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Your Kid's Tantrums: Why They Happen and How to Stop Them

Kathleen Marshall
May 31, 2017

Dealing with temper tantrums isn't for the faint of heart, but nearly every parent has to endure them at some point. Here's some expert advice to stop temper tantrums in their tracks and even prevent them from happening in the first place.



Most kids may have temper tantrums ... but that little tidbit of information probably isn't much comfort when your child is kicking and screaming in the middle of the grocery store and other shoppers are looking at you like you're the world's worst parent.

Here's how to cope when your little one goes into meltdown mode -- and how to discourage it from happening in the first place:

Why Do Kids Have Tantrums?
Kids have these meltdowns because they are simply not mature enough to know how to communicate what they want. A young child gets frustrated about a situation and just can't find the way to communicate his feelings, so he throws a tantrum. You know if you give in, your child will learn that bad behavior brings good results. But what can parents do to avoid this?

According to Dr. Jed Baker, author of "No More Meltdowns" and director of the Social Skills Training Project, the key is to teach children that there is a better way to handle the situation. "Kids can learn to wait or even accept 'no' if they know exactly how long they need to wait (use a timer) or what other positive experiences are in store for them if they can accept no." Start this at home, reinforcing that she will not always get what she wants or get something immediately. Practicing handling this at home will help when you're out in public.

Dr. George Kapalka, author of Parenting Your Out-of-Control Child, adds, "Parents should try not to avoid exposing children to situations that may cause a tantrum -- for this would eliminate the opportunities to develop needed skills -- but to go about normal, day-to-day life in which children are exposed to situations that are frustrating, and give them opportunities and guidance to develop those skills."

Stop Meltdowns in Their Tracks
Your child may still experience meltdowns even after learning other coping skills. After all, he is still growing and developing. To stop tantrums in their tracks, you'll need to plan ahead.

Dr. Baker recommends having a favorite toy or CD available so you can distract your child from the tantrum. He explains that this isn't rewarding bad behavior, because you are not giving in to what the child wants. You are simply redirecting his attention somewhere else. Once he is calm, you can discuss the reason for the tantrum and better ways the situation could have been handled.

According to Dr. Kapalka, it is best to remove the child from the situation that caused the tantrum into some form of a "time out." He adds, "'Time in' is also a useful technique, in which the parent ignores the tantrum and resumes paying attention to the child only when the child begins to act appropriately." Sometimes you just cannot stop the meltdown, and that's okay, too. Let your child ride it out safely, making sure he isn't hurting himself or others, and ignore the behavior. Talk about it after he has calmed down.

Team Up With Caregivers
This is all well and good when you're with your child, but what about when someone else is providing care, whether it be a babysitter for that rare night out or when your child is with a day care provider or teacher? "Parents can help by being on the same page -- utilizing similar rules and consequences as the caregivers," says Dr. Kapalka.

Dr. Baker expands on this by saying, "Let caregivers know what triggers your child's meltdowns and what skill you are trying to teach the child to handle it rather than simply giving in to the meltdown." According to Dr. Baker, common triggers include biological issues like being hungry or tired, demands that a child feels he cannot meet (like difficult homework assignments), having to wait for something he wants, threats to his self-esteem (like losing a game) and unmet needs for attention from parents.

And if All Else Fails?
Hey, tantrums happen, and some children may need more time to learn than others, so patience and consistency are essential. Dr. Kapalka says, "Parents and nannies need to be realistic about what to expect. Children with special needs -- for example, those who have a psychological and/or developmental disorder -- often take longer to learn the self-control needed to stop tantruming." If you feel like your child's meltdowns are longer or more intense than what you think should be happening, call your pediatrician so you can make sure there's nothing else going on.

And on those days where it seems like nothing is going to work? Just remember, most tantrums occur between ages 2 and 3. After age 4, tantrums are very rare. This, too, shall pass.

Want more advice? Read What Do You Do When a Kid Throws a Tantrum in Public?

Kathleen Marshall is a mother of five and grandmother of two (so far!). She has been sharing parenting advice for readers for over 10 years. When she isn't writing she is chasing toddlers, dogs and goats with her husband on a 100 acre farm in Wisconsin.

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