North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service

Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are most apt to happen to children between ages 2 and 6, generally peaking at 2 or 3. Children this age demand independence from the parent or caregiver, are too immature to figure out another way to get what they want and have more determination than self-control.

Or children may:

Prevention Preferred Whenever Possible

Offer children choices.

Would you like to wear your sweater or your jacket?

Would you like to put on your boots first or your cap?

This gives children power and control over something they can control and still gets them ready to do what you want. Only give two positive choices. Allow a third if it's acceptable. Offer two equally agreeable choices and deem either "a great choice!" Physically or verbally help children carry through with the choice if necessary.

I see you're wearing your coat. Fine choice. Would you like me to zip it, or would you like to work on that?

Change the environment to suit the child. Instead of taking the child out for a walk on the sidewalk where the excitement of a busy street may be tempting, go to the park, the woods or an open field where he can roam with you, away from danger. Don't visit china shops or keep treasured items where small children can see them. Putting the no-no's away for a few years will save many tears, screams and treasures.

Some children function fine in groups; others fall apart. Children are more likely to have a tantrum if they are ill, tired or hungry. If your child is prone to regular tantrums, observe when and how often these occur. What events led up to the tantrum? Try to fix some of the possible causes before "meltdown."

Teach children, even very young children, how to negotiate, problem solve and use words instead of actions to get what they want. A child may trade a toy with another child, learn to choose another toy while she waits for a turn or ask the other child for a turn when she is finished with the toy.

Help all children learn that others have needs too, and everyone has to wait sometimes. Teach children to say "no" and "mine" so that other children aren't taking away things the child is playing with. Learning not to be a victim and not to bully others are important lessons.

Give children words for their feelings and choices for their actions. If a child is angry because a favorite person left, you might offer:

You're sad now because your mommy left for work. You could wave good-bye through the window, or I could hold you and read a story to you. What would you like to do?

When It Happens Anyway

Tantrums happen at some of the most inconvenient times. That's no coincidence. When parents or care-givers are busy, preoccupied and stressed, children have tantrums to demand that their needs be met too.

Discipline means "to teach," and the middle of a noisy, screaming, kicking, hitting tantrum is no time to teach. Children, like adults, need time to blow off steam or cool down before looking at new options. Besides, it's important that the adult stays calm and quiet so the child is able to see that one person's strong emotions don't have to upset another.

At Home

Be sure the child is safe and away from dangerous objects. Offer to hold the child if that seems most useful to both of you. Reassure the child that you will be nearby if she needs you, then sit or work quietly nearby. When the child asks for help to calm down, help her. If the child needs comforting after the tantrum, be there for her. When the child is through with the tantrum, talk about what to do next time instead of the tantrum. Expect many more episodes and opportunities to help the child learn this important lesson.

Out in Public

If the outing isn't appropriate for children, find quality child care and go without the child.

If you do take the child, be prepared with entertainment, food and a change of clothing. Also be prepared to go home if the event is making everyone miserable.

If a tantrum occurs, apply the same techniques as listed for "at home." If you embarrass easily or the child is tantruming for attention, find a quiet corner or restroom where you can help the child finish the tantrum.

At Child Care

Separation is difficult for young children. Temper tantrums are witnessed daily by caregivers as parents attempt to leave for the day and again at pick-up time.

Work with the caregiver to help make these transitions smoother. If the child can see his favorite toy or activity is available when he walks in the door, he will feel invited. Parents must always say good-bye. Don't prolong it and don't sneak out. Caregivers need to recognize that it's sad to see a parent go, to allow some time for the grief reactions each day and to help children who need help engaging in a new activity. Parents and caregivers should discuss how a tantrum is to be handled.

Caregivers can pack up the child's belongings at the end of each day so that parents can pay attention to the child and not her possessions. Providing activities that parents can join in for a few minutes at the end of the day can also help those children who have a difficult time leaving a situation.

Recognize tantrums as part of normal development, leave a number where you can be reached and phone the caregiver when you reach your destination to be sure the child has calmed down. Then, stop worrying and enjoy your day.

This newsletter is published for North Dakota families with preschoolers by the NDSU Extension Service and distributed through your county extension office. See your extension agent for more parenting information and other home economics programs.

Parenting Preschoolers, Issue No. 12

NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
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North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service