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Strategies for Temper Tantrums

Throwing temper tantrums often is a child’s way of expressing anger or getting attention. Behavior displayed during tantrums includes crying, yelling, biting, hitting, and kicking. Young children frequently throw tantrums because they cannot verbally express their feelings. Young children with language delays are more prone to throwing tantrums because of their limited ability to communicate (Wagonseller & McDowell, 1979). Children with motor delays may have tantrums because they cannot perform tasks they would like to or observe other children doing (Goodman, 1992).

Tantrums may also be a response to frustrating situations including limits imposed by adults, lack of time to complete tasks, or in response to another child’s actions, such as taking away a toy (Bagnato & Neisworth, 1991). Tantrums are not considered abnormal unless they occur frequently and last for a long time. It is important not to overreact to temper tantrums. When a tantrum appears likely, using redirection may prevent it or lessen the intensity (Crary, 1979). Methods used to reduce the likelihood of tantrums include avoiding saying the “no” words.

Removing objects that contribute to tantrums and placing them out of a child’s sight and reach also helps reduce tantrums (Bressanutti, Mahoney, & Sachs, 1992). Allowing children to make choices and providing them with advanced warning for impending transitions is also helpful in preventing tantrums (Blechman, 1985). For example, a child who often has a tantrum when asked to help clean up could be told, “It will be time to put away the toys in five minutes. Let’s set the timer. After we clean up, we’ll have a snack.”

Once a tantrum has begun, it is best to ignore it (extinction). During tantrums children may need to be moved to a safe spot that reduces their chances of being hurt. When children appear to be “out of control,” it might be necessary to firmly hold them for a few minutes to help them regain control and prevent them from hurting themselves or someone else (Dreikurs & Cassel, 1972).

Adults should not yield to demands that lead to the tantrum. For example, if a child began to throw a tantrum because the child was not allowed to have another cookie, the child should not be given a cookie during the tantrum or after it stops. Giving the child a cookie might reinforce the child’s behavior, leading to even more tantrums in the future. After the tantrum is over, children often need to be comforted because the “loss of control” frequently is frightening and embarrassing. Once the tantrum is over, adults should not focus on the tantrum (Blechman, 1985). An adult might say, “You were very upset. I am glad that you are feeling better,” and then continue with the regular activities.

Frequent or very intense tantrums or tantrums that result in children intentionally hurting themselves or someone else are abnormal. In these situations, it is advisable to seek professional help. Pediatricians, social workers, and psychologists are appropriate individuals to contact (Thurman & Widerstrom, 1990).