Temper tantrums

Children often throw a tantrum when they struggle with new expectations about how they should behave. Tantrums 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 express their frustration and anger more appropriately.

When adults give in to tantrums, it teaches the child that yelling and screaming are good ways to get attention and get what they want. Young children need to learn that they cannot always have their way and they need to learn to control their sadness and anger when this happens. Here are a number of suggestions 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 having trouble controlling their feelings and behavior. You are teaching them that you expect them to try and control these things, but it may take some time for them to learn. Be sensitive to the changing expectations your child is struggling with.
  • Stay calm and in control. Don’t match your child’s energy level. If you raise your voice and intensity your body language, this will only serve to escalate those behaviors in your child. During a tantrum, your child needs you to be in control.
  • Before your child gets very upset, 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.” Once your child has become very upset and is having a tantrum, don’t try to reason with him or her. If your child is having a tantrum, they are not listening to you and more talking usually makes the tantrum worse. Talk with your child after they are completely calm.
  • Be prepared for your child’s anger. It’s natural for parents to want to keep their children from being upset. However, part of the message you should send during a tantrum is that you can deal with your child’s anger.
  • Anticipate outbursts in public places, and don't overreact. If your child throws a tantrum in a restaurant, you may feel that people around you are judging your parenting skills. You may feel pressure to give in to your child in order to calm him or her. These feelings can work in your child’s favor. He or she may quickly learn that you are more likely to give in to a tantrum in public.

Preventing tantrums

  • Teach your child how to handle frustration and anger. As you see your child begin to get frustrated or angry (but before they are very upset), show your child how to cope with these feelings without yelling and creating a scene. Help your child understand 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’s OK to ask for help.
  • Set reasonable limits and expectations. Be clear and firm with rules. Don’t confuse your child by being more relaxed with rules on occasion — this only encourages your child to test the waters.
  • Spend positive time with your child every day. Don’t let your primary interaction with your child occur during a tantrum. If children don’t get enough positive reinforcement from interactions with the adults in their lives, they may turn to negative behaviors to get attention.
  • Keep in mind that tantrums are a normal part of growing up. They are not a sign of bad parenting. Have realistic expectations about what you can do. You can help your child by setting limits and consequences.

If your child has tantrums that are uncomfortably intense, are unusually frequent or don’t show signs of lessening, this may signal a more serious problem. Help for especially problematic behavior is available through the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Psychiatry Center. To schedule an appointment, call (414) 266-3339.