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Temper Tantrums: How to Deal with a Meltdown

by Richard Gallagher, PhD

It's the rare parent who hasn't had to deal with a tired, cranky, whiny, screaming toddler in the midst of a meltdown. Sometimes it even occurs in a public place, thereby exposing the quality parenting to the world at large. The truth of the matter is that temper tantrums are normal and typical between the ages of two and four. To get some advice about how to react to temper tantrums and why they occur, AOK talked with Dr. Richard Gallagher, Director of the Parenting Institute at the NYU Child Study Center.

Why do temper tantrums happen at these ages?
Very young kids aren't very good at modulating their emotions; they don't have the same control as older kids. As two-to-four-year-olds try to make sense of the world things don't always go their way, and a tantrum is one way to express frustration. Tantrums are common at this time as children are learning to use language, and although kids of two to four understand a great deal of what they hear, they can't always use language to express their needs or their feelings. Two-to-four-year-olds are also trying out ways of establishing their sense of competence, insisting "I can do it myself," and when this turns out not to be true, a tantrum may result. Finally, children in this age range are trying many different actions to solve the problems that they encounter. Temper outbursts at times may simply be a means to resolve a situation from the child's perspective. If adults react in certain ways, sometimes the temper tantrum works.

Do older kids ever have tantrums?
Older children often show temper outbursts too. In fits of anger older children will sometimes use tantrums to get their way or to express their anger while intentionally causing distress in the person that has made them frustrated. The protests of school-aged children, the talking back of preteens, and the mini-strikes after storming off shown by teenagers can all be forms of temper tantrums.

What can parents to do in the middle of a meltdown?
Here are three steps to follow:

  1. Stay cool. Acknowledge the child's emotions (frustrated, bored, tired) without a long discussion and say something like "Tell me in your own words what's bothering you, and let's try to work it out" or "I know you're frustrated and want to leave, but I would like for you to wait a few more minutes." This sounds overly simple, but it's important to let the child know you're willing to work this out reasonably, what your expectation is, and you want them to do. For young kids, always have some form of distraction available to get them off the tantrum track. If the child calms down when you request it, provide the child a treat that may be a surprise, like a toy in your pocket or purse that he didn't know you brought along.
  2. Step two is hard, but don't reward the tantrum with a lot of attention beyond the matter-of-fact approach in step one. Obviously, you don't want the child to learn that this is a good way to impress you. Scolding or shouting back simply won't work, although you may feel like having a tantrum yourself. Remember, parents are models of appropriate behavior.
  3. Third, sometimes you simply have to leave. If the mayhem started because she wants something in a store and you've said "no," ignore the tantrum completely. Prepare to be embarrassed; it's worth it—giving in validates the behavior. Realize that you can't always persevere, and that's OK.

How can a tantrum be avoided?
Tantrums are a sign of frustration that a child can't do something comfortably. Know what your child's tolerance level is and try not to push him beyond what he's capable of doing. Tolerance levels vary; he may be able to handle a situation one day and not the next. Try to identify the situations that trigger tantrums and change them.

Remember to reward good behavior: "You were so good today when we had to stand in line at the post office." Think about whether your child may be acting up because he's not getting enough attention; even negative attention is better than none.

Give the child some control over small decisions, so that she can feel she can make a choice. Offer choices such as "Do you want us to read your book before you put your pajamas on or after?"

Give the child a warning before the end of an activity, which gives him a chance to readjust.

After everyone has calmed down and things are back to normal, be sure to share a hug.

If tantrums are more frequent than about once a week and don't lessen as the child grows older, you may want to consider seeking professional advice.

Recommended books

Rimm, Sylvia (1996) Dr. Sylvia Rimm's Smart Parenting: How to Raise a Happy, Achieving Child, Crown Publishing.

Peters, Ruth (1999) It's Never Too Soon To Discipline. St, Martin's Press.

Phelan, Thomas (2003) 1,2,3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. Parentmagic, Inc.

Phelan, Thomas (1998) Surviving Your Adolescents. Parentmagic, Inc.

Wolf, Anthony (2002) Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager, Revised and Updated, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Date Published: June 2, 2006