How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums

temper tantrum

educationandbehavior.com

Preface
This article illustrates ways for adults to change their own behaviors, in order to prevent and appropriately respond to temper tantrums. In my experience, adults who have or work with children with behavior challenges are often surprised to hear that they have to change their own behaviors or change the environment to meet the needs of the child. As a behavior consultant, I have often heard “Why should I have to change?  He is the one acting out.” or “It is too much work to make these changes.” In actuality, the adult does not have to make any changes in their own behavior or the environment, but then it is very unlikely that the child’s behavior will change. If you are ready to make changes to meet the needs of your child or students, keep reading.

Additionally, this article is meant to help educators and parents. Although much of the language is geared towards parents, the strategies presented here are meant for school as well. As you read through the examples below, think of how you can apply the strategies to students in your classroom. Keep in mind that behavioral strategies, such as the ones in this article, do not always lead to immediate change in child behavior. Your child may be surprised by the new strategies you are using and behaviors could get more challenging at first. You need to try strategies consistently over a period of time to see their true effect on behavior.

Introduction
Temper tantrums are a normal part of a developing child’s life. They generally occur in young children (4 and under) but also may occur in older children, especially children with difficulty expressing their feelings or communicating their thoughts, wants, and needs. Tantrums happen when children feel a lack of control in their world. As adults, we have found our own ways to vent our frustrations when things don’t go our way. Many children have not yet developed these skills. Because they have trouble identifying, understanding, or appropriately expressing their frustrations, they have tantrums as a way to vent their feelings. Temper tantrums can be very frustrating for both you and your child. They sometimes last for a long time (anywhere from a couple of minutes to an hour or more). They can be very loud and scary. You may also feel bad that your child is so unhappy, and you just want it to stop. Here are some common reasons children have tantrums:

  • They want something they can’t have (e.g., no, you can’t play with Brian today; no, you can’t have any more candy)
  • They are scared to go somewhere or do something new or they are anxious about you leaving (e.g. I am taking you to the doctor, you are going to a new school today, I am going out and you will stay with Aunt Sue)
  • They are told they have to do something they don’t want to do (e.g., you have to go to bed now. you need to complete your math homework)
  • They are yelled at for misbehaving or told they have to stop their behavior (e.g., stop throwing the ball in the house, don’t touch my purse)
  • They are told to stop doing something they enjoy, to do something they don’t enjoy (e.g.,  stop playing with your toys and go to bed)

Here are some common responses and outcomes to child temper tantrums:

  • The adult attempts to reason with the child during the tantrum, trying to get him to see that the tantrum is unnecessary and needs to stop — Once a child is having a  tantrum, he is almost impossible to reason with. Trying to talk him out of it usually leads to more crying, screaming, etc.
  • Giving in to the child, just to make the tantrum stop — Although this works in the short-term, it teaches the child that he can use tantrums to get his way. This will lead to more tantrums in the future.
  • Trying to negotiate with the child — Here is an example: You and your child already agreed that you are going to the store for food and she can pick out one toy. When you get to the store, she sees three toys she wants and starts begging for all three. You negotiate and say, “How about if I buy you two instead.”  If you made an agreement, or you have a rule set in place, only change the rule or agreement if you determine that your rule was unreasonable.  Negotiating and changing rules or agreements, reinforces to your child that she can get you to bend the rules by having a tantrum and teaches her that you don’t necessarily mean what you say. This can lead to her not taking your rules too seriously.
  • Holding the child and telling them everything will be okay — This is a perfectly acceptable response when a child is having a tantrum because she is scared or hurt in some way and she needs comfort. However,  if a child is having a tantrum to control a situation (e.g., he wants something he can’t have, he needs to stop doing something and he doesn’t want to, etc.) holding him, telling him everything is okay, rubbing his back, etc. is giving him positive attention for a tantrum. This can also lead to an increase in more tantrums.
  • Resorting to yelling or spanking — This type of reaction could cause the tantrum to get worse. If it does stop the tantrum in the short-term, it could lead to more feelings of anger or anxiety in the child, ultimately leading to more tantrums or other types of challenging behaviors in the long-term, such as shutting down or not communicating his or her thoughts or feelings.

