Wellness Matters

Eight Ways to Handle a Child’s Temper Tantrums

March 04, 2016

Child having a temper tantrum
We’ve all been there, either as a parent or as a witness. We’ve heard the shrieks and yelling. We’ve seen the fits thrown. These are all signs of a child’s temper tantrum. It can be embarrassing and disruptive. It can make you the center of unwanted attention in a crowded public place. It can make you angry. For very young children, temper tantrums are often a response to situations they do not understand. Tantrums are a way for children with limited speech to express themselves. What can a parent do to diffuse the situation?

  • Set ground rules. Before beginning an activity or leaving for a location, let the child know what they are allowed and not allowed to do. Give prior warning before it is time to go, but when you say it is time to leave, they must leave. When you say no to a treat during a weekly shopping trip, never buy a treat during that routine trip. Stay firm. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.
  • Keep your head. When a child erupts into a tantrum, it is easy to let frustration take over and have your own mini-meltdown. If you begin to have your own tantrum, it could easily escalate the situation. Count to three, take a deep breath and then start acting. Modeling calm behavior may not help this situation, but will show the child how to remain calm when angry.
  • Sometimes a child craves your attention, regardless if it’s positive or negative. At times, however, our attention needs to be elsewhere. It may be a benefit to let the child work things out for herself. A young child doesn’t yet have the ability to reason, so if you demonstrate that a tantrum is not an effective way to get what the child wants, this behavior should quickly diminish. It can also be helpful to give the child something to do or provide an activity to hold their attention when your attention is not available.
  • Distraction is a tactic that works with many kids. If you begin to see a tantrum in the works, tell the child a joke or point out something novel for them to look at. Some parents may even do a silly dance. Try different distraction tactics to see what works for your child. It may be beneficial to keep a portable snack or small toy on hand to pull out just before a tantrum erupts
  • Sometimes the only thing that helps is a change of scenery. This may mean leaving a shopping cart in the aisle, clothes in the dressing room or a walk around a restaurant parking lot. A change of scenery can often lead to a change of behavior. You should try to return to what you were doing once the child is calm, but when all else fails, you may need to go home, where a child typically feels safe.
  • Be prepared for a tantrum when the child becomes tired, run down or overstimulated. If your child normally goes to bed at 7:00 p.m. and there is a family gathering at 7:30 p.m., prepare for potential erratic behavior. Children thrive on having a routine. When that routine is varied, they do not know what to expect, which may lead to a tantrum. Keep your child’s meal and sleep schedule in mind when making plans. Children are able to control their behavior better when they are well rested and feeling good. They often may not realize they are hungry, tired, sick or overstimulated. 
  • Every child is different, but consistent parenting is the key to keeping tantrums at a minimum. No should mean no. Try to involve any other care providers so the same tactics are used across the board for a child, no matter who is in charge.
  • Young children are still developing many of the social norms that adults take for granted. In a tense situation, try to remind yourself that this is a child with no ulterior motives. They are simply trying to get what they want by any means they can. With this in mind, each tantrum can become a teachable moment. 
If handled with a calm, firm, and consistent approach, these tantrums can be transformed into appropriate coping skills that will serve the child well when they enter school and beyond. Tantrums that are handled by giving angry reactions and inconsistent responses can turn into future defiance and conduct problems.

Appropriate techniques for managing temper tantrums focus on a combination of prevention and reaction. This combination teaches children that tantrums will not help them get their way while at the same time teaching them to express their feelings in a healthier way.

About the Author

Steven Altabet, PhD


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