All kids throw temper tantrums. How to deal with them is equally predictable.


How To Stop A Temper Tantrum In Kids

by Fatherly
Originally Published: 

Everybody temper tantrums the same way. We’re not just talking about Americans here — or even Western countries. People from around the world, from different countries and cultures (hunter-gatherers included) tantrum the same way American children do. And it’s not just all people, either — monkeys and apes tantrum the same way too. We all have the same vocalizations, the same body motions. Everything about how we tantrum is the same. And the way we react to a tantrum: Yes, there’s a clear way for that too.

A tantrum almost always begins with anger, which tapers off throughout the course of the tantrum. If it's a very serious tantrum, a child may display anger by throwing things, hitting people, biting, or kicking. If it's a minor tantrum, it might just be screaming. But there's always a display of anger.

At the same time that that anger starts, there's an undercurrent of sadness and distress, which may be displayed by whining or dropping to the floor. Sad behaviors remain consistent throughout the tantrum.

A normal tantrum is about five minutes. There's some debate among scientists at what point a tantrum is so long that it's pathological and we have to worry about a child having some of psychological illness. Most experts say the cutoff is around 15 or 20 minutes. That's a heck of a tantrum!

But whether five minutes or 20, what’s the best way to deal with a temper tantrum?

Dealing With The Three Types Of Tantrums

There are three types of tantrums. The first is a demand for attention. That can be a child demanding that you hold them or look at them or watch them play a game. The second type is a demand for tangibles, which could be a child demanding a candy bar or a toy. The third is an escape from demand. This one is the most different. That’s when a child doesn’t want to change into their pajamas, or take out the trash, or whatever their parent just told them to do.

The appropriate response is different based on the type of tantrum.

If a child wants attention, the solution is — as long as it's safe — to literally give them no attention, not even negative attention. Don’t punish them. Don’t yell at them. Just turn your back and walk away. You need to show them that they can’t get what they want by throwing a tantrum.

If a child is demanding a tangible, then the best solution is not to give them what they want. They need to learn that this is not an effective negotiating tool. If they want something, they're going to have to find a way besides tantruming to get it. So if a child wants a candy bar, then the solution is not to give them the candy bar.

Some parents think that this approach of ignoring it is the best response for every type of tantrum. It's not.

If a child is trying to escape demand — you say, “put on your pajamas” and your child throws a tantrum — ignoring them doesn't work at all. If you do, you’ll be giving them exactly what they want: They don't have to change into pajamas.

The appropriate response to an escape-from-attention tantrum where the child doesn't want to put on the pajamas is to force them to do it with you. You put your hands over their hands and force them to get dressed. You carry them and ask them to take out the trash. You say, “I'm going to take away your autonomy, and you're going to end up doing it.” This teaches the child that throwing a tantrum doesn’t get them out of things they don’t want to do. It's another way of showing that this negotiating tactic will not work. The key is really you, not the child.

How To Stay Calm When Your Kid Throws A Tantrum

One of the biggest problems with tantrums is that parents tend to freak out. You lose your patience when a child tantrums partially because it's very difficult for you to understand how a child that you raised could be acting like this.

The answer is: They’re sort of possessed. Your child is pre-programmed to tantrum, and it doesn't mean that you’re a bad parent because your child's tantruming or that your child is messed up or a bad kid. It means they’re developing properly.

When you realize that it's all programmed — that the tantrum is your child learning and growing exactly as they should — you won't be as angry about it. And when you're not as angry about it, you can make a cold, calculated decision about how to handle a tantrum and prevent them in the future.

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