Take Precautions
If tantrums seem constant, unsafe, or feel unmanageable to you, tell your child’s doctor. He should be able to provide you with additional resources to help you and your child or refer you to someone who can. If this is happening with a child in your class, request additional support from your school team (guidance counselor, administrator, etc) and tell the child’s parents what is happening.

For parents, keep in mind that you can take your child to the nearest emergency room or call 911 if your child is a danger to himself or others, and you cannot get the behavior to stop.

Strategies for Preventing Tantrums
Now let’s look at the examples I mentioned above, one at a time, and talk about how to prevent a tantrum for each situation.

Scenario 1:
Your child wants something she can’t have (e.g., no, you can’t play with Brian today; no, you can’t have any more candy).

Preventing the Tantrum:
A way to prevent a tantrum in this situation is to  say “no” without saying ‘no'” by using the empathetic statement, explanation, choice, reminder approach. Let’s look at an example: Your child asks for more candy after you have already told her she can only have one piece a day. She already had her piece of candy for the day but comes to you asking for more. Here is how you can say “no” without saying “no”.

Empathetic Statement – “I understand you want more candy because it tastes so good.” (this makes her feel understood).

Explanation – “But it is important for our bodies, to eat healthy, so we can only have one piece a day.” (reiterating the rule or explaining the reason)

Choice -“If you are hungry, you can have an apple or yogurt.”(making her feel valuable)

Reminder –  “You can have a piece of candy again tomorrow.” (reminding her that she will enjoy some candy again soon).

It is important to tell the child what is expected (e.g., it is good for our bodies to eat healthy, so we can only have one piece of candy a day) rather than what is not expected (e.g., you can’t have candy because it is bad for you). This type of negative phrasing leaves more room for arguing or talking back. Language may need to be shortened or modified for young children or children who have language based difficulties.

Some children may benefit from seeing their choices (e.g., show them the apple and yogurt when you give the choice). Very young children or children who have language based difficulties, may have trouble visualizing the choices.

People often have a hard time giving up the word “no” because they feel children need to accept it without argument since this will be expected in the “real world” when they grow up. This is an unrealistic expectation on the part of the adult. Children often have a hard time seeing past the word “no” and thinking of alternatives to meet their needs. This is why they beg and plead. They get stuck on the fact that they can’t have something without seeing the whole picture. People often say that parents who don’t say “no” end up with spoiled kids. This can be true if you give your kids whatever they want, but using this saying “no” without saying “no” approach, allows the parent or teacher to remain in control while helping the child feel respected and understood. It also helps the child visualize other scenarios than the one she is hoping for, which will lead to the ability to better accept “no” as she gets older.

This approach may sound like a lot of work compared to just saying one word “no” but it saves a lot of time because children who get this type of response are much less likely to argue, beg, cry, or have a tantrum. See my article How to Say “No” Without Saying “No” for more on using this approach.

Scenario 2:
Your child is scared to go somewhere or do something new or they are anxious about you leaving (e.g. I am taking you to the doctoryou are going to a new school today, I am going out and you will stay with Aunt Sue).

Preventing the tantrum:
Prepare your child for the upcoming situation. Tell him what to expect, so he is not surprised. Obviously you can’t predict everything, so just try your best. For children with language difficulties, pictures can help them understand what to expect. Social stories (e.g., stories which explain what an event will be like, such as a doctor visit or first day of school) are a great tool to prepare a child for these types of situations.

