Imagine how frustrated you would feel if you didn’t have the skills to express yourself or be independent. That’s how a toddler feels just before the start of a temper tantrum. Temper tantrums are common in young children between the ages of 1 and 3 years. Parents often refer to the “terrible 2’s.” However, the tantrum stage can stretch to age 4. Being hungry and tired also can trigger a temper tantrum. This can include crying, stomping, screaming, hitting, kicking, or any combination of these. Both boys and girls have temper tantrums.
Path to improved well being
When your child is in the middle of a temper tantrum, it’s hard to gain the upper hand. When the tantrum occurs in public, it’s even harder. The key is avoiding a temper tantrum before it begins. The good news is that there are a many tips for preventing a tantrum:
- Plan ahead: Tell your child in advance if you’re planning to go to the store, a doctor’s appointment, or change their regular routine. They may not enjoy the change, but it will help prepare them for what’s to come.
- Communicate your expectations: Tell them how you expect them to behave when you get to your destination. If you’re going to the store, for example, explain (in their terms) what you plan to buy and that you’ll then leave to go home or to the next stop. If it helps, invite them to bring a toy from home to play with on the trip to and from the store.
- Praise your child for good behavior: Parents sometimes have a habit of telling their children what they do wrong. Turn it around and praise them every time they do the right thing without you asking. For example, if your child doesn’t touch things in the store, tell them, “I noticed you kept your hands to yourself in the store. Good job!”
- Let your child have some independence: There are plenty of times your child can be in control. Let your child dress him or herself when you’re staying home, and their selection doesn’t matter. Let them choose the cup they want to use at dinner, or the color of the crayon they want to use to color a picture. Choose your battles. As long as your child is safe and there are no serious consequences to their decision, then you’ve boosted their confidence.
- Redirect: Again, planning ahead is important. If you spot an unplanned situation that you know will upset your child, redirect their attention. For example, if you know your child will want to pet a strange dog you see coming down the sidewalk, take a different path, stop and pick a flower, cross the street, be silly, or sing a song.
- Anticipate your child’s limitations: Know what your child can and cannot tolerate. For example, if you know your child isn’t his or her best for an afternoon play date (especially when they’re tired), move the play date to the morning.
- Don’t let hunger get out of control: Like adults, many children get fussy when they are hungry. Plan for mealtimes (by being home or at a restaurant), and always carry snacks for the unexpected. When planning to eat out, remember to factor in the time it takes to wait for your food. A light snack is good for those times, as well.
- Plan for yourself: Remember, you won’t be at your best either if you are tired or hungry. If you are not at your best, then pick another time to run an errand if you can.
Things to consider
- Acting out in public: This is every parent’s nightmare because your child has an audience. All parents feel embarrassed when this happens. However, it is not a sign of bad parenting, but rather of a frustrated child. Plan for outings in public. Have a quick exit strategy ready for restaurants, stores, church, and other public places. When you’re at home or in the car, ignore your child’s tantrum if you can. Eventually, they will run out of steam. Never give in or bribe them to stop. And don’t engage in an argument. In fact, it’s best to turn your body away from them (while still maintaining their safety) to let them know you will not argue.
- Dangerous situations: Don’t ignore your child’s temper tantrum if it puts them in harm’s way. Acting out near a busy street, a parking lot, or harming themselves or others is considered dangerous. In those instances, pick your toddler up immediately and remove him or her from that danger.
- Timeouts: A timeout isn’t designed to be a harsh punishment. It’s a time for your child to regain his or her self-control. It’s a time for them to calm their temper and their body. Choose a safe, quiet space in your home for timeouts. It’s best to choose an area you can monitor. The recommended amount of time your child sits in time out should be one minute for every year of their age. For example, a 3-year-old should sit in time out for no more than three minutes. Don’t engage your child in conversation or activities during a timeout.
- Own up: Sometimes parents make mistakes. We may have made an honest mistake or been insensitive. When you are truly at fault, apologize to your child to avoid a tantrum or reduce the intensity.
- Your child’s general health: If you are concerned about your child’s tantrums, have your doctor check his or her hearing, vision, general health, language milestones, and learning abilities to see if there is another explanation for the tantrums.
- Don’t ignore your feelings: If you feel out of control, have negative feelings toward your child, or don’t see improvements in your child’s behavior, talk with your doctor.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do you know if your child is having a tantrum because he or she is in pain?
- How can you distinguish between a tantrum and a developmental problem?
- Is it okay to let your child scream if they are in a safe space?
- How many is too many temper tantrums?
- Do the tantrum years last longer in children with special needs? If so, how do you handle a tantrum in an older child with special needs?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.