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Temper Tantrums: Teaching Your Child Self-Calming Skills

Children without the skills to calm themselves when things do not go their way are often called bad-tempered, strong willed, or difficult. Your child needs self-calming skills to play games, to participate in sports, to get along with siblings, and to do well in school.

It is normal for young children to have temper tantrums. It is one way to express their anger, disappointment, or frustration. As a parent, you can help your child learn that he can express feelings without having to scream, cry, stomp, throw things, or be destructive.

How can I teach my child self-calming skills?

  • Let your child deal with problems and frustrations on his own. When your child gets mad, make sure that your child and other people are safe. Do not allow hitting, biting, kicking, or hurting others. If it is a simple problem, such as the blocks falling down, let your child try to handle it on his own. If given the chance to figure it out, your child will try again. And, with repeated practice, he will learn that he can calm down and figure out the problem.
  • Don’t try to reason with your child when he has a tantrum. Trying to talk to or reason with a child who is in the middle of a tantrum usually makes things worse. Comments meant to calm your child can increase his anger and get in the way of letting him learn how to calm down on his own.
  • If your child is acting out or having a tantrum in a public place, take him to a private place to calm down. Some children misbehave to get attention. Your child's tantrum will wind down more quickly if he doesn’t get extra attention. Never punish your child for a tantrum and don’t give in to him to stop a tantrum.
  • Ignore your child during the calm-down period. Stay with your child and keep him safe, but do not make eye contact with your child. Avoid saying anything until your child has calmed down. For a calm-down period to end your child must calm down or gain control of himself for 2 or 3 seconds. Your child can call you a name or have a tantrum on the floor, but until he calms down, you should ignore what he does. However, don’t ignore him if he is kicking, hitting, or throwing things. While you are ignoring your child, he needs to:
    • See you.
    • See that you are not upset or frustrated.
    • See what he is missing.

    You can start doing something that he might enjoy such as playing with his favorite toy or eating a snack that your child likes. After your child calms down, share the toy or snack. After your child is quiet and has gotten over whatever upset him, you could also give him a hug and praise him for calming down. You are giving your child the chance to learn self-control, a skill he will use throughout his life.

  • Teach healthy ways to calm down. Every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. Here are some ideas for other activities your child can do when he starts to get upset.
    • Physical: Run, swim, ride a bike, dance, pound play dough, or do some jumping jacks.
    • Verbal: Talk to a friend or pet, tell jokes, or sing.
    • Visual: Imagine a “happy place,” watch funny videos, or read a comic book.
    • Creative: Write, draw, play music, or build something.
    • Self comforting activities: Hug a stuffed animal, take a bubble bath, or lie down.

Is there a way to prevent tantrums?

Since tantrums are a normal part of child development, sometimes they can’t be prevented. Here are some ideas that might help reduce how often your child has tantrums and how severe the tantrums are.

  • Catch your child being good and give him your attention when he is behaving. Saying “I like the way you’re sharing your toys” can help teach good behavior and build self-control.
  • Avoid overstimulating your child. Tantrums are more likely to happen when he is tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or has done too many things in one day. Plan your day carefully and take your child on outings when he is rested, has eaten, and is healthy.
  • Avoid temptations. If your child gets upset in certain situations, avoid those things until the child has passed this tantrum stage. For example, waiting in long lines, going down the candy isle at the grocery store, or shopping for another child’s birthday present are things that you might want to avoid until he is older.
  • Be consistent. Never punish your child for a tantrum and don’t give in to your child to stop a tantrum. If your child knows what to expect, he will be less likely to get frustrated or have a tantrum.
  • Help your child put his feelings into words rather than screaming or throwing things.
  • Distract your child. When you see him getting ready to have a tantrum, try to focus his attention on something else.
  • Show your child that you can stay calm even when you get frustrated or angry. Try to avoid yelling or hitting your child so that he doesn’t think that’s the way to behave when he gets upset.

Most children outgrow temper tantrums by the time they are 4 years of age. Some children may continue to have tantrums in spite of your efforts to teach self-calming skills. If your child's tantrums seem full of rage, involve hurting others, or are only one of many behavior problems, contact your healthcare provider for help.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-29
Last reviewed: 2014-09-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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