*Side Note – Social stories can also be used to teach children about behavioral expectations, such as how to act in a store, restaurant, or movie theater. Sometimes pictures and words are not enough to prepare a child. Some children need one or more practice visits before the actual event. Let the child know exactly when the event will happen and give them reminders as it is getting closer (i.e. “We are going to the doctor today. Do you have any questions about what it will be like?” or “I am going out tonight and you will stay with Aunt Sue. Do you have questions”?) Empathize with your child’s feelings (e.g., I understand going to the doctor can be scary) rather than dismissing his feelings (e.g., you don’t have to be afraid, it’s not scary) And once again, simplifying language or using pictures can help with children with language based difficulties. Let your child know that he did well after the event is over (e.g., “I know going to the doctor was scary for you, but you did it anyway. Nice work! You should feel proud.”). If you have to leave your child for the day, evening, etc. reassure your child that you will be back, be empathetic about their feelings (“I understand you are scared to be without me, but you will be taken care of by Aunt Sue and I will be back after dinner.”) and hug and kiss your child before you go (if they like that type of affection). You can leave a picture of yourself behind for your child, if you find that helps. When you return, be affectionate and act excited to see your child. If applicable, let them know that you are proud of them and they should be proud of themselves for behaving appropriately or staying calm while you were gone. If your child is having a tantrum as you are trying to get out the door, do not prolong leaving or try to get your child to accept that you are leaving, this will likely prolong the tantrum, just go. Most children will adjust quickly once you have actually left.

Here is an example of a social story provided by the Autism Program at Boston Medical Center Going to the Doctor. If you want to purchase ready-made social stories, take a look at the selection of social stories at amazon.com. If you want to make your own social stories, you can write them yourself. To make a social story of pictures, try using Google Images or visiting 12 Computer Programs, Websites And Apps For Making Social Stories for ideas.

Scenario 3:
Your child is told to do something he doesn’t want to do (e.g., you have to go to bed now, you need to complete your math homework).

Preventing the Tantrum:
a. Prepare your child for upcoming changes and try to stick to a routine when possible so your child knows what to expect. For example, you can read your child a story each night and let them know ahead of time that after the story it will be bed time; or for an older child, you can tell them they have an half hour of computer time and then it will be time for bed. Children are less likely to argue or tantrum when they know what to expect and they have had time to mentally prepare themselves. Children with language based difficulties or those with trouble understanding the concept of time, do well when activities have a definitive ending (e.g. “When this show is over, it is time for bed.”, rather than “It is bed time in a half an hour.”). If your child is doing something without a definitive ending, such as browsing the internet, using a timer can be helpful. See my article Getting Kids Motivated With Timers for how to use timers with children who have trouble understanding the concept of time.

b. Children who get overwhelmed, frustrated, or simply do not want to complete homework, chores, or other tasks often benefit from breaks during the work and earned privileges upon completion. For example, if you want your child to complete 20 math problems, try saying, “Do ten problems, take a five-minute break to do an activity of choice, then do the next ten problems. When you are done, you can watch a show.” Stay away from language like, “If you don’t do your math homework, you are not watching tv.” This sets the stage for talking back, not listening to you, and tantrums. Children respond much better when they can earn privileges (e.g., “After your math homework, You can watch tv.”). See Compliance and Getting Kids Motivated With Timers for more on how to implement this strategy.

For children with language based difficulties, a “first/then picture board” or visual schedule can help, such as in my articles Positive Behavior Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum or Children Displaying Challenging Behaviors and How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support.

Scenario 4:
Your child is yelled at for misbehaving or told he has to stop his behavior (e.g., stop throwing the ball in the house).

Preventing the Tantrum:
Rather than yelling or telling your child to stop the behavior, give a directive phrased in the positive, in a neutral tone (e.g., “Put the ball down.”, “Play with the ball outside.”) or redirect your child to a different activity (e.g., “Come over here and play this game with me.”). After your child complies with you, acknowledge his compliance (e.g. thanks for following directions). Children are much more likely to respond to your requests when you tell them what to do instead of what not to do, because the new direction pulls their mind away from the behavior they are engaged in. See my articles Getting Your Children to Listen to You, How to Praise Your Kids, and The Power of Redirection!, for more on these strategies.

