Parents understand that it can happen in just seconds. That happy, sunny toddler seems to hit a wall and morphs into an absolute terror; crying, screaming, kicking, hitting and perhaps holding their breath. What happened and why? How do you help your child regain control? How can you prevent future temper tantrums?
Dr. Hassan Alzein of Alzein Pediatrics in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn Illinois has seen hundreds of tantrums. “They happen all the time,” says Dr. Alzein, “in our own children and in our patients. When your child starts a tantrum, it’s time for parents to take a big breath themselves and relax. Keep in mind several guidelines for help in handling, soothing and preventing temper tantrums.”
Temper tantrums are a normal part of development.
Both boys and girls, usually between the ages of 1 and 3 years, get tantrums. Dr. Alzein says, “Tantrums are a normal way of dealing with frustration before your child has developed the skills to work through that feeling.”
Why do temper tantrums happen?
Dr. Alzein recommends parents keep their eyes and ears open. “When you make a note of what’s going on just before your child’s tantrum, you’ll see that they mostly occur when your toddler is tired, uncomfortable or hungry,” he says. A tantrum can also happen because your child wants to assert their independence or have control of the situation. Because toddlers lack mature communication skills, they are unable to convey what they want or need – and they get very frustrated about it, resulting in whining, “falling out”, screaming and other troubling and sometimes embarrassing behaviors.
How can a tantrum be stopped or shortened?
First, stay calm and remind yourself that your behavior is the most important model for your child. Dr. Alzein says, “Take a big deep breath and analyze why the tantrum is happening. Is your child hungry? Give them a healthy snack. Is it past nap time? Get your child into their quiet sleeping place and focus on helping your child fall asleep. Is there just too much stimulation in the present environment? Remove your child from the store, playgroup or activity to give them time to reset. If you’re at home, take your child outside for a moment.”
If your child is in a public place, or a space where he can hurt himself, remove them to a private and safe space.
Hug your child closely, rub their back and encourage them to take deep breaths to help calm himself. Dr. Alzein notes, “Temper tantrums can be extremely frustrated for adults too. Never attempt to hug your child if you are afraid you may do physical harm out of your own emotions.”
What about when my child is demanding something they are not supposed to have?
“This is a huge struggle in parenting, because we all just want the tantrum to stop,” says Dr. Alzein. “When your child is having a tantrum because they are trying to manipulate you into saying “yes” when you’ve already said “no” or if their demands are unreasonable or unsafe, such as pleading for a new toy, a treat at an inappropriate time or because it’s time to pick up their toys, ignore the tantrum and do not – under any circumstances – give in.” Dr. Alzein says that giving in when your toddler is throwing a hissy fit to manipulate you confirms that tantrums work. “And we do not want tantrums to work – because then your child will throw them again and again and again. Don’t hesitate to explain to your child that this behavior is unacceptable and there is no way they are getting what they demanded now. Move on to a new activity quickly, engaging your child in a favorite book or game.”
How can tantrums be prevented?
When parents pay attention to and identify the triggers of their children’s tantrums, they can be proactive about avoiding volatile situations:
- If you have a long day of errands, pack plenty of healthy snacks and toys and be sure to carve out time to get home for regular naptime.
- Shower your toddler with compliments and tell them how wonderfully they are behaving when in a stressful situation. Positive reinforcement of good behavior goes a long way.
- In your home, keep tempting items that are off-limits to your child up high and out of sight.
- Avoid sections of stores with off-limit items, like toy and junk food aisles.
- Have your child help you whenever possible – sorting laundry, prepping food, sweeping the floor, or even “reading” you a book or telling you a story. When children are engaged, involved and learning, they are happier and their emotions are more balanced.
- Watch your child carefully for pre-tantrum behaviors and change the environment immediately.
When should parents be concerned?
While tantrums are a normal part of childhood, sometimes there may be underlying issues, such as learning disabilities or hearing or vision challenges. Dr. Alzein says, “It’s time to call your pediatrician when your child’s tantrums include behavior that can cause harm, either to themselves or those around them.”
Parents should also call their pediatrician’s office when:
- Tantrums are becoming more frequent, more intense or are unable to be soothed.
- Even when your toddler is not in a tantrum, they are rarely cooperative and regularly seem to be unhappy, disagreeable or manipulative.
- If parents feel out of control or give in when tantrums happen.
Fortunately, says Dr. Alzein, “most children outgrow tantrums by the time they turn 4. Their verbal skills improve and they now are able to communicate their needs clearly. Most importantly, your careful handling has shown them tantrums are ineffective.”