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Toddler's Temper Tantrum

Screaming, crying, kicking, throwing things, we recognize a tantrum when we see one. But did you know that one of the best opportunities for you and your child to learn effective parenting and anger management strategies is when your child gets angry or has a temper tantrum? If you can manage your reaction to temper tantrums well, you can manage many other parenting situations. So lets take a look at what causes tantrums, and what can we do about them?

What is a temper tantrum?

A temper tantrum is a child's normal response to a frustrating situation. It seems like your child throws a tantrum just to push your buttons; but in reality, temper tantrums are unintentional and unplanned. Children don't throw fits to get your attention; they simply feel frustrated and out of control.

Everyone has a tantrum once in a while, but tantrums are most common in children between the ages of one and four years. Studies shows that tantrums occur for about 80 percent of children in this age group but some children are more likely than others to have temper tantrums.

Tantrum Triggers

Toddlers are busy learning new skills and asserting their independence. When something interferes with that, they don't know how to respond. Maybe your child is trying to put on her own socks but they "don't feel right." Or you cut her toast into squares instead of triangles. The inability to complete these tasks is a real source of contention for a toddler.

Additionally, children need and thrive on limits; yet when parents set limits, the children tantrum in frustration. You won't let your child hold a knife. You insist that he be strapped into his car seat. Limits can make your child feel completely out of control and trigger a total meltdown.

Some common causes to temper tantrum are:

  • Frustration - often due to limited language, or lacking the skills to complete tasks, for example getting stuck with a jumper half-way on, or a piece of puzzle that won’t fit.

  • Being hungry or tired

  • Wanting things they can’t have – whether it’s sweets at the checkout counter in the supermarket, one more video, or a friend’s toy.

  • Wanting independence – To walk, not ride in the buggy, to choose her own clothes, or to brush his own teeth.

  • Over-stimulation – common during exciting events like parties or Christmas.Attention seeking - if previous tantrums got lots of attention, this can become a pattern as kids grow.

  • Emotional overload - when trying to cope with the world and the many new experiences a toddler has every day just feels like too much.

  • Feeling out of control - when living in stressful environments. Children learn by watching their parents and it's important to set a good example by handling your own frustrations appropriately.

The torture of Tantrums

It is often thought that children throw tantrums to manipulate and control their parents. As a response, parents may feel compelled to take a firm stance against the displays and assert their own power when in fact the majority of parents feel completely helpless and useless and blame themself for their child’s tantrums. But if you view a tantrum for what it really is — a child's feeling of powerlessness and her attempt to find inner control—then you can position yourself to help rather than overpower your child.

Other times we feel that our child does it deliberately when we´re out – just to embarrass us. Yet toddlers really don’t think in that way! All their behavior is an expression of their own needs and feelings, not trying to get at you, even though it can sometimes feel like that! No matter how great a parent you are, most toddlers will have a tantrum at some stage so even though we might feel that our child saves her tantrums for us, since she never do it to others but believe it or not, this is a compliment! Your child feels most emotionally secure with you, and knows you will still love her no matter how she behaves. After being on ‘best behavior’ all day at nursery, it is common to boil over with parents. And remember: Tantrums need an audience! Children don’t pop into the next room to have them.

10 Tips to handle a tantrum

Parents can learn how to nurture and discipline effectively by following these steps:

1. Learn to differentiate between the person and the behavior.

When parents discipline out of anger or with expectations that are inappropriate for the age of their child, they often make mistakes in the way they react. The place to begin is the way we communicate our own anger. First of all, it´s important not to judge the person, but the behavior. Ex.: "It makes me really angry when you hit your sister and I will not tolerate that kind of behavior” Keep the message simple and only focus on the current situation, avoid labeling, criticizing or generalizing by saying: “How many times have I told you not to hit your sister, you make me so angry, I really don’t know what to do with you”.

2. Distract or redirect the child.

When a child is misbehaving, a calm and asserted parent can sometimes re-direct the child's behavior. Ex.: "Here's a bowl of warm water. Let's put it outside where you can splash all you want.” Aim for some happy, relaxed times every day – reading a story, visiting the park, playing a game.