* Side Note – Eliminate the word “can.” For example, “Can you play with the ball outside?” “Can you come over here and play this game with me?” It is not a question for them to decide “yes” or “no.” It is a directive given by you that they are expected to follow.

Scenario 5:
Your child is told to stop doing something he enjoys, to do something he doesn’t enjoy (i.e., stop playing with your toys and go to bed). Use the same strategies listed in number 3.

Preventing the Tantrum:
Prepare your child for upcoming changes and try to stick to a routine when possible so your child knows what to expect. For example, you can let your child know that in five minutes it is time to clean up and go to bed, or after the tv show it is time to do dishes, rather than saying “stop watching tv and go do the dishes”). As I said before, children are less likely to argue or tantrum when they know what to expect and they have time to mentally prepare themselves. They also respond better to directives phrased in the positive “after the tv show it is time to do dishes”, rather than the negative “stop watching tv and go do the dishes). Again, refer to my articles Compliance , Getting Kids Motivated With Timers, Positive Behavior Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum or Children Displaying Challenging Behaviors and How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support for more clarification on any of these strategies. You also may want to look at Have You Tried These Strategies for Children With ADHD? which also gives suggestions for challenging behaviors in kids that do not have ADHD.

For children with language based difficulties, a “first/then picture board” or visual schedule can help, such as in my articles Positive Behavior Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum or Children Displaying Challenging Behaviors and How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support.

Again, children with language based difficulties or those with trouble understanding the concept of time do well when activities have a definite ending (e.g. when this show is over it is time for bed, rather than it is bed time in a half an hour). If your child is doing something without a definitive ending, such as browsing the internet, using a timer can be helpful. See my article Getting Kids Motivated With Timers for how to use timers with children who have trouble understanding the concept of time.

Handling Tantrums
If the child argues, cries, begs, pleads, throw herself on the floor, etc., even after implementing the strategies above, be empathetic but stand firm in your decision (e.g., I understand you are upset because you want the candy but I’ve already given you your choices; I understand you are scared to go to the doctor, but we are still going because we have to take care of your health; I understand you are upset because you don’t want to go to bed yet, but that is the rule; I understand you are upset because you are having fun playing ball in the house, but you need to put it down because something could break; I know your homework is frustrating, but you still have to complete it).  If your child keeps arguing or begging after you have made your empathetic statement and enforced your rule or directive, let her know that you will not engage in discussion about it any further. If your child continues to tantrum, ignore the behavior unless it is unsafe.

For unsafe behavior such as trying to hurt someone else or destroying property, direct your child to a safe space (e.g., a room or area where they cannot hurt anyone or destroy anything) until they have calmed down. Supervise your child and tell her one time that she can leave the space when her behavior is safe (e.g., hands and feet to self).

For children who have trouble understanding language you may want to show a picture to indicate “hands and feet to self” such as the ones below.

Real Boy

sitting boy

Real Girl

sitting girl

Cartoon Boy

boy sitting

Cartoon Girl

girl sittingart

These pictures are just suggestions. You can also take your own pictures of your child sitting nicely, or search Google Images for “child sitting” or other similar phrases, for more options.

Once you have told your child one time that she can leave the space when her behavior is safe, do not make eye contact or say anything else to your child. Just wait until she is engaging in safe behavior and then tell her that she can come out, if she does not come out on her own. If you do not have a safe space you may want to create one using soft materials such as gym mats. Although some parents and experts disagree, Although some parents and experts disagree, I personally feel it is okay to play soothing music when your child is in the safe space and to provide your child with stress relieving objects such as stress balls, if they want to use them. You can already have the objects set up in the safe space, ready for when your child gets there.

The safe space should not be used as a threat (e.g. if you don’t stop you are going in the safe space) or a punishment (e.g., That’s it! You are going in the safe space!). The space is simply a space for your child to calm down. Try saying “go into your safe space to cool off” in a calm and neutral tone, while pointing to the space. If your child does not go, try to gently guide them there or carry them if possible. If your child will not comply with going to a safe space, if your child is trying to hurt herself in the space, or if you simply cannot create a safe space, hold the child in your arms (if you are able) so she can’t hurt herself or anyone else or destroy anything, but do not give attention to the child (i.e. eye contact, talking, rubbing her back, etc.) Simply hold her until she has calmed down. Let her know that you will let her go once she is safe (e.g., keeping hands and feet to self, not hurting herself, etc.)

