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Effective Ways to Handle Children’s Tantrums

We’ve all experienced it: we’re at the grocery store, or even a department store … when out of nowhere, a child starts letting out nerve-congealing screams that quickly direct our attention to the source — a toddler or slightly older child is upset that he or she can’t have some enticing-looking goody they’ve come across, and they’re letting the whole world know they’re upset.

Very often, the parent accompanying the child does nothing at all to calm the youngster, simply ignoring the meltdown altogether — which interestingly, is what a lot of experts recommend that a parent do in such a case: nothing (“why should you let your child manipulate you,” the logic goes). On a few occasions, we will watch as the parent starts administering whacks to the child — which usually only escalates the screaming.

In this writer’s view, neither ignoring the tantrum, nor applying corporal punishment, is a fair solution.  Ignoring the hollering is disruptive and distressing for everyone in the vicinity, including the parent.  Hitting the child, on the other hand, will not only make the youngster even more upset, but as we all now increasingly understand, hitting children can lead to even more behavioral problems later on, and damage a child’s psyche all the way into adulthood.

So, what is a parent to do?

First, parents need to understand that throwing tantrums is a part of growing up. From about age one, to around age four, most children can be counted on to periodically release their frustrations of the moment by screaming, hitting, kicking, dropping to the floor, and so on. The fact that children have very limited vocabularies in their first years means that they’re that much more likely to become frustrated, when they’re unable to communicate their feelings about something to other children or adults.

You don’t want to immediately cave in to your child’s demand, however, and certainly not every time, because that will teach the child that if they throw a tantrum, they can get whatever they want.

But what a parent can do is take specific steps to put an end to the tantrum there and then, and other steps to decrease the chances of disruptive emotional outbursts occurring in the future.

At the beginning of a tantrum, it is important for a parent to remain calm. Take a couple of deep breaths, if necessary, then gently grab your child by the shoulders or lift them up to your level, making eye contact and acknowledging their emotions with comments such as, “I understand that you’re upset right now.”  Then, you explain to the child that you need for them to behave while at the store. If the child cannot be controlled, you may need to leave the store for a moment, or even go sit inside the car, until your child has calmed down. You then ask him or her if they are now ready to go back to the store and behave in a nice way.

If the tantrum happens at home over a toy, for instance, help two fighting children reach an agreeable solution.  For younger children, you could offer the screaming child some type of distraction — another toy that they can play with, or try to engage them in another activity for a while, even if it requires moving the child to another area of the home. Soon enough, the child playing with the coveted toy will grow tired of it, and the formerly screaming child can then have a turn at it.

If a child has engaged in physical violence against another child (or an adult), you will want to place the aggressor in a “time-out” for a little while, separate from others, and verbally reinforce that he or she cannot hit people.

Later on, after the tantrum and the time-out are done and over with, take the opportunity to teach your child to communicate his or her feelings with words, instead of punching, kicking or hollering.

Children are more apt to throw tantrums when they are tired, hungry, thirsty or under too much stress. So, taking that into account, plan shopping trips for times when child is properly fed and has had enough sleep (for example, after their nap).

If you think that shopping is going to take a while, plan ahead by taking a small snack inside a baggie for your child to eat, along with some water or diluted juice to drink, in case he or she starts to get cranky or hungry. Some healthy suggestions for snacks: tortilla chips and small chunks of cheese, or a couple of string cheese tubes with some grapes or apple slices. (Always remember to carry something to wipe your child’s hands with, before they touch the food.)

With respect to emotional overload, work to ensure that your child is not overwhelmed by too much going on around them at home, or too many activities in their day.  It is also important for bed times and meal times to be consistent every day.

Positive reinforcement is very helpful: when your child does behave well, or when they are able to stop a tantrum on its tracks, with minimal assistance from you, tell them how proud you are of how well they behaved; tell them what a “big boy” or “big girl” they’re getting to be — kids love hearing that, and it will cause them to behave in ways that will generate more positive feedback from you.

By Lisa Pecos

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