3. Be prompt and brief with discipline.

One technique you can use is to pick up and remove your small child from the room immediately and isolate him or her for two to five minutes. This also gives you time to get in control of your emotions. Two to five minutes are enough; lecturing is unnecessary. In rare circumstances, it may be helpful to physically hold the child. Be firm and consistent in enforcing rules, especially with older, school age children. Ex.: "I'm putting you in your room for a 'time out' until you calm down and are ready to talk again." Or "I want you to go to your room now and stay there until you are ready to come out and use words to ask for what you want".

4. Try to discover the reason for your child's anger or temper tantrum.

What does he or she want and not getting? The reasons for children having temper tantrums vary: to get attention, get someone to listen, protest not getting their way, get out of doing something they do not want to do, punish a parent for going away, for power, for revenge, from fear of abandonment, etc. Let the child know the behavior is unacceptable. Trying to stop the tantrum by giving in to the demand may be tempting, but parents should stick with the limit that was set—no matter how intense the tantrum. Giving in to tantrums may teach children how to use tantrums for manipulation, causing the behavior to continue in the long term. So instead talk calmly. Ex.: "Now that we're out of the store and we've both had a chance to calm down, let's talk. I think you were mad at me that I said no to buying the candy you wanted, it is OK for you to be angry at me, but kicking, screaming and yelling that you want candy won’t work. It won’t get me to buy you the candy.”

5. Avoid shaming your child about being angry.

Children in healthy families are allowed to express all their feelings, whether these are pleasant or unpleasant. They are not criticized or punished for having and expressing feelings appropriately, including anger. If there is a situation in which the child seems unwilling to relieve his/hers distress help them by putting word to situation. Ex.: "You look and sound angry right now. I'd feel angry too if someone messed up my coloring like she messed up yours."

6. Teach children about intensity levels of anger.

By using different words to describe the intensity of angry feelings (e.g., annoyed, aggravated, irritated, frustrated, angry, furious, enraged), children as young as 2 1/2 can learn to understand that anger is a complex emotion with different levels of energy. Ex: "I was annoyed when I had a hot meal ready and all of you were late for dinner." or "That man was so angry -- I think he was enraged after someone bumped into his car and went away unnoticed."

7. Set clear limits and high expectations for anger management, appropriate for your child's age, abilities, and temperament.

As parents, we will be angry all the time if we have to high or unrealistic expectations to our child regardless of age. Ex. "While I want you to know it's OK to feel angry, it's not OK to hit others!" "I expect you to help with chores, control your anger without hitting, biting or spitting. I expect you to be honest and thoughtful of others, do your best in school, ask for what you want, and treat others as you would like to be treated".

8. Notice, compliment and reward appropriate behavior.

Teaching your child to do the right things is better (and easier) than constantly punishing bad behavior. Children who get a steady diet of attention only for bad behavior tend to repeat those behaviors because they learn that is the best way to get our attention, especially if we tend to be overly authoritarian. Ex.: "I really liked the way you asked Grandpa to play ball with you." "Thanks, for tidy up you room and putting all your toys in their boxes, that was very helpful."

9. Maintain an open communication with your child.

Consistently and firmly enforce rules and explain the reasons for the rules in words your child can understand. Still, you can listen well to your child's protests about having to take a national test or measles shot. Ex.: "Sounds like you are angry at the school rule that says you can't wear shorts, sandals and tank tops to school."

10. Teach understanding and empathy by calling your child's attention to the effects of his or her actions on others.

Invite the child to see the situation from the other person's point of view. Ex. “How would you feel if someone took your toy without asking” or “how would you feel if I hit you or bit you when I was angry.” Healthy children feel remorse when they do something that hurts another. Authoritative discipline helps them develop an internal sense of right and wrong. Remember, a little guilt goes a long way, especially if it makes your child reflect on his/her own behavior.

Beyond the Tantrum Stage

Once the storm has passed, reconnect with your child. Praise him for calming down. Hold him close and talk about what happened. Acknowledge his frustration and explain that it was the behavior—not him—that was "bad." This will likely be an issue that you have more than once. Most children grow out of the tantrum stage as they master new skills and become more independent, but occasionally, fits of temper and violence persist into elementary school and may signal serious problems. Sometimes there are biological sources of anger that require diagnosis by a physician or psychologist especially if the anger turns into violent and destructive behavior. Ask your physician, school guidance counselor or psychologist for names of those skilled in working with children on anger issues. Such as counselors, psychologists and family therapists who specialize in child behavioral problems.

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