By Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman
How to handle your child’s temper tantrums is a question that never seems to lose its popularity. The good news is, you’re not alone. In fact, temper tantrums are a normal part of the development process. Like most child-rearing practices, handling temper tantrums is a matter of trial and error. They can happen for many different reasons and at different ages. Although it may feel as though your child has a master plan to embarrass you, this is likely not the case. It is important to remember that from a neuro-cognitive standpoint, toddlers have not developed the more sophisticated areas of their brain that warrant higher order thinking and reasoning processes. Rather, they are functioning on a more “cause and effect” level.
To complicate matters, although they are in the process of developing language, they still struggle in expressing their feelings and emotions. For example, rather than asking mom why the square block won’t fit into the round hole, a toddler (whose brain is still developing) may become frustrated and hit or throw the toy. However, nevertheless, toddlers can be quite perceptive and can catch on quickly as to what works and what does not work; remember, they are active learners in their environment.
In an effort to understand this “cause and effect” relationship, let’s consider the familiar case of little “Bobby” who is kicking and screaming in the grocery store because he spots a piece of candy. After repeated attempts to calm the child, it only appears to be getting worse. Due to shear embarrassment, mom reluctantly buys it, stating to the child that this is the last time. In this situation, “Bobby” is not aware that he is embarrassing mom or that candy is bad for him. Rather, he simply thinks kicking and screaming with getting a desirable response from mommy.
Another common pitfall is the case where parents believe they are doing the right thing by not “giving in” to their child when they are having a tantrum. Instead, they choose to yell or raise their voices out of mere frustration. One would think that a negative reaction from mom or dad would eliminate the behavior. However, despite its negative tone, the child is still getting some sort of reaction from you, which is serving as a reinforcer to their behavior. Not “giving in” is good, but don’t spoil it by unnecessary yelling. In fact, the latter situation may in fact exacerbate the tantrums because it is likely agitating your toddler even more.
So, why do toddler’s have tantrums? Well, for a variety of reasons. As I mentioned before, children at this age are still developing from both a cognitive and emotional perspective. Therefore, tantrums are most likely to happen when toddlers are hungry, fatigue or over-stimulated. Or, perhaps, your child has linked such “bad” behavior with getting what they want from mom or dad. Although there is no magic solution, parents can take steps toward preventing and/or reducing the frequency of tantrums and hopefully, end them altogether.
Go to the next page for tips on how to prevent toddler tantrums…
It will take some investigation on your part to prevent a tantrum from occurring or re-occurring. Start by asking yourself some questions such as: When do tantrums occur? Where do tantrums happen? Who is generally included? What happens before, after, and during a tantrum?
REINFORCE GOOD BEHAVIOR:
Acknowledge when your child is doing something good like sharing or listening to directions.
KNOWING WHEN IT’S OK TO GIVE CHOICES:
Although there is some debate on whether or not a child should be given choices, when appropriate, it can be a useful tool. Situations or things that may be harmful are non-negotiable. Further, do not ask children to do something when they really have no choice in the matter. Rather, tell them what they must do. So, for example, do not ask, “Would you like to take a bath now?” Say, “It’s bath time now.” Giving them control over little things is ok though (“Do you want to wear the white shirt or yellow shirt?”). Doing so will give your child a sense of control and is likely to eliminate power struggles later on.
BE CONSISTENT & INFORMATIVE:
Make sure to establish a daily routine so that your child can be prepared and know what to expect. Sticking to a routine is especially important for things like napping, bedtime, and dinnertime. Further, talk to your child about what you have planned for the day and what they can expect. Also, cue the child before you reach the end of an activity. Give them ample time to prepare for the transition.
Avoid boredom. If you have a long day planned with your toddler, make sure to pack your child’s favorite toys, snacks, etc. Since they are likely to get tired toward the end of the day, get things done earlier on.
If you feel a temper tantrum coming on, try to distract your child. If possible, change environments or redirect them to another activity.
Teach your child how to make a request without a temper tantrum and then follow through with the request. Say, “Try asking for the toy nicely, and I will get it for you.”
REINFORCE THE USE OF WORDS:
Receptive language develops before expressive language. Just think of when you took a foreign language class in high school—you probably understood a lot more than you could actually articulate. So, in the same way, your toddler understands a lot more than they’re able to express. Because of this, try using the following tips when communicating with them:
Echoing: When your child says a word, correctly repeat the word back to him or her.
