If your child stomps his foot on the ground, throws himself to the floor – arms and legs flailing – and lets out ear-piercing, red-faced screams, then you know the drama of a full-blown temper tantrum.
Most parents with younger children will experience this many times since tantrums are a normal part of development. As children try to exert their independence, they often feel frustrated when their communication skills are insufficient to adequately express their needs and wants.
Tantrums are most common between the ages of 18 and 36 months and equally prevalent amongst boys and girls. Typically, the frequency will decline after this age as children develop more effective communication skills; however, sometimes tantrums can continue beyond this age, leaving many parents at a loss about how to tame them.
The key is to be proactive, taking steps to prevent tantrums before they start by determining the causes and recognising the first signs of agitation. In general terms, tantrums are a means for a child to get something they want (a toy, a food item, attention, help, control) or to avoid something they don’t want (ending an activity, or doing an unwanted task, for example). Keeping a log and recording when and where tantrums occur, what happened prior to it, how long it lasted and what happened immediately after, can serve as a valuable resource for identifying causal factors and trends. Identifying the causes and recognising the first signs of your child’s tantrums can allow you to intervene early and prevent escalation.
Teach, teach and re-teach
Teaching and consistently re-teaching more appropriate ways for a child to deal with frustration or disappointment is an essential component in tantrum management. For example, try teaching your child to use words to express how they feel or to ask: “Please help”, or, “I need a break”. Initially, you will need to prompt and offer reminders when you anticipate problems or recognise the early signs of agitation. However, in time, the aim is for your child to self-initiate as they learn and experience the benefits of these choices.
Unfortunately, a shift in behaviour is unlikely to happen overnight, and you may have to be persistent with this message. Educational speaker and author Harry K Wong makes this point when he states that for an average student to unlearn an old behaviour and replace it with a new behaviour, the new behaviour must be repeated an average of 28 times!
One of the most effective, and yet easily forgotten, strategies when trying to manage more effective behaviour from children is to remember to catch them doing the right thing and praise them for it. There is often a temptation to correct any minor misbehaviour but not to acknowledge good behaviour. The most successful way to shape or increase desired behaviour is to praise it immediately when it occurs. Be descriptive in your praise so that your child better understands what the expected behaviour looks and sounds like. Rewards can also be considered in the early stages to provide additional motivation if necessary.
Breaking down a difficult task into manageable pieces, otherwise known as chunking, and interspersing them with breaks or preferred activities is often helpful in avoiding frustration. It increases your child’s chance for success and provides you with the opportunity to praise as each chunk is completed. This positive attention and sense of achievement can boost motivation and help change a negative perception about a particular task.
Collaborating with your child to find mini-compromises can also serve to diminish the frustration associated with challenging tasks. For example, “You do one button and I’ll do the next”, or, “I’ll pick up two toys, then you pick up two toys.” This is similar to chunking but with the added advantage of the experience being a shared one. With both chunking and collaboration the goal is to gradually increase the expectation on your child so they move in manageable steps towards independent completion.
Offering choice can be a powerful strategy for children who are particularly motivated by independence or who enjoy a sense of control. Choice has been demonstrated to have a positive impact on compliance even when the choice is between two non-preferred tasks. Children who are offered a choice feel more empowered by being part of the decision-making process. For example, “You can brush your teeth first or put on your pyjamas. What do you choose?”
Rather than abruptly ending an activity, provide warning that it will soon be time to stop and move on to something new. Using a sand timer or a countdown timer and offering verbal prompts, such as “three minutes to go”, “one minute to go”, assists in minimising surprise and reducing disappointment or frustration when it is time to transition to a new activity.
Remaining calm when confronted with a tantrum is easier said than done, but it is very important when aiming to avoid further escalation of the situation. Losing your cool because you aren’t getting what you want isn’t effective modelling or an effective solution for a child who is losing their cool to get what they want. You are your child’s role model and they will do what you do. Furthermore, it can empower the child with the realisation that they can manipulate your mood and therefore reinforce their behaviour.
Avoiding frustrating situations, establishing and maintaining routines, and keeping “off limit” objects out of reach and out of sight are other ways to reduce the likelihood of tantrums starting.
Tantrums as defiance
What if a tantrum occurs after you have refused their request for something they want or after you have directed them to do something they don’t want to do?
If a request leads to signs of agitation, consider using the strategies mentioned earlier to soothe the situation. If a tantrum occurs, calmly state that you are here to listen and talk but only when you can be spoken to calmly and politely. Then give minimal attention to the tantrum. Eye contact, sighs or engaging in dialogue at this point can all serve to maintain the tantrum. Ensure safety by maintaining subtle awareness of what is going on but appear to be going about your daily activities.
Alternatively, if a direction you have given immediately leads to a tantrum, consider whether your child has the skills necessary to carry out the task. If not, change the focus to modifying the direction or teaching the skill. If your child does have the skills and you have followed the previously mentioned strategies but the tantrum continues, remain calm and follow through. Failing to do so will send a powerful message to your child that tantrums work and this alone will promote further tantrums.
Again, ensure that your child is safe but give minimal attention to the tantrum behaviour. Calmly repeat the instruction to your child and offer a choice. For example, “You need to put the toy away now or go to time-out.” They are then in control of what the consequence will be. Move away and allow a few moments for them to make their choice. Offer praise if they put the toy away or follow through with time-out if they choose again to be non-compliant.
You can place responsibility with your child by stating that they need to remain in time-out until they are calm and ready to follow your directions, or set a time period for time-out. One minute for every year of age is a good guide and so four minutes for a four-year-old child is reasonable. Use your judgement as to the most suitable method for your child. Using a countdown timer or a sand timer is helpful. If they move from time-out or begin the tantrum again, then restart the timer. Once time-out is completed your child needs to comply with the original direction. Offer praise if they comply or return your child to time-out and repeat the time-out process.
The first time you implement this strategy is likely to be challenging and time-consuming, so it’s best to choose a suitable time when you are well-prepared and well-supported. The tantrum may initially get worse as your child battles to maintain the behaviour that had previously served a positive purpose. However, things tend to improve rapidly once your child realises that it isn’t working anymore and that you are calm and will follow through.
Consistency helps prevent the testing of boundaries and ultimately provides a level of security for children as it provides a clear outline of what is acceptable, what isn’t and what the negative and positive consequences will be in response to their behaviour. It helps children make better decisions. Consistency in conjunction with a calm, proactive and positive approach is the most effective combination in preventing tantrums.
If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s tantrums or if other aspects of your child’s behaviour are of concern to you, consult your child’s doctor, who can guide you in seeking further professional advice and support.
Anthony Stone, behavioural advisor, specialises in children and adolescents, and practices at Central Health, Southside Family Health Centre and Island Health Family Practice.