There are a couple different ways to deal with temper tantrums. Assuming your child is doing the “classic” rendition—arms and legs on the floor, screaming and hitting—here are some options.
- Leave. Walk out of the room and let the child carry on without you there. Ignore if they move to follow you. (Advocated by Dr. Phil)
- Isolate. Put child in a playpen or their own room until they calm down. Destruction may occur. (Advocated by some experts.)
- Punishment. Have the child lose a privilege or do something they don’t want to do when they throw a fit. If the punishment is not too harsh, and if it fits the crime, this can be very effective. (Advocated by many moms.)
- Spank. Don’t be angry, but simply pick them up and quietly give their bum a couple good swats. Effective if done correctly, has the best deterrent effect. (Advocated by conservatives).
- Shock. Throw a cup of cold water on them. It will shock them enough to stop but then they might be madder that you did that. Plus your rugs will be wet. (Advocated by comics.)
- Be ridiculous. Yell back, beg, cry, get angry, try to hold them down or otherwise bind their flailing limbs. Squeeze and contain them until they give up. Your eyes may be poked out. (Advocated by my old apartment neighbor.)
With the exception of the last two, the above options may come in handy. Whatever you can do to get your child to own their lack of control is the key. This is why containing them yourself—forgetting about the safety of your eyes—doesn’t work. The child learns that you are bigger and stronger (hopefully) but doesn’t learn to control themselves so they won’t do it next time. Dr. Phil adds the point that kids need to know that throwing a tantrum does not get them what they want and this is important too. Never ever give in to a fit or you’re guaranteeing it will occur again. Leave the store if the tantrum is meant for attention, and make sure you’re not overreacting because the emotional response you give sometimes satisfies an out-of-control child even more.
That said, recognize that tantrums are common, even with the best of parents. They are caused when an emotional child runs up against frustration that won’t budge. Whether that frustration is you or the lollipop they can’t have, the line they have to wait in, or the clock which says it is time for bed, is peripheral. When young children feel they don’t have any resources to either not have or get rid of the anger/injustice they feel, the easiest thing is to pitch a fit. This has the added effect of getting rid of some pent-up energy and often times getting what they want (sometimes leaving or just getting ten more minutes on their own terms somewhere).
For these reasons, educating a child about temper tantrums usually doesn’t work. Neither do incentives for getting out of them… this becomes a bribe. Maybe incentives for not throwing one at all would work, but then they would have to be throwing them a lot, routinely, in order for me to try this. Like if they consistently threw one at bedtime I might try giving them a sticker each time they went to bed without it. But I would still discipline the fit somehow. And most children throwing temper tantrums are too young to be motivated by this type of long-term reward. If they have that type of morality, they shouldn’t be throwing fits in the first place!
So the point is, remember tantrums are an emotional problem, not a cognitive one. The only way you will stop seeing them is consistent discipline PLUS teaching them alternatives. It is okay to be mad when you have to leave the playground. It is not okay to throw a fit. It is okay to be upset when you don’t get what you want. It is not okay to scream for it. You have to both tell and show a child this rule, many times, in order for them to stop. Congratulate yourself when they switch to whining or pouting… at least they are moving in the right direction. But don’t stop there. Model things they can say or do when they are upset. Tell them what they should say or give them a job/activity that will sublimate their energy. Make a “cool off” spot if necessary, or just hold them and give them something comforting when you see the anger coming. Confront that negative spirit with love and it will change.
And most importantly, realize that a lot of the tantrums will pass on their own as your child grows and gains resources. A child who has language problems may be particularly prone to tantrums. Or children who are distractable, hypersensitive, or experiencing troube at home (like sibling rivalry). And never, never discipline your child if you have overtaxed them by forgetting food, naps, or love that day. Always take care of these very important things first.