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Prevention strategies and how to deal with them when they happen
By Rob Levey
It is not a matter of if, but when your child will engage in a temper tantrum, which can frustrate and confuse any parent or caregiver. However, experts note temper tantrums play an important role in a child’s development and cite several strategies in how to handle them.
According to Jessica Ross of Portsmouth’s Seacoast Mental Health Center, temper tantrums generally reflect a child’s inability to accept a limit or boundary they do not understand or want to change.
“They can also mean they are having difficulty expressing and communicating what they are truly trying to communicate,” said Ross, who said infants do not experience temper tantrums in the classic sense.
“I would view an infant's temper tantrum as a necessity, such as hunger, diaper change or sickness,” she added.
Jodie Lubarsky, director of SMHC’s Child, Adolescent and Family Services, agrees with Ross and said the same can be said to a great extent about toddlers, too.
“Both infants and toddlers lack the basic language skills to say, ‘My stomach hurts,’ ‘I'm tired,’ or ‘I'm hungry,’ and use the display of unwanted behaviors to communicate and get their needs met,” she said.
Noting they begin in earnest in the “terrible twos,” which often last well into a child’s fourth and fifth years, Genesis Behavioral Health’s Kellie Eastman said temper tantrums often represent a toddler’s first attempt at developing their independent skills.
“They often get frustrated as they are learning all the new things that come with this developmental stage,” she said.
In working through their temper tantrums, however, Eastman said toddlers learn a crucial life lesson.
“Every time they have a tantrum and get over it, they are flexing those self-regulation muscles and learning how to calm themselves down,” she said.
According to Sarah McDowell, director of Creative Years Child Development & Learning Center in Nashua, the preferred method in dealing with a temper tantrum is to avoid one altogether.
“You can usually see it coming on, so you watch for those cues,” said McDowell, who said temper tantrums often result over how to share a particular toy.
Lubarsky noted other signs include infants moving their lips in a sucking motion or sucking on their hands to indicate the need to be fed, while toddlers may rub their eyes, tuck their ears, yawn or become irritable or overactive to indicate the need for sleep.
Eastman agrees and said the key to prevent a temper tantrum is to learn your child’s triggers.
“Ask yourself if your child loses it in the late afternoon when you are trying to cook dinner,” she said. “Does your child get over stimulated after being around a lot of people? Are they impossible if they don’t get their nap?”
According to Lubarsky, if parents consistently misread or ignore such triggers and respond only after temper tantrums begin, the risk is a child will become more inclined to engage in such behavior because it is the only time a parental response occurs.
Lubarsky said other prevention strategies include developing consistent routines at homes as well as “firm, concrete limits” regarding unwanted behaviors.
“If a parent states a consequence and the behavior continues, the consequence must be enforced,” she said. “Otherwise, limit-setting quickly becomes empty threats the child will not take seriously.”
Unfortunately, not all temper tantrums can be avoided, which is why when one occurs McDowell said safety comes first.
After ensuring the child’s safety, she said the best strategy most of the time is to leave the child alone.
Ross agrees and said ignoring a temper tantrum is sometimes the best option, especially within the home environment, which she refers to as “planned ignoring.”
“If you know you have already stated the limits, boundaries or expectations for a desired behavior or action, ignoring the temper tantrum after the child does not receive their desired outcome lets the child know you are holding firm and will not give in,” she said.
As for what to do in public places, McDowell said you can either essentially “strap them in the shopping cart” and finish what you are doing or remove yourself and the child from that environment.
Before electing to “escape the environment,” Lubarsky said parents should provide a verbal warning first followed by a second verbal warning that includes realistic consequences if the child does not choose to change the unwanted behavior.
According to Lubarsky, parents must also consider what behaviors they are reinforcing.
“If the child is using the unwanted behavior to gain parental attention and the parent responds, then the child's unwanted behavior will likely be reinforced,” she said. “Hence, the child learns in order to get mom or dad's attention, he/she must use unwanted behaviors.”
Echoing sentiments expressed by others, Lubarsky said intentional or planned ignoring, distraction, and redirection even in public settings might be the best method to address the unwanted behaviors provided there are no safety concerns.
In any scenario involving a temper tantrum, Eastman said the key is to remain calm.
“Take a deep breath, or a series of deep breaths, and believe that you will get through it,” she said. “Although we feel very singled out and maybe even humiliated when our child is red-faced and screaming on the grocery store floor, this happens at one time or another to every parent.”
McDowell suggests parents think about their responses to such situations beforehand, because in the moment “you can lose all sense of reality.”
“You end up engaging in these battles where no one wins,” she said. “If they see you don’t get upset, their reactions will subside.”
In remaining calm, Ross said it is important parents “hold firm to the limits and boundaries that have been set.”
“The more a parent gives in, the more temper tantrums tend to become escalated each and every time,” said Ross. “The child learns they just need to push the limit a little more each time and the parent will give in.”
Rob Levey is the director of development and communications at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Feb 28, 2012.