No! No! No! The Troublesome Topic of Tantrums
On any given moment of any given day, a preschooler somewhere is throwing a temper tantrum. These tantrums are a normal part of growing toward independence. Parents and caregivers who are prepared for this "social experiment" can help children learn to eliminate these outbursts.
Tantrums often occur when children struggle with new expectations about how they should behave. They can include a combination of crying, yelling, stomping feet, flailing arms, hitting or other forms of physical aggression. These behaviors persist until children learn to more appropriately express their feelings of frustration and anger.
When adults "give in" to tantrums, children do not learn how to respond appropriately when they don't get their way. Following are a number of guidelines than can help you successfully cope with temper tantrums.
During a tantrum
Recognize the tantrum as an expression of frustration, sadness and anger. Your child is in essence "grieving" the loss of being able to demand all of your attention. Be sensitive to the changing expectations your child is struggling with.Stay calm and in control. Do not match your child's energy level. If your volume increases and body language intensifies, this only serves to escalate those behaviors in your child. During a tantrum, your child needs you to be in control.Give brief explanations, limited to about 10 seconds. For example, "I know you are angry about having to put on your shoes, but I know you can do it." Trying to reason with or talk your child out of a tantrum while it is occurring is a waste of breath.Be prepared for your child's anger. It is natural for parents to want to keep their children from being upset. However, part of the message you need to send during a tantrum is, "I can deal with you being angry with me, and it is OK to be angry."Anticipate tantrums in public places and don't let yourself overreact. If your child has an outburst in a restaurant, you may feel that people around you are judging your parenting skills. These feelings work in your child's favor. He or she quickly will learn if you are more likely to give in to a tantrum in public.
Teach your child how to handle frustration and anger. Show your child how to cope with these feelings without yelling and creating a scene. Help your child to see that he or she can make choices about how to deal with any problem.Praise positive behaviors. Let your child know when you are happy with how he or she is dealing with a problem. Make sure your child knows it is OK to ask for help.Set reasonable limits and expectations. Be clear and firm with rules. Do not confuse your child by being more relaxed with rules on occasion – this only encourages your child to ÒtestÓ the waters.Spend time with your child every day. Don't let your primary interaction with your child occur during a tantrum. If children are not getting enough reinforcement from positive interactions with the adults in their lives, they may turn to negative behaviors to gain attention.Keep in mind that tantrums are a normal part of your child's development. They are not a sign of bad parenting. Have realistic expectations about what you can do. The role of parents is not to control, but to guide by setting limits and consequences.
If your child has tantrums that are very uncomfortably intense, unusually frequent or do not show signs of dissipating, this may signal a more serious problem. Help for particularly problematic behavior is available through the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin Temper Tantrum Clinic. To schedule an appointment, call the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Center at (414) 266-2932.
Kimberly Gerlach, LCSW, CTS, is a psychotherapist in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Center at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. She works with children and families in the Temper Tantrum Clinic.