We've all seen it, and been grateful if it's not our own child doing it: The toddler throwing herself on the floor, kicking, screaming, arms flailing, completely unaware of what's happening around her.
But when it is your child, what should you do? Experts agree there are ways to handle tantrums effectively, even ways to get rid of them completely. Dr. Latham states, "Believe it or not, most tantrums can be eliminated within 3 or 4 days" (225).
While young children generally don't have manipulative thought processes like, "Throwing a tantrum right now would be a great way to get what I want," children are often inadvertently reinforced for their negative behavior by parents eager to put a stop to it.
BYU researchers Young, Black, Marchant, Mitchem, and West have found that good discipline comes down to good teaching (13). There are three simple steps you can follow to lessen or even eliminate tantrum behaviors.
In their article "A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment," Young et al. remind parents to first assess risks as they determine how to handle inappropriate behavior (10).
Consider how you have dealt with tantrums in the past: are you overly aggressive--that's easy to do when you're at the grocery store and Bethany's screaming in the middle of the aisle, or overly lenient, allowing Bethany to interrupt social events, church, or other important moments with her tantrums?
Understanding your personal "risks" will help guide you in teaching appropriate behavior because you'll realize what you tend to do that does not work.
The second step in dealing with tantrums is to consider ways to create a safe environment. "If the home is rich in love, praise, and support, occasional use of reasonable punishment can help parents teach and direct a child" (Young et al. 11).
Dr. Latham, in The Power of Positive Parenting instructs that often parents can avoid tantrums by tuning in to "pre-tantrum behavior" (219). This means "when a child whines, whimpers, cries and carries on to get his way, you must be absolutely certain not to pay that off by giving the child what he is whining, whimpering and crying for" (219).
Looking a child in the eyes and calmly saying, "Bethany, crying is not going to help you. Can you tell me what you want in a calm voice so I can understand?" can help stop a tantrum in its tracks, keeping the environment a safer one for all.
The third step in dealing with tantrums is to recognize yourself as a teacher (Young et al. 12). One author encourages us to look at the tantrum from the child's perspective, "If you think it's scary to watch a toddler have a tantrum, imagine what it must feel like from his point of view. How is a two-year-old supposed to know that this total loss of control will pass and that he will live to see a happy moment again soon?" (Iovine 123).
In moments of calm you can teach your child how to handle her emotions so they don't get out of hand. And this is the key: teaching proactively about how to handle upsetting feelings can help her manage them next time around, before they blossom into the unmanageable.
We'll look at a teaching example in the Things to Try section.
If the tantrum is underway, it can be helpful to remember Dr. Latham's words, "The single greatest lesson the child who tantrums needs to learn is that mommy and daddy will not give in!" (219). When a child does dissolve into a tantrum, immediately put her in a timeout area. "This is done unemotionally, but with firmness, and without anger or apology of any kind . . . The parent simply says, "When you behave this way, you may not be with us" (220). Then carry on with your routine as best you can.
Once the tantrum is over (and probably not immediately after) you have the opportunity to teach correct behavior (Young et al. 12). Teaching involves modeling the positive (Young, et al.). First, describe the skill: "Bethany, getting buckled up is something we have to do, and I expect you to do it calmly and happily. If you cry, kick, or scream, we'll come right back in the house to timeout until you're all the way calm."
Second, explain why the skill is important, "Seatbelts help us stay safe, and if we can't get in them quickly and easily, we won't be able to go as many places."
Third, model the skill. Bethany could stand by the car and watch you buckle up without crying! It might even be fun to have Bethany take turn being the mom and let her do up your belt.
Fourth, have Bethany practice the skill. Go for it! Do this step when you are emotionally ready (and have the time) to buckle Bethany in the car seat, and help her go through the timeout process if she can't.
Fifth, when Bethany does buckle up without having a tantrum, offer lots of positive feedback (14), "Bethany, you did it! You got right in your car seat, and with a happy face! I'm so proud of you. Now we can go lots of fun places and be safe while we're driving."
Repeated tantrums aren't a necessary rite of passage for children, or for their parents to have to deal with. By relying on Young, Black, Marchant, Mitchem, and West's approach to viewing discipline as teaching, you can eliminate tantrums.
Teaching your child that tantrums aren't effective ways of handling upsetting feelings, and that there are effective ways to deal with them can help you both feel a sense of peace.
Iovine, Vicki. The Girlfriends' Guide to Toddlers. New York: A Perigee Book, The Berkley Publishing Group, 1999.
Latham, Glenn I. The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children. Logan, UT: P&T Ink, 1994.
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. "A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment." Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.