EXPERT Q&A

How can we tame my child’s temper tantrums?

Children and tantrums can be problematic. Family therapist Shenley Seabrook offers some great tips on how you can decrease this undesired behavior.

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Question details:

Is it best to ignore the tantrums or interrupt them and help my child cope? Thanks in advance for any advice!


Answer:

The good news is that tantrums are very common! You are not alone in dealing with them, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t parenting properly.

Tantrums typically occur when a child becomes overwhelmed and—because they don’t yet have the social and emotional maturity to handle the situation—appears to “lose it.” A tantrum might look like any combination of screaming and crying, hitting or kicking, falling to the floor, flailing or stiffening up, or becoming aggressive. In addition, children may engage in tantrums to express themselves when they don’t yet have the proper words, test the limits of their independence, or try to see how they can influence their caregivers with their behavior. Basically, a child having a tantrum is trying to manage and influence their environment, albeit in a way that can be frustrating, angering, or embarrassing to their parent or caregiver.


How to Decrease the Undesired Behavior

A great place to start is teaching children about emotions. Caregivers can start doing this by explaining that we all have emotions and they are all normal. There is no “bad” emotion! When you notice the child is having an emotional reaction to a situation, teach them to name the emotion and help them to understand what might have caused it. You can do this by providing the words for emotions, especially for younger children.

  • EXAMPLES: “Your sister took your toy. That made you angry and sad” or asking questions for older children; “You screamed and threw things when you lost the game. How were you feeling? How else could you have let me know your feelings without screaming and throwing things?”

Also, being aware of a child’s emotional triggers can help caregivers know when a tantrum is likely to occur and gives the caregiver the ability to step in and help reduce the child’s stress level. Caregivers can start by taking inventory of the situation. Ask yourself if the child feels H.O.T – Hungry, Overstimulated, or Tired—a helpful acronym from the book Why Did You Do That?: Solving the Mysteries of Parenting by Burt Segal. If so, making some environmental changes can help avoid a tantrum. Providing a snack or drink, headphones or sunglasses, or an opportunity to rest might be helpful.

Additional environmental changes might include saving outings for after naptime, or making sure the child has a snack or can be helpful during a trip to the grocery store so they don’t get bored. Emotional triggers are different for each child, but they must be aware of when tantrums are occurring.

Finally, when each tantrum starts, it’s important to handle them consistently. First and foremost, staying calm and modeling appropriate emotional behavior is important. This isn’t always easy, but does get easier with practice. Second, remember to name your child’s big feelings so they know you understand them (for example, “I can see that you are upset and angry because…”). At this point, you can suggest a way to reduce frustration, such as squeezing a stress ball, asking for help, or taking a break in a calm area. If the behavior continues to escalate, stay nearby to make sure the child is safe, but keep calm and quiet. Be sure you aren’t “giving in” if they want something or allowing them to avoid a task if that’s their end goal. The last thing you want is to teach a child they can get their way by engaging in tantrum behavior. Again, consistency is so important!

Once the tantrum ends and the child is calm, you can discuss what occurred and what behavior you would like to see instead in the future. Make sure the child knows they are safe and loved, and move on with your day!

Best wishes. You’re on the right track!


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Meet The Expert


Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.