What is a tantrum?

A tantrum can be described as a fit of bad temper or a violent demonstration of rage or frustration. Tantrums are most commonly seen in young children, especially between two and five years of age. They can begin when the child is a toddler and continue through school age.

Why do children have tantrums?

Young children are most likely to have a tantrum when they are upset or frustrated. They first have to learn to identify and label their emotions before they can learn to control their emotional responses. 

As these skills take time to develop, parents often need to demonstrate patience as well as a consistent management approach to successfully minimize the frequency of their child’s outbursts.  

What are some ways to deal with a tantrum in public?

How a parent deals with a tantrum in public depends on the parent. Tantrums can be quite unpredictable, so it’s almost a rite of passage when your child has a meltdown in a public space.

It isn’t always possible to leave when a tantrum strikes. In these circumstances, you must handle the meltdown with curious onlookers. While it might feel embarrassing, stick to your gut and let your child have their fit, interfering only if your child is threatening harm to themselves, others, or objects around them.

Often times the easiest way to handle meltdowns is to take your child away from the trigger. Ideally you can bring them to a quieter or less public location. This has a double advantage of removing the child from the source of their frustration and allowing you the space to let their child finish their fit without feeling the need to give in.

If in a public place, many parents head straight for their car; if that’s not an option, consider public restrooms, quiet side streets, or under the shade of a tree. 

Once your child is calm, you can decide to return to the public space or leave completely. Please know if it happens to you, you won’t be the first or last parent who leaves a cart half-full in the aisle at the store.

What are some things that lead to tantrums?

Some things that lead to tantrums are unexpected transitions, undesired changes, or unfulfilled wants—like when a child wants something that they can’t have. Sometimes tantrums happen for no clear reason.  

There are ways that you can minimize tantrum occurrences. Because our children crave our attention, they will continue to do things that get our attention, either for good or bad reasons. For this reason, if your child has a tantrum, try to ignore the behavior until they are calm since your attention to their undesired behavior will only make future episodes more likely.

Once your child is calm, try to say something positive such as, “now that you’re calm, would you like a drink?” If they are a threat to themselves or someone or something else, you must intervene as you don’t want your child to get hurt. 

Don’t forget that rewarding good behavior goes a long way

To tip the scales toward good behavior, it is important to give positive praise for desired behaviors, such as “thank you for using your words,” “thank you for using gentle touch,” or “you are playing so nicely with your toys.”

Additionally, providing choices to your child throughout the day whenever possible is a good choice. This can empower your child with a sense of control so that when they don’t have control over something, such as bedtime or what to eat for lunch, they will be less likely to have a meltdown.

Easy simple decisions for your child can include what color shirt to wear that day or what fruit to have for snack. Presenting your child with options allows you to control the choices so that either option is acceptable. At the same time, you are also giving your child an appropriate sense of control.

What are some ways you can manage tantrums in younger children?

Preventing tantrums, when possible, is the best way to manage them. It’s impossible to prevent all tantrums, but most parents learn to anticipate some or can see when their child is starting to get unhappy in a way that often leads to a tantrum. Once a parent predicts an approaching tantrum, there are additional tools that can be used to prevent their occurrence such as distraction and laugher.

Distraction is a very useful tool in these instances. Young children have short attention spans, so you can capitalize on this. Switching gears by either quickly changing the topic of conversation or moving to a new physical environment can often refocus your child’s mind and prevent a meltdown.

Similarly, laughter is a wonderful way to help distract a child from an impending meltdown. Silliness or tickling could be just the right medicine to quickly diffuse the moment.

But what if you can’t prevent a meltdown?

Remember that tantrums are a child’s way of expressing their frustration and anger. Allowing them the time and space to get it out without giving their outburst attention is the best approach. 

If your child is a danger to themselves or others, or to physical property while having an outburst, then you must attend to your child.

Alternatively, if your child is safe, ignoring their tantrums is the best way to help minimize their recurrence.

Tantrums often elicit attention because they are loud and uncomfortable to watch. By giving attention to an undesired behavior, we are unwittingly encouraging this behavior.  

Instead, once a child has calmed down, try to move on, and offer compliments on good behavior whenever possible. In fact, complementing small, desired behaviors throughout the day can have a positive impact.

The goal is to catch your child being good. For example, after playing nicely with a friend, waiting patiently for their turn, or using manners, make sure to explicitly compliment your child on what behaviors are pleasing to you. Use language such as “thank you for using ‘please,’” or “I really like your good manners.” This positive attention will reward their desire for attention and hopefully reinforce the good behaviors that a parent seeks.

If you can model good behaviors and specifically demonstrate them for your child on a regular basis, this will be very helpful. For example, if you want to encourage sharing, try sharing a snack with another adult. You may then say “thank you for sharing your snack” while your child is paying attention. Similarly, modeling good manners such as using “please” and “thank you” yourself will make it much more likely that your child will pick up these habits themselves.

What can you do to minimize difficulty with transitions if those tend to prompt tantrums?

You will likely face tantrums when it’s time to leave the park, a playdate, or other fun activities. Giving clear expectations and a few warnings preparing your child for the transition is important.

For example, letting your child know when it’s five minutes before the transition, reminding again one minute before the transition time, and then calling for the child to transition when it’s time to make a change will help minimize the stress of the transition away from a desired activity.

It likely will take at least a few times of giving these types of warnings before your child gets used to how they work and understand your expectations. This is because young children don’t have a clear sense of time. However, having consistent approach to transitions can help minimize your child’s stress when it comes time to leave the house, stop playing and come to dinner, or leave a favorite playground.

Medical Services