Tantrums happen….with all kids! A major focus of my job is to eliminate problem behaviors, yet I still cannot escape this stage of my own child’s development. It’s a part of growing up and learning. Recently we have been dealing with tantrum behaviors during drop-off at daycare in the morning. The screaming, refusal, flailing feet and arms, crying…it’s a mess! We are seeing it all. So, what’s a Mom to do? Keep calm and carry on! Really. That’s what you have to do. I pick him up, give him a kiss on his forehead, tell him to have an amazing day, and hand him over. When dealing with tantrum behaviors, it is honestly more important to focus on what NOT to do. You do not want to reinforce this behavior. If you reinforce it, you will end up making it occur more often, last longer, and become more intense. If you go down the road of coddling, negotiating, giving hugs and kisses, etc. you are heading down a slippery slope that will include a lot more tantrums and headaches. In this article, I will explain how to keep calm and carry on and decrease tantrums all together!
So, first let's touch on why tantrums happen. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics tantrums usually begin around 12 to 18 months of age, then increase between the ages of 2 and 3, and begin to fade after that. A big contributing factor to this is that the part of their brain that controls logic, emotions, and reasoning is not fully developed. Toddlers do not have the coping skills to deal with those big emotions that they are feeling. You have to remember, coping skills do not come naturally. These skills are learned and built through lots and lots of practice. At this age, children are trying hard to be independent and do everything themselves, but get extremely frustrated when things are not quite aligning with that goal. Their language is also still developing, so many times they cannot accurately express their wants, needs, or feelings. This results in them getting even more frustrated! Not getting what they want, avoiding something they don’t want, being frustrated, being hungry, being tired - all these feelings are possible tantrum triggers. And remember, many times a tantrum will be completely disproportionate to the circumstance that triggered it.
Now that you know the possible causes, what do you do when you see a tantrum coming? Often you’ll see the warning signs building. It can start with whining, maybe some foot stomping, crossing the arms, the lip comes out, etc. When you see this, take the time to get down to your child’s level, look them in the eye and talk to them. These are precursor behaviors that tell you that your child needs help. Use this time as a teachable moment, because once you cross the threshold into the dreaded tantrum you lose that opportunity. But that does not mean giving in to them - remember that we don’t want to reinforce the tantrum (or tantrum precursor) behavior. It means validating their feelings, talking to them, and helping them to cope with the current situation. Now, sometimes this will work…other times they go over the edge and it is time for you to switch gears.
When you get to a full blown tantrum, one of the most important things to do is stay calm. You need to focus on putting yourself in the correct mindset to deal with the situation with a calm demeanor and neutral attitude. Tantrum behaviors should not be rewarded with your attention. You do not want to feed into the tantrum by raising your voice or getting angry. That creates a lose-lose situation for everyone. Instead, take a deep breath, remember that it’s going to be okay, and power through it.
Now you’re calm and neutral, while your child is throwing themselves on the floor, screaming, and crying…what next? Turn your attention away from the situation and go about your business. Yes, even if you have a screaming toddler clutching to your leg while you are doing it. Wash the dishes, check the laundry, pay some bills - anything to divert your attention away from the current situation. However, it's important to make sure you are still keeping a covert eye on your child. There are times where our children will up the ante as they continue to not get the type of attention and reinforcement that they are seeking, so be sure to still monitor the situation so that they stay safe and that your house stays intact. If their tantrum escalates to the point that their behaviors become too severe to ignore, simply tell your child that “This behavior is not okay. You are in time-out until you are calm”. Then remove them to a safe area for a time-out. Your wording can vary according to the situation, but your overall demeanor cannot! Remain neutral. Remain calm. As for the time-out area, it should be a quiet and solitary environment free from toys and fun activities, but that you can also monitor for safety. And then you wait…and wait.
When your child stops and displays ANY appropriate behavior (discontinuation of screaming, saying they are sorry, etc.) you should immediately acknowledge the positive step and reinforce it with specific praise. Tell them what they are doing correctly (“That is a great job calming down!”). This is where you start turning everything back on. Be empathetic and caring. If they revert back to the tantrum behaviors, turn that positive attitude back off and go back to neutral. This will happen, and that’s okay! When they are appropriate again, give them specific praise and empathize with them. Talk about why they are sad/mad/angry/etc. Label those feelings for them and talk about how they can cope with them. Teach them what they can do differently in the future. This is the time where we are back to the point of being able to learn from the experience (they will not learn anything in the midst of a tantrum). This is your teachable moment, so use it to help teach them to deal with similar situations in the future. This should not be a long discussion - just a minute or two - then you move on and put the tantrum behind both of you.
Though tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, when you have a child who is having them frequently (more than once or twice a day) it’s most likely because somewhere along the line this behavior has been strengthened with reinforcement. They have learned at some point that tantrum behavior can get them what they want. But I must warn you; if you have a history of giving in to your child, and are now at your wits’ end with tantrums, get ready for a wild ride! You may be ready to put in the work to eliminate these behaviors, but they’re likely to get worse when you put the brakes on giving them what they want. But that is expected and okay. There is actually a clinical term for this: “Extinction Burst”. Your child needs to learn that this behavior does not accomplish anything. But you need to be prepared and ready to stay the course. Do not give in, because your child is probably going to hold out for quite some time. Do not feel like a bad parent or feel like you are being mean. This is something that your child has to learn to be successful in life. Tantrums are not okay, but it is not our job to avoid or stop a tantrum. It is our job as parents to help our children learn more appropriate skills to regulate their emotions and to cope with disappointment in a healthy way.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, your child should have fewer tantrums by the age 3½. However, if you feel like the tantrums are not decreasing or that they are more severe than is developmentally appropriate, it may be a sign that there are other underlying concerns such as emotional or developmental delays. Make sure to talk to your doctor about any concerns that you have, and the earlier the better. Research has shown that intervention is more effective when it is provided earlier in life rather than later. So do not wait on addressing this. Some red flags that should be brought to your doctors attention are if your child seems to have difficulty expressing himself with words compared with other children that are the same age, if your child causes harm to himself or others, holds his breath and faints during tantrums, or if tantrums get worse after age 4. Your doctor will guide you to determine the next steps of intervention that are needed to help and towards professionals that can assist.