I was in line at the supermarket checkout counter the other day and watched as a young child in front of me asked his mother for a candy bar. She said no, despite his pleading, and the wailing ensued. I watched, reminding myself I had to hold my tongue regardless of her response. Will she yell and tell him she’ll give him something to really cry about? Will she relent and let him have the candy bar to save herself the struggle and the embarrassment? Will she promise to give him candy when they arrive home? Or maybe she has the skills to manage this challenging situation, which we have all encountered in some fashion.
Young children may know what they want and how to ask for it. Still, they may not have the frustration tolerance, delay of gratification, self-control, or words to effectively express their disappointment when their wants or needs are being thwarted. Tantrums can also be attention-seeking or a reflection of other stressors in their environment. How can these challenging situations best be handled?
Parents should first consider prevention methods. Knowing your child’s temperament and likely triggers for tantrums can be very helpful for avoiding them. Consider these techniques:
- Establish routines to create expectations. It’s bedtime, time to put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, use the toilet…
- Use distraction at key moments—Let’s sing a song
- Provide simple choices—Do you want to wear the red or blue shirt today?
- Anticipate and set clear expectations—We’re going to the toy store to buy a gift for your friend, not you—if you stay calm and don’t yell or cry, we’ll stop at the playground on the way home
- Consider whether basic needs are being met. Ask yourself—Is she hungry, thirsty, tired, or overstimulated?
- Given a particular situation, decide whether “yes” makes more sense than “no” before the tantrum begins. Ask yourself—Is this worth the battle under the circumstances?
If the child begins to have a tantrum, here are the most effective ways to respond:
- Stay calm and use a quiet tone of voice to avoid escalating the situation
- Provide a calm, quiet, safe space, which may mean physically removing the child from the situation
- Minimize interaction, divert your attention, and wait it out
- Do not give in to the demand—rewarding a behavior makes it more likely to occur again
- Do not use bribes, as this teaches the child to misbehave to get what they want
- Do not worry about what others may think—remind yourself your child is the most important thing
Despite a parent’s best efforts, a child’s behavior may continue to be problematic. When should a parent seek professional help?
- The tantrums are increasing in frequency, intensity, and/or duration
- The child is harming themselves or others
- The child is exhibiting other behavior problems as well
- The tantrums are not decreasing by age four or so
- The parent feels emotionally out of control during these episodes
- The parent is repeatedly giving in and thereby ceding control to the child
- The behavior is leading to tensions between family members beyond the incidents themselves
If you need assistance, you may wonder how to find the best help. Consider asking your child’s pediatrician or school for a referral. Or maybe you have a friend or relative who has had similar challenges and has sought help. Professional organizations may have a referral service you can access. And remember, children typically outgrow temper tantrums as they develop the necessary cognitive, language, emotional, and social skills to deal with frustration and disappointment.
Dr. Jayne Schachter is a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience in working with children, adolescents, adults, and families. She provides cognitive-behavioral treatment through individual psychotherapy, parent counseling, and group therapy. Her areas of expertise include (but are not limited to) the evaluation and treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, behavior problems, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, effects of divorce, toileting issues, gender identity concerns, and coping with medical illness.