Lesia Oesterreich, M.S.
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University
Toddlers throw tantrums for many reasons – some big, some small. A square block won't fit in a round hole. Shoes feel funny, and socks don't seem to come off right. And to make matters worse, you won't let them climb on top of the kitchen table. Toddlers have tantrums because they get frustrated very easily. Most toddlers still do not talk much. They have trouble asking for things and expressing their feelings. Toddlers also have very few problem-solving skills. Tantrums are most likely to happen when toddlers are hungry, exhausted, or over-excited.
Preschoolers are less likely to throw tantrums. They have developed more coping skills and are able to communicate better. Still, when dinner is late or when things get frustrating, your preschooler may begin to behave more like a 2-year-old! Some children learn at this age that tantrums can be used to get something they want. If caregivers give in to demands, tantrums may begin to occur with greater frequency.
Older children are typically more tolerant of frustrating situations, but they too get exhausted, hungry, and irritable. Although school-agers have more problem-solving skills, they find them inadequate for the complex social situations that school presents.
Learning to get along with friends, work as part of a team, or compete in a sport requires skills that many older kids haven't fully developed yet. Kids who have limited problem-solving skills or difficulty expressing themselves with words are likely to have temper tantrums or fits of anger. Older children can learn to recognize when they are feeling upset or frustrated and learn acceptable ways to deal with their anger.
HOW TO HANDLE A TANTRUM
1. TRY TO REMAIN CALM. Shaking, spanking, or screaming at a child only tends to make the tantrum worse instead of better. Set a positive example for children by remaining in control of yourself and your emotions.
2. PAUSE BEFORE YOU ACT. Take at least thirty seconds to decide how you will handle the tantrum. Four possible ways to deal with a tantrum include:
DISTRACT – Try to get the child's attention focused on something else. If he screams when you take him away from something unsafe (like your purse), offer him something else to play with. This technique works well with toddlers.
REMOVE – Take the child to a quiet, private place to calm down. This should be a quiet “cooling down” place that is away from other children. Avoid trying to talk or reason with a screaming child. It doesn't work! Stay nearby until you see that she has calmed down. Then you can talk and return to whatever you were doing.
IGNORE – Older children will sometimes throw tantrums to get attention. Try ignoring the tantrum and going about your business as usual.
HOLD – Holding an “out of control” child calmly is sometimes necessary to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. You might also say something like: “I can see you are angry right now, and I am going to hold you until you calm down. I won't let you hurt me or anyone else.” Often this approach can be comforting to a child. Children don't like to be out of control. It scares them. An adult who is able to take charge of the situation and remain calm and in control can be very reassuring.
3. WAIT UNTIL THE CHILD CALMS DOWN – THEN TALK. It's difficult to reason with a screaming child. Insist on a “cooling down” period, and follow up with a discussion about behavior. Use this opportunity to teach the child “okay” ways to handle anger and difficult situations. With practice, preschoolers and school-agers can learn:
– how to ask for help
– when to go somewhere to “cool down”
– how to try a more successful way of doing something
– how to express feelings with words (rather than hitting, kicking, or screaming)
4. COMFORT AND REASSURE THE CHILD. Tantrums really scare most kids. Often, they are not sure why they feel so angry and feel rather shaken when it is all over. They need to know that you disapprove of their behavior, but that you still love them.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Tantrums are a normal part of growing up. All children will have them sometime or another. But if tantrums seem to be happening too often, you might want to consider the following suggestions:
- Study a child's tantrums. When and where do they seem to occur? Who is generally involved? What happens before, after, and during a tantrum? Look for patterns in behavior that can give you clues about how to avoid conditions or situations that seem to encourage tantrums.
- Set realistic limits, and help children stick to a regular routine. Predictable meal times and nap times are particularly important.
- Offer real choices. Don't ask, “Would you like to take your nap?” unless you are prepared to honor a child's choice not to nap. Instead try, “It's nap time now.”
- Choose your battles carefully. Say, “No” to things that are really important. Avoid fighting over little things.
- Give children a few minutes warning before you end an activity. Say “We are going to leave the park and go home in a few minutes” or “I wonder what we will have for a snack.” It helps children get ready for change.
- Help children not to “get in over their heads.” Children need challenging activities but not so challenging that they experience overwhelming frustration and failure.
National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the National Extension Service
Children Youth and Family Educational Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce
these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the cost of
reproduction) provided that the author and Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is
Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Oesterreich, L. (1995). Guidance and discipline. In L. Oesterreich, B. Holt, & S. Karas, Iowa family child care handbook [Pm 1541] (pp. 237-239). Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.
Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved by the author .
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