Kids have a knack for timing their tantrums. They seem to save them, patiently, for public places — when you’re late, short-handed or void of coffee. But while tantrums can be frustrating, they’re also normal. And surprisingly, easier to handle than you think.
“Children throw tantrums when they are faced with circumstances they have trouble managing,” says Dr. Gordon Cheng, a pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “It’s how a normal child with immature language and problem-solving skills deals with everyday challenges.”
We asked Dr. Cheng to share expert tips and strategies for taming the classic tantrum.
When does this phase start and end?
Most toddlers, starting as early as 15 months, exhibit temper tantrums. It’s part of their transition from attachment and reliance on parents to more independent thought and function. In general, tantrums slow down by age 3 or 4, as the child’s ability to communicate improves.
How can parents better communicate with young children?
Kids understand more than we give them credit for. Parents can help develop a better understanding of their emotions by teaching them to label their feelings. Statements like, “I see you are angry,” and questions like, “Isn’t it frustrating when you cannot find your favorite toy?” help children learn words to express themselves better.
How can parents avoid tantrums from starting?
You can’t avoid them — they’re a part of growing up. But these tips can help minimize them:
- Stick to a routine. Have set times for meals and sleep. Kids do better when they know what to expect.
- Communicate transitions. Children tend to accept change better when they are warned ahead of time.
- Ensure adequate sleep. Toddlers should be getting 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day, including naps.
- Anticipate conflict. Know your child’s triggers and steer clear of them.
- Focus on positive reinforcement. “Catch” your child exhibiting desired behavior and reward them so they learn what is appropriate.
- Offer choices. Give your child options, but make sure they are all acceptable to you.
- Set your child up for success. Good moods turn bad when kids are hungry, tired or not getting their general needs met.
How can a parent diffuse a tantrum?
Toddlers can be happy one moment and throwing a tantrum the next. If faced with one, try these five steps:
- Provide a distraction. Offer a different activity or, if needed, physically move to a different environment.
- Talk to your child. Provide affirmation of their feelings, and help your child find other solutions to their problem.
- Offer body contact. Sometimes all that is needed is a loving touch, hug or being picked up and held.
- Institute a timeout. If the tantrum is severe or excessive, consider a timeout. The general rule is one minute for each year of age — but make sure you give them enough time to calm down.
- Don’t give up. Even in public, do not be tempted to give in to your child’s unreasonable demands. This will only cause more tantrums.
When should a parent seek medical attention?
Parents should consider seeking medical attention if tantrums persist into kindergarten, if there are concerns about speech or other developmental delays, or if the child exhibits other atypical behavior. Examples of atypical behavior include poor eye contact, lack of sharing of emotions or repetitive self-stimulation behavior (such as spinning in place or finger movements near the eyes).
What final words of wisdom can you offer to parents facing this phase?
For parents frustrated with their children’s tantrums, just know that this phase will pass. But like everything in life, a bit more effort invested early will pay dividends as they move on beyond toddlerhood.