Tantrums are a common childhood experience, particularly if you are parenting kids ages 18 months to 4. When a child begins yelling, crying, kicking, whining and complaining that is out of proportion to an incident or situation, it can be frustrating, uncomfortable or embarrassing for parents or caregivers – especially when this behavior is displayed outside the home in front of bystanders.
Parents may feel puzzled about how to act in the heat of the moment. They may be concerned for the wellbeing of their child, or they may find it difficult to regulate their own emotions. “There really is not a way to prevent all tantrums during this period of your child’s development, but one can make an effort to decrease or do away with the behavior through consistent responding and skill building,” says L.A. psychologist Belinda Najera, Psy.D., who focuses on culturally responsive treatment delivery and has worked with children, adolescents, college students and their families since 1992.
Here are some practical guidelines:
Build consistent routines and schedules. This does not mean the child needs to follow an excessively rigid schedule. Experts suggest a flexible daily routine, a sequence of events that occurs around the same time each day so that the child knows what to expect.
Approach transitions mindfully. Tantrums and disruptive behavior often occur during the transition from one activity to another, such as leaving the park, picking up toys after playing or getting ready for bedtime. Instead of abruptly ending the activity, remind the child that the activity is about to end or change with simple statements such as, “After playing with your toys, we will pick them up together,” or, “In five minutes we will stop playing and start picking up your toys.”
Make playtime age appropriate. It is important to provide developmentally appropriate activities for your child to prevent unnecessary frustration. This is also a good time for skill building. If your child is getting frustrated playing with puzzles, you can teach new skills such as how to find and match pieces of the puzzle and how to ask for help. You can also take this opportunity to help your child identify and express emotions, and develop healthy coping skills. Your child can say, “I feel mad,” then work through his or her difficult emotions by counting to 10.
Catch your child being good. Najera notes that busy parents are often more likely to point out a child’s rule-breaking behavior than to praise behavior that is on task. But research suggests that showing attention to a behavior will reinforce and increase the behavior. Offer positive feedback when your child is playing quietly.
Be a good role model. Children learn by observing. How do you react when you are angry or under pressure? Najera suggests that when you are frustrated you can model healthy coping by announcing that you need a “cool down” or by counting to 10.
Pay attention. Sometimes tantrums may be the main way a child is getting attention. Create dedicated time for your child where you are attuned to his needs, listening actively and not distracted by the internet, phone or the mundane tasks of daily life. Plan meaningful activities and spend quality time with your children to minimize the need for negative attention.
Ignore the tantrum. When a tantrum does happen – as long as your child is not in danger – ignoring the behavior by not engaging the child, and perhaps even turning your back or looking in the opposite direction, might calm things down. “By ignoring the tantrum you are communicating to the child that you are not going to respond to them when they are having a tantrum, but that you trust that they can regulate themselves and be able to return to the prior activity once they gain composure,” says Najera. Once the child is emotionally regulated, it is important to resume the activity that resulted in a tantrum.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. This might help decrease the intensity of the tantrum. Talk out loud in simple words and mirror the child’s behavior. Once the child is calm, offer comfort and perhaps a distraction.
Give a time out. If the tantrum does not decrease, consider removing your child from the environment so he can begin regulating his frustration in a safe space. Be aware of your emotional state and proceed calmly, so that time out does not become a punishment. As soon as the child “cools off,” invite him or her back into regular social engagement.
Parents may wonder if the tantrum their child is experiencing is “normal.” Tantrums that put the child in physical danger are an immediate concern and may require help from a professional. In addition, if the parents feel the duration or the frequency of their child’s tantrums is excessive, or they find themselves unable to regulate their own emotions, it is a good idea to seek professional help. If you are considering this, as long as a tantrum does not place your child in danger, Najera suggests filming emotional outbursts or tantrums to share with the specialist.
Huma Pekcan, MA, MFTI, holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and is a registered MFTI 86843 in private practice supervised by Jaydee Tumambing Hughes MFC43060. She provides psychotherapy services to children, adolescents and adults in her private practice and runs groups about Mindful Parenting and Social Anxiety for adolescents and adults.
Editor’s Note: We suggest the new book “Jilly’s Terrible Temper Tantrums: And How She Outgrew Them” by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. which models ways to modify behavior through storytelling.