The Dreaded, the Feared, the Infamous…Tantrums

By Alison Dodge, Development Coordinator

alisondodgeTantrums. Hear the word and most of us cringe, recalling one time or another we’ve dealt a child in the throes of that almighty meltdown (either firsthand, or simply as an observer – neither one pleasant) – the screaming, the crying, the throwing him/herself onto the ground flailing. Toss in a couple of loud NOs and you know what I’m talking about.

Whether it is our own child or not, the question is: what causes children to simply melt down on the turn of a dime in certain situations? It’s not that easy for us as adults to go from being content to flat out hysterical in seconds, so why does it happen with kids? It surely can’t be a pleasant experience for the child, and it is certainly a humiliating, and frustrating, one for the parent or caregiver. But bring any group of parents together and more often than not they will start commiserating with each other about  a situation when one of their children had a tantrum, usually in a public place at an extremely inconvenient time.  (Why do they always seem to happen while you’re in the checkout line at a crowded store?).

As the parent of 4 and 6 year old girls, I have certainly experienced a few tantrums, and know many parents with young children, and even up to 8 and 9 years old, who deal with tantrums. It’s like a switch goes off in the child’s brain where they simply can’t be reasoned with.  Is there anything we can do? We don’t want to give in our children and make them think that having a tantrum is an acceptable way to get what they want, but we also want to resolve the “issue” as quickly and calmly as possible.

Not surprisingly, Jewish Community Services child therapists get asked these questions often.  Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C, says, “Tantrums are utterly unavoidable.  Unfortunately, there is no sure magic that I, or any other person, can impart to make these parenting hazards disappear.  However, there are some things you can do to make them more manageable, and perhaps, less frequent.

  • Most importantly, stay calm!  Remember that tantrums are bad, not the child. Tantrums are not  a reflection of bad parenting!  Don’t worry about people looking at you or judging; as a bystander, wouldn’t you instinctively turn to investigate a crying child?  Staying calm also sets an example to children of how to calm themselves, teaching them to self soothe.
  • Try to understand what causes a tantrum.  Tantrums can be triggered by hunger, fatigue, boredom, over-stimulation, or the need for attention.   What are your child’s triggers?  Responding to, or anticipating, their needs and triggers can help to avoid tantrums.  For example, consider bringing snacks or toys with you to run errands, or waiting until after naps to take kids out.
  • Developmentally, the “terrible twos,” known for their terrible tantrums, occur because our toddlers can often understand much more than they are able to express verbally.  Children have a hard time listening when they are in the midst of a tantrum.  Use calm times to teach self-regulation and verbal skills they can use to express themselves appropriately.  For example, you can teach, “When you feel angry you can say, ‘I am angry.’”
  • Little ones are also learning to become increasingly independent.  This is when we start hearing “No!”  From toddlerhood through adolescence children are developing preferences and exploring autonomy.  Giving young children opportunities to have control over small choices throughout the day supports their development.  It may also avoid some power struggles.
  • Be consistent with your behavioral expectations and rules.  Toddlers think in black and white terms, and so cannot be reasoned with.  Grey areas can be confusing for kids.  Consider teaching them rules such as “never touch the stove,” instead of “don’t touch the stove when it’s hot.”  This also means consistently enforcing the rules, regardless of the circumstances.  Giving in when tantrums begin reinforces that tantrums are an effective way of getting their needs met.
  • Take advantage of a child’s limited attention span.  Distraction is a fantastic way to end tantrums, especially for toddlers.  We have all seen meltdowns turn into giggle-fests in seconds, and vice versa.
  • If you are concerned about excessive tantrums, destructive behavior, your child causing harm to him/herself or others or if the tantrums continue at an older age, a physician or therapist can provide help.

Will we be able to avoid experiencing a meltdown in a public place at an inconvenient time ever again if we follow this advice?  Probably not.  But it’s reassuring to know that there are reasons why children have tantrums, and that there are effective ways to deal with them when they “lose it.”

By Alison Dodge, Development Coordinator, and Stacey E. Meadows, LCSW-C, Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD

If you are the parents of young children and you are struggling with this and other topics, come to Jewish Community Services’ monthly free Parent Discussion Group Series.

Questions about parenting?  Send an email to parenttalk@jcsbaltimore.org.  For more information on parenting click here or call 410-466-9200.

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