Temper tantrums come in different shapes and sizes. From a quick foot stomping to a major meltdown, and everything in between. We’ve all witnessed them and most of us have experienced them ourselves – even as adults. I've seen plenty of grownups having epic meltdowns while waiting in a long line-up or in heavy traffic. We may not define an adult tantrum as such, but when you pull the behaviour apart, that’s exactly what it is.
Is it any wonder then that children, with less control over their emotions and less coping strategies than adults, express themselves in cringe-worthy when angry or frustrated? I’m not saying that they are modelling their parent’s behaviour (although in some cases, this may be so), but rather that as little human beings, their over the top reaction to heightened emotion is to be expected at times. Your child’s emotional response to you or others may seem a little exaggerated, especially when your child is overtired, hungry or uncomfortably warm.
So, at the first sign of a temper tantrum, and especially one that appears over-the-top, it’s important to ask yourself, “is this behaviour strictly as a result of something going on around us right now or are there other factors making it worse?”
For example, it’s completely normal that your three year-old might have a tantrum on the floor of the mall after spending two hours going from store to store. In this case, comforting your child by acknowledging that he or she may have had enough of being in the mall and letting her know when you are going to leave may help reduce the intensity of the tantrum. A note of caution here: Assess the situation carefully and unless necessary, don’t always give your child an out after a tantrum. This may perpetuate your child having tantrums when reacting to any situation that they perceive as less than pleasant.
Other than being tired, hungry or hot, a child may have a tantrum after hearing the word “no”. This is not uncommon. It’s normal that any child (or adult) would like what they want and now! As adults, we learn how to delay gratification but children have a more difficult time being told “put that on your wish list and we can save towards it” or “we're not leaving yet, I still have more shopping to do.”
When these types of instances lead to a tantrum, it’s an indication that your child is accustomed to getting what he wants. He knows that when he doesn’t, throwing a tantrum usually helps him get his way.
Some parents try to placate their children by giving in – anything so that the tantrum will stop, especially if you're in public – but this unfortunately leads to bigger and more frequent similar behaviours.
As your child grows, keep boundaries for acceptable behaviour in place. Teach ways to vent negative emotions in a safe and respectful manner and develop coping strategies with his or her emotions. This will help children be more capable of expressing their displeasure effectively. If this doesn't happen over time, then getting professional help for anger management, either one-on-one or in a group setting, can help.
We typically associate toddlers and tantrums because this is when we usually see children begin to assert their individual needs and make their frustration or anger known. This is a time during which parents set the stage for future behaviour. If a parent acknowledges why his child is behaving badly, but resists giving in to placate the child, the tantrums should decrease.
As children grow, we anticipate that temper tantrums will lessen. This may not always happen. School-aged children might not lie on the fl oor pounding their fists and feet, but they may throw things or scream. It’s important to set boundaries. Say “It’s OK to feel upset or angry, but it’s not OK to hurt people or throw things. I can work with you if you let me know what is upsetting you.”
Yes, even older children can throw a tantrum. An adolescent may tear out of the house, for example, slamming the front door. She may scream and shout about you being the worst parent in the world. Once you have established acceptable boundaries, disengage. If you stay around and retaliate, the tantrum will escalate. Rather, discuss what has transpired at a later time when your teen has calmed down.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2014.