Temper Tantrums

Temper Tantrums

Why are they happening — and how to deal with them when they do.

By Dr. Sachi Horback

Any parent of young children will relate to this experience: My family and I are at a restaurant, packed with people enjoying their meal. It started off well with our 2 and 3 year olds excited to pour their own water (with our help, of course!) from a water pitcher left in the center of the table. My husband and I felt pride at our ability to engage our children with this real-life task, relishing in their feelings of accomplishment and our great parenting skills.

When their interest waned, we pulled out paper and crayons but, unfortunately, that wasn’t as enticing as the dangling décor hanging on the walls. Within minutes, they were out of their seats, alternating between playing hide-and-seek and pushing one another. I felt the disapproval of some of the other patrons as we desperately tried to get our children to sit down quietly at the table, only to have my 2 year old say loudly, “No, I don’t want to.”

Embarrassed at my child’s assertion of independence (or was it defiance?), I tried to pick her up and put her back in her chair. Did I mention that the restaurant didn’t have high chairs or booster seats? You could likely imagine how this scene played out. Temper tantrum…limp body on the floor, kicking, yelling, red faced.

We’ve all faced the public humiliation of a young child throwing a temper tantrum.  This could happen in the grocery store, at the playground, or when you are simply trying to put your child in the car seat. Many of us feel a sudden rush of adrenaline or anxiety when faced with a highly stressful situation. We may worry about social judgment of our parenting skills or have a feeling of helplessness when we can’t “fix” or change the situation. As a clinical psychologist, I have received years of training that is supposed to allow me to help others to deal with these precise situations. However, it was not until I had my own children that I realized how truly difficult this was.

What to Do

I am going to offer some advice on how to deal with temper tantrums, both from my personal experience as a mother and from years of experience working with children and families. Since you are likely reading this article with a level and rational head at the moment, let’s start off reviewing why your child is having a complete meltdown. At 1, 2 or even 3 years old, they may know how to communicate in some ways, but still struggle with “using their words” to express complex sentences and difficult emotions. So they lack the ability to say, “I know that we have to leave the playground, but I am really disappointed and want to stay longer.” They also want to explore the world and follow their curiosity and can’t be bothered with minor details, like whether it is dangerous to stand on the kitchen table or jump off the stairs. While we would love our children to be able to be discriminating with their behavior and their choices, as adults we know that this won’t come until much later. Bottom line: We get frustrated and so do they! In their eyes, this is their world and we are here to facilitate their wants and needs. They can’t understand why we won’t give them the candy from the checkout line or buy them a toy each time we visit a store.

The best strategy for dealing with the inevitable tantrum? Try to avoid them before they start. In the situation I described earlier, I should have known that a tantrum was likely to happen in a restaurant that wasn’t child friendly. This doesn’t mean that you are not allowed to go to a nice restaurant, but it may help everyone in the long run if a game plan is put into place ahead of time. I should have brought more table activities (books, coloring books, sticker pages, play dough) and had a plan to take our kids outside the restaurant once the situation started to go downhill.

Once the tantrum starts, how should you deal with it? You have several options available because, let’s face it, no one tactic will work every time. 

  1. Acknowledge your child’s frustration. “I know it is hard to leave the playground and you’re feeling sad. We have to leave now to go home for dinner, but can come back another day.”
  • Distraction can be a parents’ best tool. “Can you help me find your favorite cereal on the shelf? I need your help, big girl!”
  • If at all possible, ignore it. If you are in a situation where your child can scream and throw himself/herself on the ground and it won’t cause a major disturbance, like at the playground, then go for it. Most of the parents will likely be looking at you with empathy and understanding anyway. And, remember, your young child is screaming because she is hoping you will give in and she will get what she wants. Once you give in to a tantrum, you’ve reinforced the behavior and it will occur often and with more drama!
  • Take your child out of the situation. If you are in a situation where your child will be disturbing others, step outside calmly without reaction and follow #3! 

Remember, your child will outgrow this behavior eventually if handled appropriately. Try one strategy and if it doesn’t work, try another. You aren’t alone and this is all just a normal part of healthy development.

Dr. Sachi Horback is a clinical psychologist. She and her husband have two young daughters.

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