Restate: Restate what your child says in a different way. For instance, if your child uses the word “milk” and points to the refrigerator, add the word into a complete sentence like, “You would like to drink some milk.”
Add-On’s: Use other descriptive words to add to the words your child uses. If your child says, “The dog,” then you should say, “The dog has black and white spots and long hair.”
Identifying/Labeling: Whenever your child is exposed to new things, name the object out loud repeatedly.
Reading to your children: Research suggests that children who are read to have an easier time obtaining language acquisition skills like speaking, reading, writing. Have them become an integral part of the process by picking out the book, turning the pages, and asking them to tell you what the story was about.
There are also a number of intervention methods in dealing with a temper tantrum. Go to the next page for quick intervention tips.
Try to stay calm.
Count to ten and BREATHE. Spanking, yelling, or becoming agitated will likely make matters worse. Remember, your child is learning from you—set a good example. If you remain in control of your emotions, your child will pick up on this. In contrast, your child will also do the same if your reaction is a negative one. They are sponges and are constantly learning, so show them how to be in control.
Try to distract the child or ignore them.
Older children, especially, may throw a tantrum to get attention. Assuming they are not going to hurt themselves, go about your business as usual.
If possible, remove the child from the environment in which he/she is having a tantrum.
If in a public place, this may mean sitting outside with the child for a few minutes. If it continues to escalate, tell the child that they have a choice to either go home or calm down. Make sure to follow through with what you say your going to do. If you say “That’s it, we are going home” and don’t actually do it, you have just lost your credibility. If in school or at home, you may find it useful to use a warning system (such as warning the child up to three times and reminding them of the rules each time). If they fail to comply, then they are given a time out. However, time-outs should not be too long. A good rule of thumb is 1 minute per each year of the child’s age.
You may have to hold a child who is clearly going to hurt themselves or others.
However, make sure to tell the child what is going on by saying, “I will let go when you calm down.” Although you may be at your wits end, reassure your child it will be ok. It’s ok to show affection during these moments, such as hugging your child if they are crying because they want something. Make sure to tell them that you will love them no matter what, but that their behavior has to change. They need to know that you do not approve of their behavior, but that you still love them. Be empathetic but don’t give in.
Avoid trying to talk or reason with a screaming child.
It never works! Talk with the child after he/she has calmed down. Talk about the frustration the child has experienced, be empathetic, and try to help solve the problem if possible. This is a good place to start teaching the child how to ask for things to avoid such situations.
Remember, temper tantrums are common in both boys and girls, especially between the ages of 1-4, and sometimes they can occur up to one or more per week. Although they may occur less frequently, tantrums may continue to surface during the pre-school and school aged years; again, likely for different reasons.
However, if despite these (or other) interventions, the tantrums are increasing in frequency, intensity, or duration, consult your pediatrician. You should also be on the lookout for any injurious behavior toward self or others, changes in personality, or any other “out of the norm” behaviors. When in doubt—get it checked out. It might be the case that your child is exhibiting the signs of a more severe condition that may be contributing to your child’s increasing temper tantrums. Your pediatrician can direct you to a mental health professional who can be of further assistance.
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About Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman:
Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman is a licensed psychologist in the state of New Jersey and New York. She completed her residency training at New York University Langone Medical Center-The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, which is an accredited program by the American Psychological Association. Thereafter, she completed a two-year fellowship specializing in Pediatric/Adult Neurospychology. Dr. Grafman’s education and training is unique in that it has afforded her the opportunity to serve children, adolescents, young adults, and families at the individual and group therapy level, as well as providing psycho-educational and neuropsychological assessment. Dr. Grafman currently maintains a private practice in Ridgewood and Closter, New Jersey. If you would like to discuss the contents of the articles on this site or have questions about services, you can contact Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman directly at the Center for Neuropsychology & Psychotherapy, LLC in Ridgewood & Closter, New Jersey at (201) 252-2528 or www.neuropsychandtherapy.com
-Berger, K. S. (2001). The developing person through the lifespan: Fifth Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.
-Jongsma, A. E., Peterson, L. M., & McInnis, W. P. (2006). Child psychotherapy homework planner: Second Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
–http://www.nasponline.org/resources/behavior/tantrums_ho.aspx Robert G. Harrington, Ph.D.; Department of Psychology and Research in Education at the University of Kansas:
–http://ohioline.osu.edu The Ohio State University (see Understanding Children: Temper Tantrums)
Expert tips for how to prevent and deal with this common toddler dilemma.