Your little one asks for a sippy cup. You give them a sippy cup. And suddenly, all hell breaks loose. What's going on? It could have been the wrong color cup, or maybe you put it down on the table instead of putting it into their hands—who knows. The one thing that's abundantly clear is that you're witnessing a tantrum. Read on to learn why kids throw temper tantrums and how to deal with—and better yet, avoid—those emotional breakdowns.
What Is a Tantrum?
The best way to define "tantrum" is an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration. Sometimes starting without warning, temper tantrums include behavior like crying, screaming, stomping feet and sometimes even hitting. While not all toddlers have tantrums, it's more common than not for a toddler to throw a tantrum at one point or another. Tantrums can start in children as young as 12 months and can last until age 4, but the peak time for a tantrum in a typical toddler is age 2. That’s why that time is often referred to as the “ terrible twos.”
Why Does My Child Throw Tantrums?
Temper tantrums can happen to all kids, even those whose regular behavior is considered good. Tammy Gold, LCSW, MSW, CEC, licensed therapist, certified parent coach and founder of the Tammy Gold Nanny Agency, says, “Tantrums are normal developmentally—some children have small ones and others have bigger ones.” While every child is different and every tantrum is different, there are several basic reasons why toddler temper tantrums happen.
• Frustration. Many toddler temper tantrums are fueled by frustration. Whether it’s because they're not getting their way or not liking the way something was done, being frustrated can set a child off.
• Control. When you’re a toddler, most things aren't up to you. Sometimes kids will throw a tantrum when they're seeking control, especially during transitional times of the day, like bath time, mealtime or bedtime.
• Exhaustion, hunger and discomfort. You don’t like to be tired and hungry—and neither do your kids. The difference is, you won’t start kicking and screaming to get your point across (at least not usually). The same goes for being uncomfortable. Toddlers are just learning the appropriate way to express their anger and tend to act out in the form of a tantrum until they learn the proper way to do so.
• Attention. If your child starts a tantrum in the checkout line of the supermarket, chances are you’re going to notice, big time! Some kids start kicking and screaming to get attention, plain and simple.
How to Deal with Tantrums
Your child has thrown a full-blown tantrum, complete with screaming and stomping, right in the middle of your favorite department store. People are staring. You wish you could fly away in your shopping cart. What’s a parent to do?
• Calm yourself. Before you can take control of the situation, you need to have control of yourself. Temper tantrums can really push your buttons, so take a deep breath, count to 10 and do what you need to do to calm yourself before handling your toddler’s tantrum.
• Time-out. After you’ve given yourself a bit of a time-out, do the same for your tantrum-throwing toddler. Some parents have a time-out chair. Others have a time-out corner. Set a timer and tell your child to take a time-out to try to calm down.
• Don’t give in. If your child is having a tantrum because they want something that you refused to buy, don’t give in. This will only teach them you'll eventually cave if they scream loud enough.
• Ignore the tantrum. This is easier said than done, but it can be very effective. If your child is having a tantrum to get you to do something you don’t want to do, ignore the tantrum. Eventually, they’ll get tired of kicking and screaming and will realize this isn't the way to behave or get what they want. Be patient. This takes stamina!
• Pick your battles. Not everything is worth a battle royale. “If they have tantrums over wanting to wear the wrong socks, or not having braids in their hair, let them win small items and focus on big items like safety and sleep,” Gold says. Remember this the next time your child wants to wear three ponytails, a headband and a clip!
Here’s the good news: Most temper tantrums are relatively harmless; they’re much louder than they are dangerous or violent. That said, if you see your toddler’s temper tantrums becoming violent with biting and hitting, or they continue past the child’s fourth birthday, it may be time to talk to your pediatrician. Remember, you’re not the only parent dealing with temper tantrums—talking to other parents about their issues may also help you deal with yours. And if you need some more ideas on how to deal with tantrums, we’ve got you covered with 10 more ways to tame a tantrum!
Toddler Tantrums at Bedtime
Bedtime tantrums can be some of the most difficult to deal with. You’re tired—you just want your toddler to go to bed so you can relax. But they have another plan, so they throw a temper tantrum to resist bedtime. If your child waits until night falls to go into tantrum mode, here are some ways to deal with bedtime tantrums.
• Give limited choices. Since control has a lot to do with temper tantrums, give your child a small choice at bedtime so they feel like they have some control of the situation. A great example of this is to let them choose their bedtime story.
• Set a bedtime routine. Bath, brush teeth, read, then bed. Routines provide a sense of calm and stability, so setting a routine and sticking to it could help avoid toddler tantrums at bedtime.
• Be patient and persistent. Getting your child out of bedtime tantrums takes time, so be patient. Many times these temper tantrums are part of a phase your child will eventually grow out of.
How Can Parents Avoid Temper Tantrums?
Besides knowing how to deal with temper tantrums, it’s also important to know how to avoid them in the first place.
• Make sure kids get enough sleep. Since being tired can fuel a tantrum, be sure your toddler gets enough rest. You may be able to avoid a lot of problems with something as simple as this.
• healthy food. Filling your kids with sugary foods could also lead to temper tantrums when they come off their sugar high. Opt for healthy choices to keep their tummies full and their tantrums running on empty.
• Know your child’s limitations. Your toddler may not be able to keep up with your schedule. If you have a list of five errands, for example, you may need to shorten it to two or three if you have your toddler in tow. Knowing your child’s limitations may help in avoiding a temper tantrum.
• Distraction. If you know your child will have a meltdown in the toy aisle, try to avoid that part of the store. Distracting them from tantrum triggers is key!
• Stick to a schedule. Avoid a tantrum caused by a surprise change in activity by keeping your toddler informed. “Toddlers need and crave a strict schedule—they love order," Gold says. "Do the same wake-up routine and talk them through what's happening next."
Updated March 2019
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