Once a child has calmed down after going into a safe space or being held, praise her for regaining control (e.g., nice work calming yourself down).

Side-Note * When a tantrum is truly based on fear, anxiety, etc. such as when your child is afraid to go to the doctor or a new school, this is a time when comforting her during the tantrum (e.g. rubbing her back, holding her, telling her everything will be okay, etc.) is acceptable. However, you still need to be firm and let her know, that even though she is afraid, she must go. Do not let her skip out on something because she is throwing a tantrum. This will only cause her to do the same thing in the future. If you have to (and you are able to), pick your child up and bring her where she needs to go. Obviously, you cannot bring your child anywhere if she is acting unsafe. In this case hold the child in your arms so she can’t hurt herself or anyone else, until she is calm, and follow all the steps listed above for handling unsafe behavior in a tantrum. Once she has calmed down, praise her for regaining control (e.g., nice work calming yourself down) and then head to where you need to go.

If you are an educator, you may not be able to ignore a disruptive tantrum because it takes away from other students’ learning. Additionally, you may not be comfortable or be allowed to hold children or keep them confined in a safe space when acting unsafe. Therefore, it is important to know your school’s policy for handling disruptive, unsafe or destructive behaviors in your classroom or school. Here are some options to suggest to your school if no protocol is in place:

  • Have a safe space in your classroom for more mild or manageable tantrums.
  • Have authorized personnel (e.g., principal, vice principal, guidance counselor, security guard, etc.) stay with the child while you remove the other students to a safe location. Remain with your students until you get word that it is safe for you and your students to return.
  • Have authorized personnel escort the child to a safe location in the building if the tantrum cannot be managed in the classroom.
  • Authorized personnel should be able to follow the necessary steps recommended in the Handling Tantrums section of this article, to keep the child safe.
  • For a child who has severe tantrums in school that are unsafe, destructive or excessively disruptive, a clear behavior plan and safety plan should be in place. Behavior plans should include all the positive support strategies listed above. It is also recommended to try some type of reward system (this can also be done at home) in which the child can earn preferred privileges for appropriate behavior. Reward system’s are intended to be gradually faded out as behaviors improve. Remember to always use positive phrasing with motivation charts (e.g., keep your cool so you can earn your basketball time, rather than, you’re acting up so you are going to lose your basketball time). As  stated before, children are much more likely to comply when they know they are working towards something, than when being threatened that you will take something away. See my article How to Praise Your Kids for more information on using motivational charts and rewards.
  • Your school team should be involved every step of the way to determine what steps to take for a child whose behavior does not improve with the support strategies listed in this article.

Tantrums in Very Young Children
The methods in this article are meant for children with more reasoning ability than a child between one and two years of age, but here I will quickly note some strategies to prevent tantrums in children that young.

Strategy 1:
Your child wants something she can’t have. For example, she wants to go into your refrigerator or grab your ceramic cat from the shelf. If possible, try to engage your child in an activity that satisfies her curiosity (e.g., hold her while you point to and name the items in the fridge or take the ceramic cat off the shelf and show it to her with your supervision). If that is not possible, try redirecting her by showing her a toy that interests her or bring her to a different area and then show her something exciting. For children that young, out of sight is quickly out of mind. If they are already holding something they shouldn’t, such as your lip stick, try putting your hand out and act very excited for them to hand it to you, praising them when they do, or offer them a more exciting object. If you have to, you can also take the object from the child and quickly replace it with a more exciting object.

