Lea Ray, LCSW
Helping your child handle big feelings: Part 2: Temper tantrums
The temper tantrum iss one of the earliest and most powerful expressions of a child’s big feelings. Tantrums are also one of the most stressful aspects of the toddler years for parents.
Initially, tantrums are simply the way toddlers know to express their intense frustration, anger, or sadness. This emotion is often caused by a toddler not being able to do something he wants to do, or being told he cannot have something he really wants. Toddlers are experiencing big feelings for the first time, and they genuinely don’t know what to do with them. They also may not have the language to verbally express how they feel. Tantrums are more likely to happen when a toddler is tired, hungry, or already upset about something else. The problem is, tantrums can get a big reaction from parents, possibly leading to children learning to use tantrums to their advantage.
Strict parents might react with horror at their child’s bad behavior, and yell at a child or even hit her. This may well stop the tantrum, but may cause a child to become fearful or to suppress her emotions. On the other hand, some children may enjoy getting a reaction out of their parents and continue to throw tantrums just to see what else their parents are going to do.
Lenient parents may be upset to see their child so distressed, and give him the thing he wanted. This is a very natural reaction, but children quickly realize that their parents will give them what they want if they throw a tantrum. What begins as a genuine overflow of emotion over time becomes a calculated tactic. Children don’t do this because they are conniving and bad. They are resourceful, and from their point of view there is nothing wrong with using a winning strategy to get something they desperately want. However, in the long run giving in to tantrums is not only exhausting for parents, but it erodes a child’s sense of safety and security. (Children need to know that their parents are in charge to feel safe – see my earlier post on handling child behavior problems).
There are two philosophies (that I am aware of) among experts on how to handle tantrums. According to one philosophy, you should comfort a child when they are throwing a tantrum, because they are genuinely distressed and comfort is what they need. I align most closely with this philosophy. As long as you do not give in to the demands of a child in the middle of a meltdown, I think it is almost always appropriate to comfort a child. I also find this approach to be especially helpful when you know or strongly suspect that your child is genuinely overwhelmed with distress or frustration. In that case, they may truly need their parent to help them calm down. For example, a child who is screaming and crying because they are trying to learn a new skill and can’t get it right, is not really working an angle with their parents. Comfort can take the form of hugs, acknowledgement of feelings -- “I know you really wanted to get that toy,” or soothing words – “I’m here. I love you.”
If tantrums are happening frequently, it is also a good idea to evaluate whether your child needs you to set more realistic expectations and give her more support. Is that new toy actually too difficult for her age? Or have you been pushing her into learning new skills because your friend’s preschooler already knows how to conjugate verbs in Spanish and play the cello? Kids do need to stretch and grow, but it can be easy to overdo it. If this is your case, put aside that toy for a while, and drop the French flashcards. You might be amazed at the difference in your child’s behavior.
According to the second philosophy, tantrums are essentially an attention-seeking behavior and a parent should ignore a child who is having a tantrum. The parent should avoid looking at or responding to the child until she calms down. Hugs and comfort may reinforce the tantrum and make it last longer. In general, this is not my philosophical approach; however, I have seen parents successfully use this strategy with their children, and it has the backing of many child psychologists. As long as you show plenty of love and affection during the calm times, your child will not be harmed by a lack of attention during a tantrum. I think this approach can be particularly helpful if you know or strongly suspect that your child uses tantrums as a deliberate strategy to get you to change your mind, and you are trying to change your pattern of giving in to tantrums. In that case, offering comfort may well prolong the tantrum, because your child will think that comfort and sympathy might be a precursor to changing your mind. Also, in that case, your child is not distressed in the same way – he probably genuinely does desperately want the thing he is howling about, but he is not truly flooded with an overwhelming emotion that he can’t handle.
A middle ground might be to offer comfort and acknowledge the feeling once, then say, “I’m not going to talk about this again.” Then proceed to ignore your child completely. A word of caution about ignoring – if you try to ignore a tantrum, but eventually you give in, you will accidentally teach your child to keep that tantrum going and try to outlast you. If you think it would be hard for you to ignore a tantrum, then either think about how to make it easier for yourself (can you go into another room?) or go with the comforting strategy instead.
Whichever of the above approaches you decide on for managing tantrums, you must not give in when your child throws a tantrum because you told her “no.” I know this can be very hard! There were many times when I said “no” to a given activity, but when my daughter began to scream and cry, I thought, “Well, actually it wouldn’t be so hard to fit that in. I didn’t realize it was that important to her.” But I knew if I changed my position, my daughter would learn that the tantrum had worked! She would not understand the nuances of my thought process. Fortunately, because I did not give in to tantrums, as painful as that was for everyone, both my daughters stopped throwing tantrums soon after age two. Now that they are older, they can use their words to explain why a given activity is so important to them, and negotiate to convince me to change my position! Of course, kids can become expert negotiators and sometimes that has to be curbed too!
Also, whichever approach you use, if a tantrum escalates to hitting, kicking, or throwing things, it is a good idea to tell your child it is not ok to hit and put her in her room until she calms down.
What about a tantrum in public, you may ask? Many a parent has bought their child a toy just to stop the embarrassing howls and the stares from other shoppers. If you can, stand firm and hang in there! Some people will judge, but others have been through it with their own kids and will be very sympathetic. You might consider taking your child to the car until they calm down, so they can yell and kick where judgmental passersby won’t see them. You do have to stay with your child in the car if you choose to do this. If it’s an option, you might avoid taking your child to the store while you are working on tantrums.
Here is a good article (with more tips, including on preventing tantrums in the first place.