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How Can I Manage My Child's Tantrums?

How Can I Manage My Child's Tantrums?

A child and adolescent psychologist shares how parents can manage and reduce their child's tantrums.

For all the parents out there who are struggling to manage their children’s tantrums: Put yourself in your child’s shoes—there is a lot to learn. Different environments have different routines, behavioral expectations, and rules. Managing all of these things is an ongoing learning process, and it is not surprising at all that it does not always go smoothly. So next time you are in the supermarket and your child is in the midst of a meltdown, here are some tips to get you through it.

All behavior has a purpose—sometimes in the moment it can feel like tantrums occur out of nowhere, but there is always a reason. As a parent, you are in the best position to be a “behavior investigator.” In order to be proactive, and prevent future tantrums (i.e., decrease the frequency of the behavior), you will need to take a really deep breath and think hard about what was happening right before the tantrum started. Basically, it is your job to figure out the why (function) of the behavior. Some considerations:

  • Did you ask your child to do something that is hard or not enjoyable right before the tantrum started (think about all those homework related behavioral issues)?
  • Did you ask your child to move from a fun activity to a less fun activity (transition between watching TV and eating dinner)?
  • Did you tell your child he could not have something he wanted (cookie at a supermarket)?

Figured out why the tantrum is occurring? Great, now it’s time to stay strong!

If you have already told your child that she cannot have a cookie, you need to try your best and follow through with that decision. If your child engages in a seemingly never-ending tantrum and you agree to let her have a cookie, you are almost guaranteeing the future occurrence of tantrum behavior. Think about it from your child’s perspective: If crying worked for me this time, why wouldn’t it work again? Try to stay in the moment and remember that you are doing the best thing for your child. It is a fact that when your child tantrums in public, there will be people who offer unsolicited suggestions. Remember, you know what you’re doing. Stick with it!

Try your best to remember that because all behavior means something, the way you are dealing with it is a way of teaching your child about limits, rules, and the appropriate way to get what he wants.

Tempted to give in? Think long term. Remember the cookie in the supermarket? Giving in would have solved the whole tantrum, right? Giving in may solve problems short term, but remember that all tantrums are learning experiences so ask yourself the question: What did I just teach my child? How you handle this tantrum not only teaches your child a valuable lesson about rules and expectations, it sets the stage for how you are going to solve these behavioral issues long term. Once the tantrum is over, the real work begins. Now it is time to figure out the best way to prevent another tantrum from occurring.

Let’s continue with the example of the cookie in the supermarket. Maybe before the next supermarket trip, you sit with your child and go over your expectations for that trip (hold mommy’s hand, have a quiet voice, etc.). Depending on your child’s age, you may even give her some small jobs that will help keep her engaged during the shopping trip (find the carrots, apples, etc.). Be clear with your child: If he follows all the rules, he can have access to something he really wants (maybe it’s a special toy at home, or a special treat after dinner). Just make sure you make your expectations clear.

The last thing to remember is no one is perfect all the time. Tantrums can become overwhelming. Giving in does not do permanent damage, and it certainly does not mean you are a bad parent. All experiences are learning experiences, and you can use that information to make a better plan for next time. It’s all part of the process!

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