Just about everyone knows that temper tantrums are normal and that even the most mild-mannered and reasonable young children occasionally lose their cool. But that’s cold comfort when it’s your kid who is the one throwing a fit and screaming at the top of his lungs, sometimes for the world to see.
It certainly doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, or that you did anything wrong. Tantrums happen because young children haven’t yet developed the skills to handle feelings like anger and frustration. So instead of talking to you about it, they whine, cry, hold their breath, kick and scream, or anything else that just comes naturally. (And loudly.)
Tips for parents
When confronted with a tantrum, it can be a high-stakes game. How you handle it can affect not only the current situation but also how kids deal with disappointment in the future. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help:
- DO stay calm. Children learn by example, so if you stay calm, your child is more likely to do the same.
- DON’T give in. If your child sees that throwing a fit led to him getting his way, get ready for tantrums to become a regular occurrence. Giving in would just reward the behavior.
- DO distract. Young children have a short attention span, so if you can get them to focus on something else, they might soon forget why they were so upset in the first place.
- DON’T go beyond your child’s limits. If you know your child is tired or will get bored soon, it’s not a good time to take them shopping, or to a restaurant or movie. It also can be a bad idea to give kids a toy that is too advanced for them, since they could get frustrated when they don’t understand why they can’t get it to work.
- DO stick to a routine. Some tantrums are more a product of your child being hungry or tired, so try to have your child eat and nap at the same time each day.
- DON’T overreact. Try to understand why your child is frustrated. This will help get everybody through the tantrum and teach your child better ways to handle difficult feelings.
- DO set expectations. Talk to your child about how they need to behave when you take them to a public place like a store or restaurant.
- DON’T bribe your child. You’ll probably get some unwelcome looks from strangers, but many people have been through the same thing. They know that your child’s tantrum does not mean that you are a bad parent. Bribing is the same as giving in.
- DO teach better ways. Encourage your child to use words to describe their feelings. Give your child ideas for what to do instead of having a tantrum, and make sure they know that tantrums just won’t work. And keep in mind that giving rewards for good behavior works better than punishing bad behavior.
Just as individual tantrums can stop as quickly as they start, it’s likely your child will stop having tantrums altogether as they get older. If you feel they’re becoming a serious problem — if your child is physically hurting himself or others — or if you just feel that nothing is working, talk to your pediatrician.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has primary care offices throughout southeast Wisconsin, including Delafield Pediatrics and Pewaukee Pediatrics. Find a pediatrician near you.
Learn more about Renee Szafir, MD.