Patients and Families

Taming Children’s Temper Tantrums

A child who’s in the middle of a temper tantrum is a wild, uncontrollable creature who may scream, kick or hit anyone who’s nearby. The scene is unpleasant but not uncommon. Parents should remain calm and resist the urge to give in to their child’s demands. Communication, setting limits and explaining rules can help control a child’s outbursts.

Toddlers typically throw tantrums. Between the ages of 18 to 24 months their brains are still developing and, as a result, these young children have less self-control when they are upset. Toddlers often have tantrums when they cannot express their feelings in words. They may throw tantrums when they feel tired or hungry, so parents should make sure they are rested and well fed. They shouldn’t be overstimulated or taken out if they are tired.

Older kids create scenes if they are frustrated and feel they can’t communicate. Parents need to take time to listen to their kids each day. Reasoning with a child in the midst of a tantrum is usually unsuccessful, since children are too out of control to listen. Some parents give their children what they want just to stop the tantrum. This may put a halt to the screaming, but it also teaches kids to throw tantrums whenever they want something.

Many parents share horror stories about being stuck at the supermarket or the mall with a screaming child. It’s awkward to deal with tantrums out in public; getting angry and yelling usually makes the situation worse. Parents need to maintain their authority and composure. The child should be told that his behavior is unacceptable and given a choice—he can either calm down or his parent will remove him. If it’s not possible to leave, the child should be given a consequence such as a time out at home. If the child is screaming in the checkout line, the parent should stay calm. Sometimes parents spank their kids to quiet them down, but this does more harm than good. Children feel bad about themselves when they are out of control, and punishing them only increases their sense of helplessness. Parents should ignore the outburst and pick a quiet time later in the day to discuss better ways of communicating.

Parents should simply ignore a child who throws a tantrum at home. He needs to know that he will not be allowed to disturb others and that his parents will listen to him when he’s quiet. He may need to be held to quiet him down, but parents should not talk to him. Once the child is calm, parents can discuss what happened and how he could improve his behavior the next time he’s upset. They can teach him to use words to express his feelings, suggest ways to politely ask for things he wants and praise him once he has calmed down.

Kids learn from their parents’ example. If parents remain calm, children are more likely to settle down too. By ignoring tantrums, parents let kids know that nothing is achieved by yelling and screaming. It’s normal for kids to throw tantrums, but adults can teach them better ways of expressing themselves that will reduce their tendency to fly into a rage.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC offers Positive Parenting classes and other parenting workshops. For more information, call the Community Education Department at 412-692-7105. Current classes are listed on this Web site.

Last Update
September 11, 2008
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Last Update
September 11, 2008
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