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How to deal with temper tantrums

Little girl screaming

Oh, boy! You know what it looks like: A good old fashioned screaming, foot-stamping, fist-banging, red-faced temper tantrum is easy to spot. What’s not so easy, though, is knowing how to handle it effectively.

Here’s the help you’ve been waiting for.

The typical age for temper tantrum behaviour coincides with the stage when a child’s speech and language is developing, between 12 and 36 months. This is no coincidence: “When a child’s brain is firing faster than his speech abilities this can lead to frustration,” says occupational therapist, Carly Tzanos.

“At this stage they are also working hard at being autonomous, but as toddlers don’t have the skill to complete all tasks on their own yet, it can be very frustrating,” says clinical psychologist, Claire Toi. The strong desire to express themselves and be independent, without the tools to do so, can sometimes lead to some pretty explosive behaviour.

How a toddler experiences a temper tantrum

Children like to be in control, so losing it can feel quite scary and overwhelming, especially as they cannot understand it or put words to their feelings.

Usually a temper tantrum is not a child’s first attempt to get your attention. By the time a tantrum erupts, a child might feel like their previous efforts to make themselves heard or understood have been missed, ignored or misinterpreted and this can make them feel desperate.

“Children can feel very insecure and alone if they feel nobody is listening to them,” says Carly.

Temper Tantrums are part of your toddler’s normal development, to an extent, but learning how to recognise early warning signs and manage outbursts appropriately can reduce frustration and anxiety for all concerned. How you handle a tantrum also teaches your child how to cope with the demands and pressures of life when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

How to deal with temper tantrums

  1. Listening to and picking up on your child’s unique cues will help prevent tantrums. Be in tune with your child’s methods of communication; stop what you are doing and take note when he or she is trying to tell or show your something. Look for signs of tiredness, hunger, overstimulation or discomfort, suggests Claire.
  2. A basic routine of nutritious meals, adequate sleep and rest time, and physical activities helps keep children healthy and happy. Try to avoid doing shopping and errands with them when they are hungry or tired, this is when they are most likely to become quickly overwhelmed and frustrated.
  3. Be aware of certain trigger situations; for some children this is the sweet stand at the supermarket tillpoint or having to leave a fun playdate. These situations can’t always be avoided so be prepared to offer your little one some distraction, or use a count down or other cues that it’s time to go. Offering choices where possible can be helpful too, “Do you want to say goodbye with a hug or a wave?” Giving your child behaviour options allows them to feel that they have some autonomy in the situation, says Claire.
  4. Once a child is in the full swing of a tantrum they are beyond reasoning, don’t try to negotiate with them. To calm a tantruming child, acknowledge and name their feelings. For instance, “I can see you are very angry.”
  5. It helps them feel understood when you empathise with them. Try: “I would also be angry if my brother grabbed my toy.”
  6. Giving them a physical cue together with a verbal reassurance will help them feel better. For instance, “Mom’s going to rub your back or hug you tightly and soon you will feel better”. You may need to repeat your reassurances until the child calms. Try to be consistent in your responses to a tantrum.
  7. Try to stay calm throughout; if you find yourself losing your temper, rather remove yourself from the situation, when possible. “Two upset people can feed the tantrum,” says Claire. A tantrum is a way of expression, as well as seeking security and comfort – only a calm parent can provide that.
  8. Giving toddlers and children the opportunity do something physical that is socially acceptable, eg: kicking a large ball, hitting a punch bag or hammering an egg box, can help them release some of their frustrations. They can also scream and shout into a pillow or outside in the garden. “This often ends in fits of giggles especially if you join in! Making an emotions poster or chart can also help them feel heard,” suggests OT Lourdes Bruwer.
  9. Some children need time to be on their own for a bit until they have calmed down, while others seek physical contact, and feel isolated, scared or abandoned if left alone, so you’ll need to tune in and see what’s best for your child.
  10. After they have calmed down, talk about what happened as well as what is acceptable behaviour and what is not when they are feeling like that. This is a good time to discuss alternative ways of reacting, eg: let’s set a timer to help your brother share. Raising emotionally intelligent children will help lessen the frequency and intensity of tantrums.
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