Maryland family therapy: temper tantrumsThis week I was asked to contribute to a piece about managing temper tantrums in young children, and I thought a post here might also be helpful to our readers. Temper tantrums are one of those just-get-through-it aspects of parenting — we know they’re going to happen at some point, and we just sort of hold on tight and hope the phase that doesn’t last too long.

Tantrums are common in kids from about 1-3 years of age. There are a few reasons why these little ones might lose their cool. First, they will do pretty much anything to get attention — even negative attention. If your toddler wants your attention badly enough and isn’t successful in getting it (or enough of it) another way, throwing a tantrum makes sense in their toddler logic. Second, young children may throw tantrums because they can’t effectively articulate what they are feeling, and what they want or need, with words — they just don’t have the language skills yet. So because your toddler can’t say, “Excuse me, mommy, but these shoes are a bit on the small side and pinch my toes. May I please take them off?” he instead yells, “No shoes! No shoes! No no no no no!” And finally, young children are easily overwhelmed. So when they are out of their normal environments and routines, they are likely to lose their cool in response to minor stressors because their baseline level of stress is already elevated.

So, what can we do to both reduce the frequency of tantrums and deal with the ones that do happen? Here are some tips.

  • Keep your cool. When we respond to a tantrum by matching it with our own negative emotion, we are inadvertently reinforcing that behavior. It is far more effective to stay very calm and model the kind of behavior you want your child to exhibit. Get down on your child’s level so that you can look him or her directly in the eye. Speak in a soft, slow voice as you talk them through their feelings.
  • Empathize. You may not know this, but you have a powerful secret weapon in your battle against temper tantrums: Empathy. Being understood by a loved one is a powerful and restorative experience, even for very young children. As a parent or close caregiver, you can probably make a pretty accurate guess as to why your little one is upset. Instead of saying, “You’re being silly. Get up off the floor right now and act like a big boy,” try “You are very sad that you can’t take your shoes off. You really don’t want to wear them.”
  • Redirect. When your child is upset about something that isn’t going his  way, it can be very effective to help him focus on something more positive. You can say something like, “Maybe it would be fun for us to go on the swings. Would you like me to push you?” Invite your child to try another activity in a way that lets him feel in control, and try to suggest something that you know he likes.
  • Maintain routine. Of course, it’s not possible to stay in our routines all the time. But kids thrive on predictability, so keeping as close as possible to your family’s “normal” will go a long way. When you have to be out of your routine, such as on vacation or when you get stuck in a doctor’s waiting room and miss naptime, try to bring some familiar elements into the situation. A favorite toy, snacks at their normal time, and making sure to give your child enough downtime (even if it’s just quiet cuddle time instead of a nap) will help your child feel secure and confident even when their surroundings are changing.

What other tips do you find useful in dealing with kids’ temper tantrums? Sound off in the comments!