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David Baxter PhD

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Temper tantrums: How to keep the peace
by Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.
June 14, 2008

You're shopping with your toddler in a busy discount store. He or she has spied a toy that you don't intend to buy. Soon, you find yourself at the center of a gale-force temper tantrum. Everyone is looking at you, and your face is burning with embarrassment.

Could you have prevented the tantrum? What's the best response? And why do these emotional meltdowns happen in the first place? Here are some tantrum tips from Jay Hoecker, M.D., a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Why do tantrums happen?
A tantrum is the expression of a child's frustration with the physical, mental or emotional challenges of the moment. Physical challenges are things like hunger and thirst. Mental challenges are related to a child's difficulty learning or performing a specific task. Emotional challenges are more open to speculation. Still, whatever the challenge, frustration with the situation may fuel a child's anger ? and erupt in a tantrum.

Consider this: Most 2-year-olds have a limited vocabulary. Parents may understand what a toddler says only 50 percent of the time. Strangers understand even less. When your child wants to tell you something and you don't understand ? or you don't comply with your child's wishes ? you may have a tantrum on your hands.

Do young children have tantrums on purpose?
It might seem as though your child plans to misbehave simply to get on your nerves, but that's probably giving your child too much credit. Young children don't have evil plans to frustrate or embarrass their parents. A young child's world is right there in sight, at the end of his or her nose. Your child doesn't enjoy throwing a tantrum any more than you enjoy dealing with a tantrum.

Can tantrums be prevented?
There may be no fool-proof way to prevent tantrums, but there's plenty you can do to encourage good behavior in even the youngest children:

  • Be consistent. Establish a daily routine so that your child knows what to expect. Stick to the routine as much as possible, including nap time and bedtime. It's also important to set reasonable limits and follow them consistently.
  • Plan ahead. If you need to run errands, go early in the day ? when your child isn't likely to be hungry or tired. If you're expecting to wait in line, pack a small toy or snack to occupy your child.
  • Encourage your child to use words. Young children understand many more words than they're able to express. If your child isn't speaking ? or speaking clearly ? you might teach him or her sign language for words such as "I want," "more," "enough," "hurt" and "tired." The more easily your child can communicate with you, the less likely you are to struggle with tantrums. As your child gets older, help him or her put feelings into words.
  • Let your child make choices. To give your child a sense of control, let him or her make appropriate choices. Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt? Would you like to eat strawberries or bananas? Would you like to read a book or build a tower with your blocks? Then compliment your child on his or her choices.
  • Praise good behavior. Offer extra attention when your child behaves well. Tell your child how proud you are when he or she shares toys, listens to directions, and so on.
  • Use distraction. If you sense a tantrum brewing, distract your child. Try making a silly face or changing location. It may help to touch or hold your child.
  • Avoid situations likely to trigger tantrums. If your child begs for toys or treats when you shop, steer clear of "temptation islands" full of eye-level goodies. If your child acts up in restaurants, make reservations so that you won't have to wait ? or choose restaurants that offer quick service.
What's the best way to respond to a tantrum?
If you can, pretend to ignore the tantrum. If you lose your cool or give in to your child's demands, you've only taught your child that tantrums are effective.

If your child has a tantrum at home, you can act as if it's not interrupting things. After your child quiets down, you might say, "I noticed your behavior, but that won't get my attention. If you need to tell me something, you need to use your words."

If your child has a tantrum in public, pretending to ignore the behavior is still the best policy. Any parent who witnesses the scene will sympathize with you as you ignore the tantrum. If the tantrum escalates or your child is in danger of hurting himself or herself, stop what you're doing and remove your child from the situation. If your child calms down, you may be able to return to your activity. If not, go home ? even if it means leaving a cart full of groceries in the middle of the store. At home, discuss with your child the type of behavior you would have preferred.

Should a child be punished for having a tantrum?
Tempter tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Rather than punishing your child, remind him or her that tantrums aren't appropriate. Sometimes a simple reminder to "use your words" is adequate. For a full-blown tantrum ? or a tantrum that caused you to abandon an activity in public ? try a timeout.

During a timeout, your child must sit someplace boring ? such as in a chair in the living room or on the floor in the hallway ? for a certain length of time, usually one minute for each year of the child's age. You can pretend that you don't even see your child during the timeout, but you can still assure his or her safety. If your child begins to wander around, simply place him or her back in the designated timeout spot. Remind your child that he or she is in timeout, but don't offer any other attention.

Eventually, your child may even take his or her own timeout at the first sign of a tantrum ? before a negative cloud surrounds you both.

When might tantrums be a sign of something more serious?
As your child's self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children outgrow tantrums by age 4. If your older child is still having tantrums, the tantrums seem especially severe or the tantrums have pushed you beyond your ability to cope, share your concerns with your child's doctor. These may be signs that something else is going on. The doctor will consider physical or psychological problems that may be contributing to the tantrums, as well as give you additional tips to help you deal with your child's behavior.
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