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Taming those Awful Tantrums

by Elizabeth Pantley, Author of Perfect Parenting and Kid Cooperation

You’ve all been there. Your child isn’t getting his way. He’s crying, yelling, and stomping. As a frustrated parent, you may know, that temper tantrums are a normal childhood reaction to anger and frustration. But knowing this does not make it easier when your child’s ballistic contortions are punctuated by her piercing screams. While it’s normal for your child to have tantrums, your response to them will determine if she keeps having them and having them and having them…

Here are a variety of different ideas that may help you curb your child’s tantrums.

Create a Tantrum Place:
Let your child know in advance that all tantrums will take place in one specific room, such as her bedroom, the bathroom, or the laundry room. When a tantrum starts, you can escort your child to the “tantrum room” with one brief comment, “You can come out when you’re done.” If she comes out of the room, and she’s still having the tantrum, just lead her back repeating, “You can come out when you’re done.” At first your child may spend the whole day in the tantrum room, but she’ll quickly find out that tantrums are no fun without an audience!

Help develop self-control:
If your child has tantrums and can’t seem to calm herself down, it’s best to teach her how to control herself. Do this by enveloping her in a hug and rocking her with soothing words, “It’s okay. Calm down.” When the tantrum is winding down, distract her by washing her face or giving her a drink of water. Do not give in to the child’s original request, and stay calm yourself. At a quiet time, begin to teach your child what to do when she gets angry (explain to her what words and actions are appropriate).

Take away the audience:
As long as your child’s tantrum is not dangerous to her or to property, feel free to say, “I’m leaving the room. Come and get me when you’re done.” And do just that. Busy yourself with something else, and wait patiently for your child to calm down.

Big-kid tantrums? Make an agreement with an older child who displays tantrum behavior that when she starts to lose control, you’re going to ask her to go to her room to cool off. If she doesn’t go immediately to her room when asked, she will lose a privilege (decide in advance what that might be—telephone, TV, or bike riding, for example) or she’ll be assigned an extra chore. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that she still gets to go to her room to calm down.

Use distraction:
When you see your child beginning to lose control, distract her before the tantrum can turn into a full-blown outburst. When you see frustration mounting quickly direct your child to a different activity. Often this is enough to keep a child from having a tantrum.

Preventative measures:
Avoid tantrums by offering your child choices. Instead of saying, “Get ready for bed right now,” which may provoke a tantrum, offer a choice, “What would you like to do first—put on your pajamas or brush your teeth?” In addition, you may be able to elude tantrums by avoiding the situations that most likely set your child off, such as allowing her to become overtired, over-hungry or over-stimulated. For example, running a string of errands which occur during your toddler’s normal nap-time is sure to end with an over-tired child who displays little patience for one more stop before heading home to bed.

Take note:
If your child has frequent intense tantrums it would be wise to talk with your pediatrician, a counselor or a family therapist.

What about public tantrums? Handling tantrums at home is one thing. But what about in public? What if your child yells, stomps, screams, and throws his body onto the floor when he doesn’t get his way. This is frustrating and embarrassing when you’re in a place like the grocery store, toy store, restaurant, or anywhere there’s an interested audience. You may feel like your hands are tied when everyone’s watching you, but this is the key to future problems.

Think about it. The first time your child acted this way in public, you were probably caught off guard. In your embarrassment, you did everything you could to stop the tantrum. If you had looked closely, you would have seen a little twinkle appear in your child’s eye as he realized he discovered a new way to get what he wants. Instead of finding yourself in this situation over and over again, try the following tips for curbing public tantrums.

Prepare in advance:
Use a preventive approach by reviewing desired behavior prior to entering a public building. “Eric, we’re going into the toy store now. We are going to buy a birthday gift for Troy. We are not buying anything for ourselves today. If you see something you like, let me know, and I’ll put it on your wish list. I want you to remember to walk beside me and keep your hands to yourself.”

Be reasonable:
While you may be concentrating on your tasks, your child has been shoved in and out of his car seat and ushered from place to place enduring endless hours looking at grown up knees. You may be able to prevent tantrums by bringing along a toy or snack to keep your child occupied. Also, get him involved by having him select groceries, find the shoe store, read the menu to you, or any other “busy work”. The positive attention and focused activity will keep him too busy to worry about having a tantrum.

Get out of dodge:
When a tantrum starts, put your face next to your child’s ear and announce, “Stop now or we go out to the car.” If he doesn’t stop, pick him up or lead him to the car. Sit him in the back seat while you stand outside the door (or, in foul weather, sit in the front seat and pointedly ignore him). An alternative to the car is to find a secluded bench or quiet corner. If he doesn’t stop quickly, and you can change your schedule, go home. Send him to his room for a specified time (about 3 minutes for every year of age, for example, 15 minutes for a five-year-old.) The extra time it takes to do this once or twice will establish great credibility and can save you from many painful hours at the mall with an obstinate teenager.

Get HIS attention:
Get eye level with your child and say, “Follow me.” Break eye contact and begin to walk away. Walk slowly where he can see you. Many children will follow. If yours doesn’t, stop a short distance away and wait, pretending interest in something else, while you wait. After a few minutes pass, and your child has calmed down, you can approach your child, hold him by the hand, and say, “Let’s go now”.

Use a poker face. Deal with it later:
Stand above your child with arms crossed and a stern face. Say nothing. When the tantrum is over, complete your errands. When you return home, announce that since your child had a tantrum while you were out, he will suffer a consequence now (no dessert after dinner, staying inside, missing his TV show, or going to bed early). Do this once, then use it as your “ace in the hole.” At the next public tantrum say, “Stop now or you will stay inside when we get home, like you did last week.” You child will remember and know you mean business.

Set up a training session:
If public tantrums are a regular occurrence, plan a training session. Go to the grocery store. Buy a few staples and put a nice assortment of your child’s favorite goodies in the cart (potato chips, ice cream, and cookies). Walk around long enough for your child to have the expected tantrum. Walk the cart over to the register and announce to the cashier that you’ll have to leave the groceries and go home because your child is misbehaving. (Smile at the cashier and she’ll probably smile back, happy to see at least one customer controlling her child!) Then go home. Your child will most likely comment on the loss of the goodies. Just say, “Oh well, some other time.” Expect great, loud unhappiness, but long-term value!

If all else fails:
After an unpleasant experience, plan an outing and leave your child at home with a baby sitter. Explain that the tantrum she had the day before is the reason why she is staying home. Expect crying, screaming, and pleading, but be firm. Doing this once has an impact that lasts a long time.

Copyright Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

About the Author:
Elizabeth Pantley is the author of several books, including
Gentle Baby Care : No-cry, No-fuss, No-worry — Essential Tips for Raising Your Baby, The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, Kid Cooperation (with an introduction by William Sears, MD), Perfect Parenting, as well as her latest The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers and is also president of Better Beginnings, Inc. She is a popular speaker on family issues, and her newsletter, Parent Tips, is seen in schools nationwide. She appears as a regular radio show guest, and has been quoted in Parents, Parenting, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, American Baby, Working Mother, and Woman’s Day magazines. Visit Elizabeth’s web site

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