It’s almost inevitable. If you’ve spent any time with toddlers and preschoolers, you’ll get to diffuse a temper tantrum. I suppose you can view it as one of the perks of the business… responding creatively to little challenges who may or may not be thrashing on the floor. Though tantrums typically peak around 2 or 3 years of age, preschoolers also wield tantrums to gain control and assert independence. When older children do not learn coping mechanisms for anger, tantrums also occur.
“Temper Tantrums” generally serve as an outlet for a child who is frustrated over a particular physical, emotional, cognitive, or social challenge. A 15 month old might have a tantrum because he or she is hungry or thirsty and lacks the ability to communicate their felt need. A two year old may respond in a similar fashion because their familiar routine has been compromised. Likewise, a three or four year old may erupt in a tantrum because their desire for independence clashes with their inability to complete a task. He/she wants so badly to find success and yet the lack of skills and/or parental control stands as an obstacle.
My heart always goes out to both the child and the adult in a toddler tantrum situation. Uncontrollable emotions can be frightening and overwhelming for children. For adults, a child’s tantrum in the middle of the grocery store or the church service is embarrassing. Some parents are quick to judge their son or daughter’s response as a reflection of their own parenting skills. Sometimes, family members and random bystanders exacerbate the situation by acting in judgment over compassion. I suppose no one wins in that case.
So what can you do as a parent when you have a child who is consistently throwing tantrums? What can you do as a childcare worker when a tantrum has erupted? How can we prevent them in the first place?
In this post, I’ve included some practical strategies for responding to tantrums. However, in an effort to provide full disclosure, may it be known that my three -year old threw a tantrum just last week…. over wearing a pair of shorts in 93 degree weather to the zoo. (His mom thought that this was a sensible idea, but he would have preferred the thick blue sweatpants.) So there you have it. Tantrums are still an occasional struggle in our home, but we have made a good bit of progress with the following strategies.
Practical Strategies for Preventing Temper Tantrums
- Ensure that the child has his or her physical needs met. Address issues of hunger or thirst, lack of sleep, and/or ill fitting clothes or shoes, etc.
- Prevent tantrums with consistency, organization, and structure. Children thrive on routines.
- Provide constant encouragement and positive attention. A tantrum can result when a child is frustrated by the lack of time spent together.
- Always prepare children for transitions verbally or with non-verbal cues. Make transitions fun with songs, games, and dramatic play.
- Empower children with choices – not too many as to be overwhelming, but two or three so that they exert a sense of control and independence.
- Teach coping mechanisms or healthy ways of expressing anger: tearing up paper, crumpling up newspaper, artwork, physical movement, praying, verbalizing emotions (“I’m really mad.”), etc.
Practical Strategies for Responding to Temper Tantrums
- Remain calm and find a quiet spot for the child to process his/her emotions. Crouch or sit down to get on the child’s level so as not to assume a threatening stance. Speak quietly.
- Encourage the child to use words or sign language to communicate the specific frustration.
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings or emotions. “It sounds like you are angry that ______ took your toy. You were having fun playing with it.”
- Differentiate between anger and an inappropriate response. “It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hit your friend and scream on the floor.”
- Establish an age-appropriate consequence for behavior. Follow through with grace and compassion. Pray with the child.
- Above all else, respond with the unconditional love that Jesus modeled so beautifully. We have no greater example than He.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of strategies. What practical tips have you used to prevent and respond to tantrums in either your own home or ministry setting?