Imagine this: There’s something on a high shelf that you really, really want. Like, desperately. Chocolate. Or wine. Or a book you’ve been dying to read. Or the remote after a long, long day. But you can’t reach it, and you can’t really communicate to anyone that you want it or how to get it. People around you are trying to help (or maybe they’re not trying to help at all). Whether they are or not, they have no idea what you’re saying, and eventually it becomes so frustrating that you just give up and collapse into a fit of tears. Why doesn’t anyone get me??? This, my friends, is how a toddler throwing a temper tantrum feels so much of the time. While temper tantrums can be a huge pain in the you-know-what, they are a totally natural part of childhood (and parenting), so the best thing you can do is get on board with how to deal.
5 Guiding Principles for Addressing Temper Tantrums
1. Temper tantrums are not a bad thing. In fact, they are a necessary part of growing up. (Sorry.)
“If a child is always compliant and never asserts herself, I worry about that kid more than the kid who won’t eat her broccoli,” explains Barbara Kaiser, early childhood consultant, trainer, and co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Understanding, Preventing and Responding Effectively. “Learning what you like and don’t like, what you want and don’t want, is an important part of growing up.”
2. Parents play a huge role in how a tantrum plays out.
We look at temper tantrums as negative because they are—you guessed it—embarrassing, especially in when you’re in the grocery store. But Kaiser explains that it’s very important to not let the embarrassment override the fact that you really love your child (even as she kicks and screams!). As a parent, you need to try to figure out what the child is telling you and work with her so the tantrum doesn’t escalate even further. Desperate to make it end? “Us wanting it to stop so desperately plays a role,” Kaiser says.
3. Grown-ups have to…grow up.
“We tend to take everything seriously and turn it into a power struggle,” Kaiser says. We always blame the child, but often the situation escalates because we didn’t respond to our child’s needs (I’m hungry, I’m tired, I don’t want to do this now, etc.) early enough. Parenting in a proactive, preemptive way can stall out much of this behavior.
4. Sometimes there is no reason for a temper tantrum.
Sometimes the kid is just over it (just like we often are!). Something that didn’t set him off yesterday could be a huge deal today. “Trying to find a specific reason can be hard,” explains Jane Rosen, PsyD, child clinical psychologist and director of education at the IKAR ECC preschool in Los Angeles. “That’s what our adult brains don’t understand about children’s brains. There is sometimes no rationale. Parents think the kid has more understanding and control than he does.”
5. We make worse parenting decisions when we feel judged.
Why do things always go awry in the grocery store, on a plane, or when that nasty old woman is staring us down as we try to get our kid to get her mitten on? Because we are self-conscious. “Who allowed her to have children? we imagine people thinking about us,” says Rosen. This doesn’t make averting the meltdown any easier. In all likelihood, you will never see those strangers again, so, as best you can, try to ignore.
Why do tantrums happen?
Behavior has a purpose, no matter your age, and kids have tantrums because they work. If the behavior wasn’t working, they would stop having them. “Tantrums are common for first two years of life because toddlers don’t have a lot of other ways of expressing their needs,” says Kaiser. “If adults don’t understand what they’re trying to communicate, the best way to be understood is to fall on the floor and become a noodle and scream and yell.” By the time kids reach ages 3 to 4, their executive function starts to kick in. They have more self-control, they develop the skills they need to delay instant gratification and deal with frustration—but perhaps most importantly, they develop language. So instead of screaming, she can say, Can I please have some milk? or This car seat is uncomfortable.
Temper tantrums are normal.
