“I want it NOW!!!” (Tips for taming tantrums)

Temper tantrums. They all have them. We all dread them. We dread them when we are out in public and, if we’re being honest, we dread them at home.

Children between the ages of 1-3 are prone to temper tantrums, often in response to frustration and due to limited verbal abilities. They can usually understand a lot more than they can actually communicate at this age. Some kids will become physical (kicking, hitting, or biting) during a tantrum, and some will even hold their breath until they turn blue (I’m grateful that I haven’t experienced this one first hand). Here’s what we know for certain: They won’t listen to reason under these circumstances, and yelling at them will only make the situation worse. They are not doing it to be manipulative, they just haven’t quite figured out a better way to handle this flood of emotions. All of this can be exhausting (and frustrating) for the parent, but there are ways we can try to help. Below are some tips to help you tame the temper tantrums.

1. Stay calm: As difficult as this sounds, especially when people are staring at you and sometimes even dispensing useless advice and stories, the most important thing you can do is stay calm. Yelling, throwing a bunch of stuff at your child (not literally throwing, but handing out snacks, water, toys, etc.), or muttering negative thoughts won’t help your child calm down. They pick up on stress quickly, and your stress increases theirs. Try to find a way to check out. When they’re in it, they’re in it. Try to acknowledge their feelings.
2. Stay close: Believe me when I say that I understand, sometimes you just want to walk away (especially when it’s happening at home!). But they aren’t doing this to be manipulative. They truly don’t know what else to do. Walking away can cause feelings of abandonment and leave your child feeling scared and lonely. While you are likely to feel frustrated or overwhelmed by the situation, children often feel scared by this sudden rush of emotions. They don’t understand it and they don’t know how to cope. Try to hold your child gently or rub his/her back until it passes.
3. Find a safe place: If you have a child who lashes out at others during a tantrum (this is still normal, but it can become dangerous for other kids) by hitting, kicking (others, not the floor), or biting, take him/her to a safe place (like a bedroom). The last thing you want is for your child to get hurt, or for him/her to accidentally hurt someone else. If you are on the go, get your child to the car or somewhere less populated as soon as possible. Your first priority should be safety.
4. Ignore onlookers: They are everywhere. Those people who stare and judge, sometimes in silence but often out loud. Either they don’t know or they choose to forget what you’re going through. Feeling judged can cause you to feel more stressed about diffusing the situation quickly. It won’t end until your child ends it, so hang in there and remember that you are doing the best you can. Or smile and say something like, “I’m sure you remember these days!” I find that sometimes causes people to run the other way faster!
5. Teach feelings: I know, it’s all I talk about! So many kids get through elementary school without really being able to decipher what they are actually feeling. We teach baby sign language to help our little ones learn to communicate, but often we leave out the feelings. Feelings are a constant part of the day. Label it for them when they’re happy, sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, etc. Get a feelings chart for your kitchen and help them learn to attach faces to emotions (you probably use emoticons on your smart phone, why not use a feelings chart for your kids?). Books: “Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods that Make My Day” by Jamie Lee Curtis is an excellent resource for talking about feelings, and “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss helps children associate feelings with colors.
6. Talk it over: Once your child is calm, have a very brief chat about what happened. Label the feeling (“Liam, it sounds like you felt frustrated that you couldn’t sit in that blue chair”) and provide an alternative (“let’s give the other blue chair a try until that one is free”). No lengthy discussion needed, just a quick recap and a good, long hug. Reassure them that you love them and will always keep them safe. Your child will probably feel tired and hungry post tantrum, so be sure to offer water and a snack.
7. Think about causes: It’s the little things that seem to send kids over the edge, but the underlying causes are the real culprit. Most tantrums result from hunger, fatigue, boredom, changes in routine, illness, or over-stimulation. An old friend has been weathering a series of tantrums with her two year old since he recovered from an illness. When kids get sick their normal routine often shifts. They also tend to eat a lot less. When they return to “normal” they have to play catch up with eating and get back on a regular schedule (which might include mommy and daddy returning to a normal work schedule). Pay attention to hunger, fatigue, and changes in routine. If your child is under three and having 3-4 long (45 minutes) tantrums daily, check with your pediatrician. Or just check if you’re unsure, they are there to help guide you along the way.
8. Prevention: Tantrums will happen, but you can try to prevent a few meltdowns by staying on top of the main causes. Always remember snacks and water when you leave the house.  Make sure your child is getting enough exercise. If he/she is always in a stroller, it’s not enough exercise! Try to stick to a routine for eating and sleeping. Especially for naps. Toddlers and preschoolers need their rest, they work hard all day! If they had a rough night for whatever reason, cancel the play date. Setting your child up for failure is no fun for anyone. Book: “When Sophie Gets Angry- Really, Really Angry…” by Molly Bang is a wonderful story about coping with frustration. It helps kids to know that they are not alone in their feelings.

Temper tantrums come and go and cause a lot of frustration along the way. The good news is that by the time your child is 3-4 years old, tantrums will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, hold on tight and stay calm…and know that you’re not alone.

 

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls” (Penguin Random House, 2018)

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