One problem that no preschool parent has ever been spared is that of the tantrum. Tantrums are unpleasant, and often quite embarrassing, but they are very normal, especially in children around the ages of 2-3.
Children of this age group are discovering a will of their own, but they do not yet have the language that they need to express themselves, nor do they have the ability to regulate their own emotions when they do not get what they want right away. Your job as the adult is to help them improve both types of skills.
Try some of the following ideas to help avoid tantrums, or at least make them less frequent and less intense:
- Try the best you can to prepare ahead of time to prevent unnecessary problems. Children do need to learn to deal with small amounts of frustration, since they will encounter many times in their lives when they cannot get their way, but you should make your own life easier by avoiding situations that might set your child off. For example, do not start activities that your child enjoys if you will not have enough time to finish them. Never promise anything that you know you will not follow through on. Avoid beginning activities when your child is already hungry, tired, or cranky. Keep track of when your child tends to throw tantrums, including the time of day, the situation, and particular stressors that make a tantrum more likely, and try to keep these factors to a minimum.
- If you see a tantrum building, try to distract your child by focusing his attention on something else. Young children respond quite well to music, so try singing his favorite song. Know that this strategy will not always work, but it's worth a try.
- Sometimes tantrums arise because young children are testing the boundaries of their new-found independence. Give your child some sense of independence by giving her choices. However, make sure to word the choices in a way that makes it clear that what you want is non-negotiable. For example, she has to get dressed right now to go to preschool, but she can pick the outfit she wants to wear. Allow her to do so, even if she does not end up with a matching outfit.
- Once a tantrum begins, the best policy is usually to make sure that your child is physically safe, and then ignore him. Do not try to argue or reason with a child in the throes of a tantrum, as you will just be setting yourself up for a frustrating power struggle. Think about yourself – are you likely to listen to reason while you are in the grip of overwhelming emotions, or do you just need to vent?
- Do not let yourself get angry about the tantrum to the point where you think you will lose control and say or do something that you will later regret. No matter how hard it may be, force yourself to stay calm. If you cannot do so, excuse yourself for a minute until you regain control.
- Your children are always watching you, so make sure that you are modeling good behavior for dealing with your own frustrating emotions as they arise. Let your child know when something has upset you by labeling the feeling, and then show how you relax, such as taking five deep breaths, or saying that you need five minutes alone to calm down.
- After the tantrum is over, let your child know that you were not happy with his behavior, but then find something positive to say, such as how proud you are of how quickly he was able to calm himself down. Say, “I’m so glad that you are feeling better now,” give him a hug, and then channel him into an activity to avoid dwelling on what just happened.
- If your child has tried to hit, kick, or bite someone else, respond to that particular behavior, not to the tantrum. Remind him that hurting others physically is never tolerated and deliver the normal consequences for these behaviors.
- Do not embarrass your child by making fun of his behavior. Do not hold a grudge and bring up the tantrum again in the future.
- Despite how tempting it may be to give in and let the child have her way just to end a seemingly never-ending tantrum, do not do so. You will be teaching her one major lesson: that throwing a tantrum will eventually get her exactly what she wants if she holds out long enough. Think about the long-term consequences of teaching her this lesson. Tantrums are certainly unpleasant when children are young, but consider a tantrum in an older child or teenager. It is best to set patterns as early as possible so that your child learns that screaming and crying is not the way to get what she wants, from you or anyone else.
- It may be embarrassing to have a child throw a tantrum in a crowded place, but try to remember that your concern is your child and not strangers. As calmly as you can, pick up your child and take him to a quiet place, such as the car, so he can calm down. Let him know that as soon as he calms down, you will be able to return to what you were doing. Do not show impatience or anger through your facial expressions or tone of voice. Try to stay impassive and let him know that he is not getting to you.
- Tantrums may be the only way that your child feels that she can get your attention. Make sure that you are giving her lots of positive attention for good behaviors, and that you are setting aside as much time as possible, even just a few minutes every day, to spend alone with your child, only focusing on her.
Most of the time, tantrums are nothing to worry about. If you set your limits firmly and do not give in to the desires underlying the tantrums, children should learn fairly quickly that throwing tantrums do not work. If you are sticking to your limits and showing your child that he cannot upset you, but he continues to have tantrums 2-3 times per day, or the tantrums last longer than 15-20 minutes, you should contact your pediatrician for assistance.