Temper tantrums are not a sign that something is wrong with your toddler. They are, in fact, a necessary part of the individuation process—the realization of the self. “The first way [they’re] saying ‘I’m not you’ is by saying no. The child is discovering her emergent identity as a separate being, which is what we want!” explains Rosen. This, however, can be confusing to adults, especially since it comes after a year of deep love and connection between baby and parent. “To have this loving being turn into Mr. Hyde is deeply upsetting to parents,” Rosen says. “They feel like it’s something they’ve done or can be avoided.” Not so. Too many of us think our M.O. should be about stopping tantrums before they start. But we’re better off thinking of temper tantrums as a necessary stage of development. Although we shouldn’t tolerate all behaviors (biting and hitting are off limits, for example), we don’t need to stop a tantrum in its tracks (by then it’s probably too late anyway). “When your beloved being comes to you with something not pleasant, it’s a big part of them learning unconditional love,” Rosen explains. “We are, in essence, saying I will love you even when you are like this, too.”
Why does my kid always throw a temper tantrum in the grocery store?
We’ve all been there. You just need to zip through—eggs, milk, emergency chocolate. It’ll only take 10 minutes! But suddenly your child has become a wailing monster in the middle of a grocery store aisle. Why does this happen? Your kid is really overstimulated. Lights! Colors! People! All the things they can’t have! “The things that are least healthy are the most attractive to them,” Kaiser explains. Think of all the brightly packaged chips and cookies perfectly designed to get their attention. The kid wants it and doesn’t understand why he can’t have it. So a major tantrum ensues. All you have to do is to put that one thing he wants in the shopping cart and he’ll stop, right? No. Let’s rewind the tape. First thing to do upon entering the store? Go to the veggie and fruit section, pick out something your kid likes, and let him eat it. Many kids will happily sit in the cart if they have a banana or apple to nibble on. (You’d be surprised how many grocery stores allow this; they don’t want to hear screaming kids either.) Once a child is old enough, make a trip to the grocery a project (yes, this involves some forethought, but can save you a scene): Make a book of supermarket specials, and give your child a job. Or say, Go find me two red things! as you watch close by. “If they’re busy and focused, they won’t have tantrums,” says Kaiser. Another big way to avoid a grocery store tantrum? If you can, choose a sensible time to go. Otherwise, you are setting them up to fail. “A child who’s been at daycare all day wants downtime, or connecting time, or running around time,” says Rosen. “When you’re at the supermarket, they’re confined and you’re not relating. There is no upside for them.” It’s worth asking yourself: Am I pushing too hard at this point in the day? Finally, remember that walking out of the store, even if it means abandoning a full grocery cart mid-aisle, is not the end of the world. If all else fails, that’s what Instacart is for.
What do you do when your child is throwing a temper tantrum in public?
The main thing a tantruming child needs is to be kept safe. So take your child to a place where she can have the temper tantrum. “Sometimes we don’t have a choice. We need to get food. You can say, I see you’re having a hard time; Mommy has to finish shopping. Finish what you need to do and leave.” The acknowledgment piece is key. That moment of connection tells the child that she is seen and heard. When we’re worrying about what fellow shoppers think of us, we will make bad decisions because we’re mortified. “But a steady diet of distracting a child from tantrums will not work over time,” Rosen says. “You miss the teachable moment—the moment to say, I see you; it’s okay. You can’t tolerate being here. Let’s get out of here quickly.”
What do you do when your kid is throwing a temper tantrum at home?
There are so many reasons why a child has a temper tantrum, but it always comes back to one thing: He has a need. The need is real (I want a hug, something to drink, some attention, to lose it), so once the fit is over, you can figure that out. But in the meantime:
- Don’t say anything. “Anything you say they’re going to misinterpret,” Kaiser explains.
- A few steps away, take an L-stance: Stand with one foot toward your child, the other perpendicular. The point is that it’s not confrontational, and you’re a reasonable distance away—present but not standing over them.
- Don’t look at them, but past them (think over her shoulder). Because all kids need to breathe, they will stop and take a breath. “This is what you want: For them to breathe,” Kaiser says. “That’s when you make eye contact. You’re creating non-verbal communication.” Why is this important? “They don’t hear a word you say but they feel your body language. Look at them with ‘It’ll be okay’ in your eyes. Don’t say anything.”
