A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Tips for managing tantrums

Mother and toddler daughter arguing in a grocery store - Managing temper tantrums

Tantrums happen when children’s independence clashes with parents’ safety and behavior rules.

You’ve heard the term ‘terrible twos.’ It refers to the age when children start seeking more independence, encounter frustrations with limits placed on them, and subsequently get frustrated and have tantrums.

“Tantrums are a normal part of child development that often peak when child independence and curiosity clash with parents’ need to restrict unsafe or unwanted behaviors,” said Dr. David Holz, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician. “Parents try to protect their children by saying no to things that are unsafe. Children don’t have the language skills to effectively describe their frustrations, so they instead show their feelings by acting out.”

Tantrums are more likely to happen when kids are tired, hungry or experiencing stress at home.

Timeouts can help tantrums

Tantrums can be very frustrating for parents. It’s important to understand that tantrums are the child’s reaction to normal frustration and are not intentional behaviors aimed at upsetting parents.

Giving your child a timeout during a tantrum doesn’t have to be a punishment. Timeouts give children time to calm down in a quiet place and provide a distraction. If you’re at home, place your child in his room. If you’re out in public, go to a quiet place, a dressing room or your car for a few minutes.

“A good rule of thumb is giving your child one minute of time out for each year of life,” Holz said.

Some child behavior experts recommend positive reinforcement after a timeout. Give your child a hug, tell him you love him and remind him that he had some quiet time to calm down.

Prevent tantrums with schedules and time-in

Tantrums are hard to predict, but you can do a few things to reduce the chance one will happen.

  • Have scheduled naps, mealtimes and snacks.
  • Reduce sources of frustration for your child. For example, put up a baby gate if your child gets frustrated when you tell him he isn’t allowed to climb the stairs.
  • Give your child choices, like wearing the red shirt or the blue shirt, or having oatmeal or eggs for breakfast.
  • Plan regular time away so your child gets used to other caregivers.
  • Use ‘time-in’ such as playtime or story time to have positive interactions with your child and praise him for things he is doing well.

Tantrums may mean something more

Children usually stop having tantrums around age 5 or 6, when their vocabulary is large enough to accurately describe how they’re feeling. Consider talking to your child’s pediatrician if your child is having multiple tantrums per week after age 6.

Most tantrums occur under the care of parents or primary caregivers. Frequent tantrums at school or around occasional caregivers are reasons to talk to a pediatrician.

Violent tantrums that involve kicking, hitting and biting are concerning if they happen often or are putting caregivers or other children at risk for getting hurt.

Your pediatrician may suggest evaluating your child for ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety or depression.

Tantrums are a normal part of child development, but when they don’t follow the usual patterns, other conditions should be considered,” Holz said. “Not every tantrum is just a tantrum.”

Resources for parents

Books about parenting and child behavior offer more information about why kids have tantrums and how to manage them. Holz recommends these books for parents looking to learn more:

  • Toddlers and parents: A declaration of independence, by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton
  • Child behavior, by Dr. Frances L. Ilg, Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. and Dr. Sidney M. Baker
  • Your child’s health, by Dr. Barton D. Schmitt

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