise, children pick up the weak links early and get their way out!

Surviving the tantrum:

The most important things to remember when your child is in the throes of a tantrum are: 1. Don’t punish the child. 2. Don’t reward the child. 3. Stay calm and ignore the behaviour to the extent possible. 4. Keep the child safe. 5. Isolate the child if possible. 6. Don’t let the disapproval of other people affect your response to the tantrum.

When your child throws a tantrum, she is essentially out of control. You must make sure that you stay firmly in control. Punishing the child for throwing a tantrum, by yelling or spanking, for example, makes the tantrum worse in the short term and prolongs the behaviour in the long term. Trying to stop the tantrum by giving in to the child’s demands is even worse. This is the way to teach a child to use tantrums for manipulation and will cause the behaviour to continue indefinitely, even into adulthood.

At Home When the child throws a tantrum at home, calmly carry her to a place where she can be left safely by herself, such as a crib or a playpen. Then leave the room, shut the door, and don’t go back until she calms down. When the child is calm, have a talk with her about her behaviour. If you don’t feel safe leaving the child alone, stay with her, but don’t respond to the tantrum in any way. Don’t even make eye contact. Give her a time out and ask her to call you when she is feeling better and can have  a conversation

In Public If the child throws a tantrum in public, carry him out of the public area if possible, and take him to a place where you can have some privacy. When the tantrum subsides, talk to the child about his behaviour, and then return to your activities. Sometimes it won’t be possible for you to escape from the public place easily. For example, if you are in a commercial jet and the child throws a tantrum while you are coming in for a landing (as my daughter once did), you are basically stuck where you are. Likewise, you may find it hard to escape if you are standing in a long check-out line at the grocery store with a cart full of groceries. Under such circumstances, all you can do is grit your teeth and hang on. Ignore the screaming child. Ignore the glares and snide remarks of the people around you. Keep your cool. (Anyway, a screaming child in a check-out line speeds it up, so your child is actually doing everyone a favour.) Once you are able to make your escape, talk to the child about his behaviour.

From a number of research studies plus Tavris, the following guidelines are suggested for building child self-control and self-esteem.

1. Learn to deal with your own and others’ anger

When parents discipline out of anger or with expectations that are inappropriate for the age of their child, they often make mistakes in the way they react. The place to begin is with ourselves. When we feel calm, we can model effective anger and conflict management. Example: “I’m so angry at you right now for dumping your cereal all over the clean floor, I feel like hitting you. But I don’t hit, so I’m going to leave and come back when I’ve calmed down.”

2. Distract or redirect the child

When a child is misbehaving, a calm parent can sometimes re-direct the child’s behaviour. Example: “Here’s a bowl of warm water. Let’s put it outside where you can splash all you want.”

3. Be prompt and brief with discipline

One technique you can use is to pick up and remove your small child from the room immediately and isolate him or her for two to five minutes. This also gives you time to get in control of your emotions. Two to five minutes are enough; lecturing is unnecessary. In rare circumstances, it may be helpful to physically hold the child. Be consistent in enforcing rules, especially with older, school-age children. Example: “I’m putting you in your room for ‘time out’ until you calm down and are ready to talk again.” “I want you to go to your room now and stay there until you are ready to come out and use words to ask for what you want rather than spitting on people.”

4. Try to discover the reason for your child’s anger or temper tantrum

What does he or she want and is not getting? The reasons children have temper tantrums vary: to get attention, get someone to listen, protest not getting their way, get out of doing something they do not want to do, punish a parent for going away, for power, for revenge, from fear of abandonment, etc. Let the child know the behaviour is unacceptable. Talk calmly. Example: “Now that we’re out of the store and we’ve both had a chance to calm down, let’s talk. I think you were mad at me that I said no to buying the candy you wanted. Is that right?” … “It is OK for you to be angry at me, but kicking, screaming and yelling that you want candy won’t work. It won’t get me to buy you the candy.”

5. Avoid shaming your child for being angry

Children in healthy families are allowed to express all their feelings, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.They are not criticized or punished for having and expressing feelings appropriately, including anger. Some research studies have found that parents’ shaming their child’s anger can negatively affect their child’s willingness to relieve distress in others (10). Example: “You look and sound angry right now. I’d feel angry too if someone messed up my colouring like she messed up yours.”

6. Teach children about intensity levels of anger

By using different words to describe the intensity of angry feelings (e.g., annoyed, aggravated, irritated, frustrated, angry, furious, enraged), children as young as 2 1/2 can learn to understand that anger is a complex emotion with different levels of energy (10). Example: “I was annoyed when I had a hot meal ready and all of you were late for dinner.” “That man was so angry — I think he was enraged after someone spray painted his business with graffiti.”

7. Set clear limits and high expectations for anger management, appropriate for your child’s age, abilities, and temperament

As parents, we will be angry all the time if we expect our 1-year-old to be toilet trained, our 2-year-old to use 5-year-old words rather than have a temper tantrum, our shy 8-year-old to be a life-of-the-party magician, and our low self-esteem 15-year-old to snap out of her depressed “funk” and run for Student Council President. Example: “While I want you to know it’s OK to feel angry, it’s not OK to hit others!” “I expect you to help with chores, control your anger without hitting, biting or spitting. I expect you to be honest and thoughtful of others, do your best in school, ask for what you want, and treat others as you would like to be treated.”

8. Notice, compliment and reward appropriate behaviour

Teaching your child to do the right things is better (and easier) than constantly punishing bad behaviour. Children who get a steady diet of attention only for bad behaviour tend to repeat those behaviours because they learn that is the best way to get our attention, especially if we tend to be overly authoritarian. Example: “I really liked the way you asked Uncle Charlie to play ball with you.” “Thanks, Ebony, for calling me beforehand and asking if you could change your plans and go over to your friend’s house after school.”

9. Maintain open communication with your child

Consistently and firmly enforce rules and explain the reasons for the rules in words your child can understand. Still, you can listen well to your child’s protests about having to take a national test or measles shot. Example: “Sounds like you are angry at the school rule that says you can’t wear shorts, sandals and tank tops to school.”

10. Teach understanding and empathy by calling your child’s attention to the effects of his or her actions on others

Invite the child to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Healthy children feel remorse when they do something that hurts another. Authoritative discipline helps them develop an internal sense of right and wrong. Remember, a little guilt goes a long way, especially with a child. Example: “Let’s see if we can figure out what happened. First she did her ‘nah, nah, nah routine.’ Next, I saw you take her doll. Then she came and hit you, and you hit her back.”

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