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Help! It's Another Tantrum


Sue Dinwiddie

MA Human Development

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You hear screams and howls! You watch fist flail and feet kick. Overwhelmed by tension, confusion or helplessness you think, Oh no! Another temper tantrum! What do I do now?"

You may be relieved to learn that you are not alone in being bombarded with temper tantrums. Great fury from small beings is common from the second year of life through age four. There is good news! Some simple techniques can help during this period of development.

The first step is to understand which kind of tantrum is in force. Is the tantrum manipulative, verbal frustration, or temperamental? Manipulative tantrums occur when the child does not get her own way. It will stop when it is ignored. The child erupts, the parent calmly walks away. Before long the tantrum subsides, and the child sobs into contrition. Some parents prefer to remove the child to her room, "When you are through with your tantrum, you may come back and join us."

Young children don't actually plot out, "Okay, I'm not getting my own way, so I'll throw a fit." They fall apart without thinking. But if the parent gives in to stop the tantrum, the behavior is rewarded and reinforced, leading to tantrum blackmail. Unless the child is hurting himself or another, explain why you cannot satisfy your child's desire and offer an alternative. Beyond that, grit your teeth, breathe deeply, and try to think of something pleasant, while occupying yourself with an activity.

Ignoring is difficult if you are on an outing. If you are at the park or a friend's house, explain why you couldn't satisfy the request, and bring the child home. "Climbing the spiral slide is not safe. You could get hurt. When you scream and yell, we have to go home. We'll come again another day." The grocery store is the most challenging time to deal with a manipulative tantrum. Step out of the checkout line temporarily with your child, "Excuse me, I need to deal with this . Go ahead of me, please." Ignore the looks of others. If they haven't been through this ordeal, they've never had children. Their approval is irrelevant. Try offering your child another alternative; if that fails, explain that you will wait with the child until she is back in control. Unless you want to replay this scenario on each shopping trip, do not give in to the demand. As you plan your next shopping trip, let your child know that you will be going alone. After your child has missed one shopping excursion, try again. Before departing, explain your expectations, "I am going to the grocery store. You may go with me, but we won't be buying you anything. However, you may push the basket ."

A second type of tantrum is the verbal frustration tantrum. These tantrums occur when the child knows what she wants but lacks the verbal skills to communicate clearly. Frustration boils over, and the drama begins. Ignoring these tantrums makes the child even more frustrated. Validate the anger by helping your child label her feelings. Then problem-solve: "You are feeling mad and pulling at your stomach. I wonder if that belt it too tight?" If you are lucky, your child will nod yes, and you can offer help. "We can loosen that belt." If you guessed wrong, ask the child to show you what is bothering her or to point to the problem. Verbal frustration tantrums subside as children's communication skills improve.

A third type of tantrum occurs when the child's frustration level reaches the rage stage, and he becomes totally out of control, falling apart emotionally. This is the temperamental tantrum. The child may be too tired or tremendously disappointed. As with verbal frustration tantrums, temperamental tantrums are seldom cured by ignoring. The child can rarely gain control alone. Feeling irritable, cross and excitable is scary, confusing and disorienting for children. It is difficult to concentrate and to regain control. Even if they don't ask for help, these children need it. The following techniques can help your child regain composure.

  • Take a deep breath and try to remain calm yourself.

  • Always validate that your child is indeed angry. "That makes you very angry, doesn't it?"

  • Encourage your child to verbalize her feelings and desires. "Use your words to tell me you are angry. Tell me what you want." Putting feelings and desires into words is empowering for children and helps them to understand their frustration.

  • Acknowledge what your child does or does not want. "You are ripping off that sweater. You can tell me with words that you don't want to wear it." Nothing escalates anger faster than having it discounted. "Of course, you don't hate the sweater that Grandma knit for you. See how pretty it is!"

  • Offer an acceptable alternative choice: "I won't buy candy, but you can decide on whether you want fish crackers or a banana."

One or more of these additional strategies can come in handy:

  • Find a way to say "yes!" Avoid "No! You may not have candy!" Try "Yes, you may have something to eat as soon as we get in the car. You decide if you want fish crackers or a banana."

  • Hold your child and give loving hugs.

  • Offer verbal reassurance: "You are upset, but you will recover." "When you calm down, we can think of something to make you feel better."

  • If your child cannot stand being touched when upset, remain close while uttering reassuring phrases. "Your anger has gotten out of control. I will help you calm down."

