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Tame Temper Tantrums

By Brenda Nixon
Guest Columnist Has your youngster ever thrown a temper tantrum? My child tried this on me in a busy Kansas City mall! Imagine my embarrassment and the challenge to discreetly handle this in public.

Every toddler, to whom independence is a passionate issue, will attempt a tantrum. Different temperaments are more passionate about it than others. Trouble is, if we don’t handle this common – inappropriate - behavior skillfully it will continue. Tantrums can become a child’s habit or pattern for getting what they want. The future problem is; children whose tantrums are tolerated and reinforced are most at risk for emotional problems as adults.

All kids occasionally defy adults, test parents, say “No!” and try to get their own way. When your youngster yells at you or stomps his foot in anger, this is NOT a tantrum. This is a typical tot behavior. It cannot be tolerated but it also cannot be confused with a tantrum.

When he loses control of himself physically or verbally, that is a tantrum. Tantrums also look like this: throwing himself on the floor screaming and kicking or becoming red in the face and screaming defiantly at the top of his lungs. Some children are nearly irrational.

This explosive behavior usually begins between 12 and 24 months. The first and best medicine - ignore it! Do not give eye contact; talk to him; give in, or even try telling him to “Stop.” Amuse yourself with another activity and ignore his nasty behavior. At the moment he quiets or calms himself, make a comment on his improved behavior. Something like, “Oh you’ve quit crying. Now let’s read that book.” is sufficient. Give attention only when he shows agreeable (calm) behavior. Then redirect his attention to something else. You do not need to nag about it, tell him that he embarrassed you, send him to time-out for it, or anything. Most children will see a parent’s disappointed look on their face and get the message.

“What?! You mean I don’t punish him for the tantrum?” Nope. Research shows that punishing unwanted behavior is less effective than rewarding the positive behavior you want to see. Even though it sounds unusual it is skilled parenting to give attention when your tot becomes self-controlled.

“But what do I do when my two or three year old still tantrums?” parents often ask. This tells me that back at the beginning Mom or Dad in some way reinforced the tantrum. Perhaps they stood there looking at their child or interfered by trying to get him to calm down. Any – any – attention to the child during a tantrum is perceived by the child as attention.

It’s never too late to correct your parenting response. If you’ve a child who is almost three years old and still throws fits, begin ignoring it. Change what you’re now doing. If you’re used to “talking over” the situation your child has learned that the way to get one-on-one attention from you is to throw a fit. If you “can’t stand it” and cave in, your child has learned a productive way to manipulate you. Also, practice prevention. When you see a meltdown coming, prevent it by leaving the crowd or move to a calmer activity. Some children throw tantrums as a result of over stimulation.

While tantrums are a common problem with many youngsters there are times when the episode requires professional help. Watch for these three red flags: If your child throws tantrums several times every day; injures himself (or you) in the process; or destroys property then seek professional help. I’ve seen a two-year-old boy wallop his mom in the face while throwing a fit. This cannot be ignored. Sometimes a child’s continual fits come from medical or emotional problems and that requires a different response. Your pediatrician or family counselor can help you learn different comebacks to these tantrums. Then your child will feel understood while he learns healthier ways to let off steam.

Let’s go back to my delightful daughter at the busy mall. I turned my back on her public exhibition. Soon she realized I wasn’t going to “care.” So she calmed down. Then I turned and talked to her. She picked herself up off the dirty floor and hand in hand we strolled on down the mall. I handled this public mortification pretty well, I thought. And my parental pride swelled . . . until two elderly ladies scolded me for being a “mean mother!”

Message Board: How do you handle your children's temper tantrums?

©2002, Brenda Nixon.

As a speaker/writer, Brenda Nixon is a speaker and writer on parenting and family issues. This article is adapted from her book Parenting Power in the Early Years available at and bookstores nationwide.

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