Temper Tantrums: How to Prevent Them and How to Deal With Them
Some of the most frustrating moments for parents includes having to endure their child’s temper tantrums, especially if these happen somewhere in public, like, the local supermarket. No matter how cool and collected we act on the outside, tantrums can be quite challenging and embarrassing at times. When our children lose control, even the best parents are left doubting their ability to parent.
But the truth is that temper tantrums are a very natural and normal part of every child’s development. They happen because your child has not yet developed the maturity to deal with all of their emotions. Specifically, they cannot express in words the emotions that they are feeling. Even very verbal children have a hard time expressing their emotions with words. In time, and with your guidance, they will learn how to express their feelings appropriately. Still, I feel that even as adults sometimes we feel upset and don’t quite understand why, or can’t put it into words – does that ever happen to you? I always think that if we struggle sometimes, having much more life experience and a wider vocabulary, how can we expect a two year old who is just learning to talk, experiencing emotions for the first time, growing at an incredible speed and learning about the world around them to handle it all?
We know from research that temper tantrums are not planned, they just happen, and when they happen, there is nothing you can do to stop them. Having said that, there are ways for you to anticipate them and prevent some from happening, which I will share with you here.
Why do Temper Tantrums Happen?
Temper tantrums happen when your child loses control of their emotions. Children generally have trouble controlling themselves when they feel frustrated, angry, tired, hungry or stressed in any way. Sometimes even boredom, hunger, or a nap that was too short will make them whiny. This in turn will make you feel irritated, and your negative response to your child can trigger a full-blown tantrum. Temper tantrums also happen when your child is going through a growth or developmental spurt (for example, learning to walk or read). They are more common when children reach the age of two, and sometimes also at ages five or six. This corresponds with the time your child is asserting their independence.
How to Get Good at Preventing Temper Tantrums
Some temper tantrums will happen even if you are an exemplary parent, but many can easily be prevented. To prevent tantrums, you need to work on two things:
- Provide clear and consistent discipline for your child, and a calm environment.
- Get to know your child’s cues so that you can catch it before it starts. Generally, parents today are not as connected and in tune with their children’s cues as they were before cellphones and texting entered our world. But if you look closely, you will notice when your child is getting sleepy or overly tired. You will see when they are frustrated by an activity that proves too difficult, or hungry between meals. The more you are in sync with your child’s emotional state, the more you will be able to help your child manage those emotions before they reach the level of a tantrum. It is as simple as that. Once you recognize the source of a potential tantrum, you can use some of the strategies below to ensure that your child experiences as few tantrums as humanly possible. And believe me—tantrums are as unpleasant for your child as they are for you!
By providing the right guidance, environment and understanding when your child is about to lose control you can prevent most temper tantrums from happening. My children rarely had tantrums, because I researched and put in place the same strategies I am sharing with you here today. I was the first of three siblings to have children, and my family and I are close. We always have fun together, but I have to admit, we are not a quiet group – there are always lots of laughs at family reunions, When I had my first child, I found out the hard way that some things had to change. My family and I got together about once a week to share a meal. When I had a baby, he went with me to all the parties, all the family get-togethers, and stayed until everyone went home. When he was about two years old, I remember getting together for brunch with my family, and my son starting to cry about two hours after we arrived, for two or three weeks in a row. I couldn’t understand it – he slept well, ate well, had lots of my time and the family’s time – why was he crying? I have to admit, I felt embarrassed at first, and as usual, tried to immediately solve the problem by doing what I do best – research. I realized then that since he was still napping in the afternoons, and my family reunions were so stimulating and fun for him, he didn’t want to miss out and instead didn’t nap, but after a while, as much as he wanted to partake in the fun of it all, it was too much for him. It was too loud, too stimulating, too much. All I had to do was make sure I changed the time of the family get-togethers to work around my son’s schedule and learn to make an exit before he was overtired, and voilà! No more crying! I learned that knowledge is power when raising a child, and that things are quite simple once you know what you are doing. That is why I am so passionate in sharing all that I have learned with you.
Avoiding Temper Tantrums Is As Easy As 1, 2, 3!
- Avoid crowded, busy places
If you see that your child is about to have a tantrum (or is having one) avoid crowds at all costs. If you are already somewhere with too many people or too much noise, leave as soon as you can and go somewhere quiet with as little stimulation as possible.Once you get to know your child’s sensitive times (when they are tired, hungry or frustrated) avoid taking them to crowded, loud or stimulating places during those times.
Those places are triggers when your child is feeling sensitive. You can plan your day around your child’s needs, which will avoid many temper tantrums. For example, you could go to the supermarket after your child has lunch and a nap, instead of when they feel hungry or tired.
If you see that your child is getting frustrated with an activity or a sibling, suggest a different activity before they lose control of their emotions: “You’ve been playing with your sister for a while now, and I miss you! Would you like to come for a walk with me?” or “It’s hard to put these puzzle pieces together isn’t it? Do you want to play in the water to rest your fingers for a little while? We could put bubbles in the bathtub!” Find something else attractive enough for your child to want to take a break from their current activity. Above all, don’t make your child feel like they have to do something else because they can’t handle what they are doing—children too have their pride.