- If the wailing starts back up, withdraw eye contact again. When he stops for a breath, make eye contact again. The child begins to connect the dots: When I’m not yelling and screaming, I’m getting support. Alternately, get down at (or below) eye level, this way they don’t feel a presence towering over them.
What to Do After a Temper Tantrum
If your child is under 2, simply give him a hug.
See if there’s any way he can let you know what he wants in a more rational way. This means helping him along. Do you want this or this? Tell her, Point at what you want! Do not talk it over. “You’re assuming that it’s something we need to debrief on,” Rosen explains. You don’t need to process the tantrum because the brain hasn’t reached a phase where this is possible.
For a kid who is older than 2, use your sense of humor (but watch your tone of voice).
This means being aware of your non-verbal communication—in other words, don’t tell the kid it’s okay but with a nasty look on your face or anger in your voice. You can even say light-hearted things like I’m glad that’s over! Lower your voice. Your tone is important here because you want to communicate that you are not out of control.
Talk about the tantrum.
Ask questions that might make the situation a little clearer: What was that about? What can I do differently so that I can understand what you want? What can you do?
Separate the child from the behavior.
“No matter how upset or angry you were about that tantrum, you still love your child, and she still loves you,” says Kaiser. “You can say, That’s not okay; let’s find other ways to express those feelings.”
Pick your battles.
The neverending refrain of parenthood. How important is it to you that your child finish all the broccoli on her plate? If it’s not worth a massive tantrum, maybe it’s not something you really need to push her to do. Examine your own beliefs before you insist on particular behaviors.
Talk it out with your partner.
Sometimes the problem actually stems from a marital spat or a disagreement about what to do in a given situation. If another parent or caregiver was part of the equation, it’s really important to go back and talk, adult to adult, about what happened and what you can do differently next time.
Preventing Temper Tantrums
Recently I was in the car with my 4-year-old on the way home from a party. She was exhausted at the end of a long weekend and angry we had to leave the party. I could feel a meltdown coming on. I was not convinced that once we got home she would have it in her to eat dinner, have a bath, and read before collapsing in a fit of tears and screams. What should I have done? “You seem really tired: Do you want to have a bath? How does a short bath feel?” Kaiser suggests I should’ve asked. “Treat children as people. We get so caught up in power struggles. That’s our problem, not the child’s. By giving them options, you’re teaching them to figure out what they need. Our job is to be supportive of their needs. Then a tantrum isn’t required.”
But what about when she writes on the wall with markers and then has a meltdown over it?
When a child does something he or she shouldn’t have done, the best response is natural or logical consequences—not punishment. So if the kid draws on the wall, the response should be something along the lines of, I’ll help you, but we need to wash this off, not Go to your room. She’s just going to have a tantrum—and that doesn’t teach her anything. “A tantrum is a response to us not meeting their needs,” Kaiser explains.
How do I know if a temper tantrum is a sign of something more serious?
In most cases, any out-of-control behavior a child exhibits before 18 months is not an indication of anything diagnostic. “If you’re seeing inconsolable and constant tantruming with no relief, or they can’t recover, this is sometimes diagnostic—but only with a lot of other things being present as well,” explains Rosen. In other words: It’s normal. Throwing temper tantrums at a later age (say, between 3.5 and 4) in the style of a younger child might point to something problematic. If the child is is rageful and silent with no trigger or has no capacity to self-soothe or willingness to accept comfort, you might want to discuss the behavior with a healthcare provider. But beware of diagnosing your child on your own: “Parents read things and think their kid is autistic or a sociopath,” says Rosen. “This is almost never the case.” Kaiser also suggests thinking more intentionally about prevention. If your kid has learned over time that the only way she gets what she wants is by holding her breath and passing out, then her needs need to be met much earlier. “We have more control over things if we are intentional, but we are often not intentional enough,” Kaiser says. “Our expectations are so off the wall. Children have the right to express their need. Our job is to listen.”