Strategy 2:
Your child is having a tantrum because you are leaving. Reassure your child that you will be back and hug and kiss your child before you go. You can leave a picture of yourself behind for the babysitter to show your child, if you find that helps. When you return, be affectionate and act excited to see your child. Do not prolong leaving or try to get your child to accept that you are leaving, this will likely prolong the tantrum, just go. Most children will adjust quickly once you have actually left.

Additional Information
As a general rule, catch your children doing the right things and let them know it. This type of positive attention could also lead to a decrease in tantrums. Children thrive on attention. If they don’t have enough positive attention, they will use other means to get your attention, even if it is negative.

Help your child label his or her feelings. (e.g., I know your math homework can be frustrating, I understand you are sad because you can’t see your friend today, I get that you are mad because you friend yelled at you). This type of language leads children to be better able to identify their own feelings. When children can express themselves, they are less likely to throw tantrums.

Children are less likely to have tantrums when they feel a sense of control in their lives. Use choices to help them feel in control (e.g., Do you want to wear the green shirt or the red one?” Do you want an apple or banana in your lunch? Do you want to do your math or reading homework first?) When your child is calm; and in a pleasant, cooperative mood, talk to them about ways to stay calm when they can’t have their way. Give them examples of how to say how they feel (e.g., I am mad that I can’t stay up as late as my brother, I am scared of the doctor). Teach them ways to calm down when they are upset (e.g., taking deep breaths, drawing a picture, laying on their bed, looking at a book, counting in their head, etc.). For children with repeated unsafe behaviors such as punching and kicking others and destroying property, some therapists suggest teaching alternative behaviors, such as ripping blank paper or punching a pillow. You need to decide what you are comfortable with, and assess what alternatives work with for child.

I always believe that it is okay to offer tissues and water to a child who is having a temper tantrum. I have seen children calm down just from wiping their tears and taking a sip of water.

Remember to keep your cool. If you yell, talk in a nasty tone, say mean things or spank your child, it will not lead to a decrease in tantrums. If you want your child’s behavior to change you will have to make changes in your own behavior as a first step.

Finally,  I understand that not every one of these strategies will work for you, your household, your classroom, or your child. For children who have difficulty understanding language it may be especially difficult to implement some of these strategies because the child may not understand your requests, expectations, etc. If you have tried these strategies and your situation still feels unmanageable, as I stated in the beginning of this article, I recommend contacting your child’s doctor for a referral to someone who may be able to work with you and your child directly. Also remember that tantrums in children four and under are a normal part of development, and you may notice improvement as your child gets older and begins to learn and accept that things don’t always happen the way she wants them to.

Additionally, the strategies in this article may not be what you are used to and may require a lot of changes on your part. While there is no perfect method for eliminating all challenging behaviors, these are the strategies that I endorse and believe in as being the most effective for preventing and handling tantrums. I believe in these strategies for three reasons: 1) They are backed by research. Studies show a positive change in children with these types of supportive strategies in place. 2) I have seen these strategies work when others have implemented them. 3) They have worked for me with a 99% success rate as I have implemented these strategies for over 16 years.

If you are looking for additional assistance on helping your child improve his or her behavior, I recommend looking into the following two programs.

1 – “The Complete Behavior Turn Around System” which was created by behavior specialist and mom of a child on the autism spectrum, Kerri Stocks. The program received a total of four out of five stars when reviewed by parents and educators. This program is highly recommended for children with Asperger’s.

2 -”How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior“, created by physician and former special educator, Anthony Kane. “How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior” is highly recommended by parents and educators. If you want to read more about this program, go to the extensive review written by expert author, Andrew Finlayson.

For product suggestions to help a child with behavior, including books on behavior management, ideas for reward charts, and support for visual schedules, visit the E-Learning Center and Wise Market of Wise Education and Behavior.

For more tips on learning and behavior visit the Learning/Behavior Strategies section of Wise Education and Behavior. We share new tips on learning and behavior every week. Check out our articles on behavior, reading, math, writing, general learning, and educational products.

Any questions about our products or services? Contact us.

Thank you for reading and thank you for supporting kids!

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