Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for temper tantrums. Low frustration tolerance, impulsivity and underdeveloped communication skills provide the “perfect storm” for a temper tantrum. If you find that your child demonstrates the occasional (or not so occasional!) melt-down, don’t worry. It’s developmentally normative. But that doesn’t mean it should not be addressed. It’s the perfect opportunity to teach and train your child in the area of emotional regulation.
Here are some things you can do to manage a temper tantrum. Effective intervention starts long before the tantrum does.
Know your child’s hot buttons
Keep a journal of the events and environments surrounding your child’s temper tantrums. Is there a common theme? Do they occur when he is tired, hungry or unable to make himself understood? Does he struggle with transition? Knowing what causes them can equip you to address some issues before they become fuel for a temper tantrum.
The information from your journal will better equip you to anticipate the possibility of a temper tantrum. If your child always melts down in response to leaving, find ways to make the transition easier. Some ideas include: letting him hold the car keys and unlock the door, placing a special toy in his car seat for use on the way home, or allowing him to take a transitional object (such as a magnet from grandma’s refrigerator). Make sure other adults are informed about your plan so they can support rather than sabotage your efforts to manage the tantrum before it starts.
Talk to your child
Before entering a possible tantrum inducing situation, equip him with some signs or words that he can use to ask for help. Help him to anticipate how a situation may make him feel by asking: “How will you feel when/if…?” You can then talk about what he could do to handle those hard feelings (squeeze a favorite stuffed animal, give you a hug, etc.). You can even practice using some techniques such as these.
Teaching children to identify a wide range of feelings is essential in helping them express themselves appropriately. For additional tips on helping your toddler learn and express a wide range of emotions, check out this great resource.
Look for warning signs
If you have been journaling, you will likely notice that there are some precursors to a full-blown tantrum. You may start to see your child become physically agitated by squirming or pacing. You may start to hear your child whine. Listen up. This behavior is communication. At first, simply try to distract him, if possible. If that doesn’t work, then intervene with the next step.
It’s important to let your child know that you have heard what his behavior is trying to communicate. You can do this, by vocalizing what you think he is feeling. “You are mad! You wanted to stay longer. It’s hard to leave when you are having so much fun.” Don’t worry if you get the feeling wrong. Keep trying different empathetic statements so that your child doesn’t have to use behavior to communicate his emotions. This step may be enough to stop the tantrum in its tracks.
Despite all of this planning and empathizing, a temper tantrum may still happen anyway. By accepting this, you will be better able to handle it with without your emotions escalating as well. It’s important for you to model emotional regulation. Try thinking of a phrase to repeat to yourself such as, “This is only temporary, it won’t go on forever. I can handle this.” And if you need to say it out loud, that is okay too.
Keep him safe
If you have tried all the above steps and your child is not responding and begins acting in a way that is dangerous to himself, others or property, it is okay to restrain him. You can say, “I can’t let you hurt _____. I am going to hold you until you are calm.” Hold him calmly but firmly by sitting on the floor with him facing away from you with your arms containing his.
Please note, if you find yourself overcome with anger a this point, do not attempt to restrain your child. Seek help immediately.
Also, if your child suffers from any trauma history involving restraint or powerlessness, or has a sensory integration disorder, restraint is an inappropriate option. Lead him to a safe place, but stay near by. You can continue the empathetic reframing of his feelings, assuring him that you are there (this can increase arousal for some kids – if so, stay quiet).
Redeem and restore
At a later point, when things are calm, you can say something like, “Boy, you had some really big feelings earlier. Let’s talk about them.” You can then play a game of “rewind.” Together, rewind the situation to before the temper tantrum happened (you can even be silly about this and walk backwards to demonstrate that you are going back in time). You can role play what actually happened (or even switch roles, with you playing your child and him playing you). Then role play it again with a different outcome. Helping him to see other alternatives will provide him with important information for the next time a similar situation occurs.
Temper tantrums are so common in early childhood that they are almost like a rite of passage. While you might not be able to avoid them completely, you don’t have to fall victim to them either. Some preparation, a lot a patience and a healthy dose of empathy will be all you need to create order from chaos.