- Offer choices
If your child is asking you relentlessly for something they want, and your answer is no, say it in a different way. For example: “This candy will hurt your teeth. Let’s find something you will love that is better for your health. Would you like this piece of watermelon? Or do you want to help me prepare apple slices with honey? Let’s see if we can find honey here…” and go in search of it. If it is something they do not want, and you can’t provide an option for them, use the same method: “You need to wear shoes because we are going outside. Would you like your runners or your rubber boots? Would you like me to put them on for you or do you want to put them on?”. This works because young children quickly focus on the options provided and the fact that they have a choice to make and feel less upset about what they cannot do (in this case, go barefoot on the street).
The more choices your child gets to make throughout the day, the more they feel in control and the fewer tantrums they will have. Even when your child is happy and content, make it a habit to offer choices and ask them for their opinion: “Should we go this way or that way? Which do you prefer?”. Offer them the opportunity to make decisions: “Do you want to go to the park today or to the library? Would you like to eat with a spoon or a fork? Do you want your vegetables first or your noodles?” The more your child learns to manage their life and enjoy more independence, the sooner they will be able to manage their emotions as well. Many tantrums happen because children are asserting their independence – they reach an age where they no longer want you to make all of the decisions on their behalf. Giving them the opportunity to make decisions on their own means less confrontations, and less confrontations means less tantrums.
How Your Response to a Tantrum Affects Your Child
Even if you get really good at detecting your child’s triggers, sometimes tantrums will happen anyway. Remember that your child is developing physically and emotionally at an incredibly rapid rate and this can be draining. This is one of the times your child needs you the most as a parent, to help them through it.
Yet, many parents feel like if they “let” the tantrum happen, they are spoiling their child, or reinforcing the behaviour. This is not the case. Our children need to know that no matter what, you love them, you are there to help, and they will be ok. If you ignore your child while they are having a tantrum, that is not the message you are sending. Instead, they learn that their feelings are not important, that they don’t matter (and maybe even that they themselves don’t matter unless they “behave”). If you get angry, yell at them or worse, punish them for having a tantrum, they learn that it is not ok to express their feelings, that they have to repress them.
Parents who lash back at their children and “lose it” when they have a tantrum are only teaching their child that their parents can turn on them, and this has long term consequences that are much more damaging to your child than having to put up with an embarrassing public tantrum.
What we can do as parents is make sure our children feel that their feelings are accepted by us, and not diminished or played down. Instead, help your child understand their feelings, and encourage them to express them in words instead of fits, and channel that energy constructively. This is something as parents that we do on a daily basis, from the moment our child is born, and it never ends – it constantly needs to be reinforced.
The message to your child should be clear and consistent: You will be okay; I am here for you.
When Temper Tantrums Happen Anyway
So what do you do when a tantrum is happening? That is also as easy as 1, 2, 3!
- Get down to your child’s level
Wherever your child is, get close to them at their same level. Stay calm, and don’t worry about who is around you, just be there for your child. Sit in the middle of the grocery store aisle if you must; no one that matters will care. If you can, embrace your child in a warm hug until it passes. If they don’t want to be held, just stay as close as you can and rub their back, or just stay close. Don’t crowd them. The point is to show your child that you are there for them and you empathize with them. Next, you;
- Validate and verbalize their feelings
Tantrums happen when your child is not yet able to cope with their feelings. Part of learning to cope is learning to identify what these feelings are. You can help by verbalizing what your child is feeling. Even if you are the cause of your child’s tantrum, you can still, without changing your position, empathize with your child. Here is an example of how to do this: “You are angry with me because I had to help you get dressed so we could leave on time. I know how much you like to get dressed on your own. I am sorry we did not have more time today, but we could not be late for our doctor’s appointment. I am here for you; you will be okay.”
- Wait for it to end
As difficult as it is to watch your child go through it, the best thing to do is stay close and calm until it ends. It is like waiting for the rain to stop—there is no point in encouraging it to stop sooner —it will stop when it stops. If you are calm, and if you are there for your child, you will see that soon your child will feel calmer and the temper tantrum will end. Once it does, you do not need to talk about it unless your child brings it up. Definitely do not make your child feel bad for having a tantrum. Avoid talking with your spouse or someone else about what you “had to go through” in front of your child, as it can unnecessarily affect your bond with your child. At a different time, when your child is calm and rested, you can show them different ways of expressing themselves when they feel upset.
It takes time to teach your child how to handle their own feelings, but in doing so, you teach them that their feelings are important, that they are free to express them, and that you trust them to handle their feelings. They will also learn that they can count on you for guidance and mentorship when they don’t know how to handle their feelings.
Of all the things we go through with our children, tantrums are by far the least pleasant to endure. With these tools, you will ensure that the tantrums are as few and as mild as possible. Let me know how it goes!