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Temper Tantrums: Teaching Your Child Self-Calming Skills

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KEY POINTS

  • It is normal for young children to have temper tantrums. Most children outgrow temper tantrums by the time they are 4 years of age.
  • Tantrums are more likely to happen when your child is tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or has done too many things in one day.
  • Trying to talk to or reason with a child who is in the middle of a tantrum usually makes things worse. If your child is acting out or having a tantrum in a public place, take him or her to a private place to calm down. Stay with your child and keep him or her safe during the calm-down period, but do not make eye contact.
  • Teach your child healthy ways to calm down. Help your child put his or her feelings into words rather than screaming or throwing things.

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It is normal for young children to have temper tantrums. It is one way to express their anger, disappointment, or frustration. Children need to learn how to express and calm themselves in order to play games, to participate in sports, to get along with siblings and friends, and to do well in school.

How can I teach my child self-calming skills?

As a parent, you can help your child learn that he or she can express feelings without having to scream, cry, whine, stomp, throw things, or be destructive. Here are a few ideas for teaching your child self-calming skills:

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

    Your child also needs to see what he or she is missing. You can start doing something that your child might enjoy such as playing with his or her favorite toy or eating a snack that he or she likes. After your child calms down, share the toy or snack. After your child is quiet and has calmed down, you could also give a hug and praise your child for calming down. You are giving your child the chance to learn self-control, a skill he or she will use throughout 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 or she 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 favorite 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 or her your attention when he or she is behaving well. 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 or she 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 or she is rested, has eaten, and is healthy.
  • Avoid temptations. If your child gets upset in certain situations, avoid those things until he or she 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 or she 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 or she will be less likely to get frustrated or have a tantrum.
  • Help your child put his or her feelings into words rather than screaming or throwing things.
  • Distract your child. When you see that your child is getting ready to have a tantrum, try to focus his or her 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 or she doesn’t think that’s the way to behave when he or she gets upset.

Some children may continue to have tantrums in spite of your efforts to teach self-calming skills. If your child's tantrums get worse as he or she gets older, seem full of rage, involve hurting himself or others, or are only one of many behavior problems, contact your healthcare provider for help.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-06-25
Last reviewed: 2019-06-24
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.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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