Understanding and Dealing with Your Child’s Temper Tantrums

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As a parent, few things are more unsettling than dealing with your child’s temper tantrum. From whining and crying to kicking and screaming, this upheaval of emotions is chaotic at best. Although this can be an ordinary rite of passage from the toddler years to a time when a child’s language and reasoning skills mature, that’s not always the case. Truth is, temper tantrums are most common during the ages of 1 to 3, but they can occur in older children. Regardless, most parents just pray their child never has a meltdown in public.

To better understand this toddler behavior, let’s begin with a few, simple facts:

  1. Temper tantrums can occur for a variety of reasons, but they are a sure sign of your child’s frustration with his or her surroundings. Your child may be hungry, tired, uncomfortable, or simply unhappy with what’s happening at the moment.
  1. Temper tantrums typically reach their peak during the second year of life when your child is acquiring language skills. Since toddlers have a limited vocabulary, they may have difficulty expressing themselves. This inability to communicate causes frustration, which in turn can lead to a tantrum.
  1. Toddlers are seeking independence and control over their environment. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are developmentally ready for it. The parent-child power struggle that occurs when your child doesn’t get what he wants could result in a tantrum.

Since most parents realize that toddler tantrums are a normal part of parenting, it seems appropriate to share a few strategies for dealing with these outbursts when they occur:

  • Stay calm. Easier said than done, you say? Well, maybe. But your frustration will only add fuel to the fire. If your child senses that you’re upset, he could become even more frustrated, further escalating the problem. So take a few deep breaths, and don’t lose your cool.
  • Divert your toddler’s attention. Toddlers have short attention spans, which can be easily diverted to something else. Try distracting your child with a replacement object or new activity. And if possible, move to another location where new things will capture his attention.
  • Maintain self-control. Physical tactics like spanking or hitting definitely send the wrong message. Parents need to set an example that the use of force and physical punishment is not acceptable.
  • Ignore the situation when your child simply isn’t getting his way. When your child has a tantrum because he didn’t get something he wants, ignoring his outburst may be the best approach. Stay close by to make sure your child and others are safe, but continue with your normal activities. If the tantrum happens in a public place, however, you may need to transport your child to another location until he is able to calm down.
  • Refrain from rewarding your child for this behavior. Once the tantrum has blown over, it’s okay to praise your child for regaining control, but rewarding your child will only reinforce his behavior and send the message that tantrums are effective.

Dealing with your child’s temper tantrum is certainly not fun, and it may be one of your greatest challenges as a parent. But this, too, will pass. As your child matures, the tantrums will most likely decrease. In the unlikely event that your child’s tantrums grow more persistent or increase in frequency, you should consult your child’s pediatrician.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.