  • If your child is being aggressive, restrain her gently but firmly. "You are feeling angry but you don't need to hit. Use words to say you are mad."

  • Encourage your child to take some deep breaths: "Take a big breath and blow all your mad into this pretend balloon." Expand your hands to emulate a swelling balloon. Repeat this a few times, blowing more pretend balloons.

  • Help your child find a means of comfort. A special blanket or toy brings comfort to some children, while others seek out a favorite person. "You are upset that I must leave. I know you would like to come with me, but my job is to go to work, while your job is to stay at school. Let's take your blanket and find Teacher Jill to be with you."

  • Use a distraction such as a song, a book, or a favorite activity. One teacher has success by singing a song to the child on her lap as she draws a "Feel Better Picture:" "I am drawing a feel better picture for Joshua. Here's a green dot on Joshua's picture. A yellow dot goes here." As Joshua begins to show some interest, she sings, "Now where shall I put my red dot?" Before long Joshua is directing where the dots go by pointing to the page. When the teacher senses the time is right, she encourages Joshua to draw the dots himself.

Tantrums can be as hard on parents as they are on children. Evaluating the situation at a nontemper time can strengthen coping skills.

  • Analyze the outbursts to find some patterns: Are the tantrums occurring at a special time of day? Do they occur more in certain locations or when a particular person is around? What has happened right before the tantrum?

  • Take preventative steps based on your analysis. If your child frequently has a fit leaving school, arrive early to spend some time with her in an activity. Since children react negatively to rushing, prepare your child for transitions and allow adequate time. "In five minutes it will be time to gather up your things and go home. This is the time to finish your project." If your child is often irrational before dinner, decide if she is hungry or wants your attention. Offer a wholesome snack while you are fixing the meal, or let her help you fix the meal. If tantrums occur often at bedtime, consider whether she is getting enough rest. Perhaps bedtime should be earlier before total exhaustion is reached. Are activities before bed over stimulating?

  • Evaluate honestly how you react when your child goes into tantrum mode? Do you lose your cool and become angry?

  • Plan your most effective means of controlling your own reactions to the tantrums. It is not easy to stay calm when your child is carrying on forcefully. Try talking silently to yourself. "I don't like this outburst; it makes me feel angry, but I don't have to lose my temper, too. I can model calmness for my child. We can get through this." Some parents count to ten or twenty, some parents sing or whistle to gain control; some parents take a few deep breaths. Experiment until you find a techniques that works for you.

  • Talk to other parents and get tips from them.

  • Remember that when you lose control, it is doubly hard for your child to gain composure.

If your child's tantrums are extreme and frequent, if you are finding it difficult to control your own anger, or if abuse is involved or even a temptation, get some outside help. A few sessions with a therapist can give you a fresh perspective with some successful coping methods.

Recommended Resources

Books to Read and Discuss with Children Crary. Dealing with Feeling Series: I'm Mad and I'm Frustrated. Parenting Press, 1992. 800 992-6657. (Two paperback books for ages 3 to 6.)

Preston. The Temper Tantrum Book. Viking, 1969. (Humorous book for toddlers and preschoolers.)

Dealing with Anger

Beekman and Holmes. Battles, Hassles, Tantrums & Tears: Strategies for Coping with Conflict and Keeping Peace at Home. Hearst Books, 1993. (Chapter 1,3, and 11 deal with analysis and suggestions for helping children deal constructively with anger.)

Chess and Thomas. Know Your Child. Basic Books, 1987. (Landmark thirty year New York Longitudinal Study of children with specific temperamental characteristics.)

Eastman and Rozen. Taming the Dragon in Your Child: Solutions for Breaking the Cycle of Family Anger, From Toddler to Teen. John Wiley & sons, 1994. ( A little heavy on behavior mod, and I don't recommend using food as a reward, but lots of good analysis and ideas.)

Kurcinka. Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic. Harper Perennial, 1991. ( A positive approach for dealing with children who are often labeled as "difficult".)

McKay, etc. al. When Anger Hurts Your Kids: A Parent's Guide. New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1992. (Analysis of family anger problems, beliefs about anger, and coping techniques for parents.)

Samalin and Whitney. Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma. Penguin Books, 1991. (Identifies hidden sparks that generate frustration and fury in even the most well-meaning parents, offering positive alternative techniques.)


copyright Sue Dinwiddie

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