Most of us have been there. You are at the store and your 2 year old starts to loose their mind. They see a toy that they insist on having and the meltdown commences when you say “No”. People are staring. You are embarrassed. What should you do and how can you try to prevent this from happening?
Temper tantrums are common in children ages 1-4. It’s during this time that kids are learning to communicate and test their parent’s boundaries. About one half of children in this age group will have one or more tantrums per week.
Try to keep your daily routines consistent. And, if change is necessary then give your child a 5 minute warning before changing activities. Run errands when your child isn’t hungry or tired. Take a toy or a healthy snack to occupy them if you have to wait in line. Communicate with your toddler (they can understand what you are saying, they just choose not to listen at times). Tell them the plan for the day. Encourage your child to use words, they will be less frustrated once they are able to communicate their needs. Allow your toddler to make choices, they can pick what they will have for lunch or what shirt they want to wear that day.
Finally, and most importantly, praise your child for good behavior throughout the day. You will always get more of what you reinforce so if you end up reinforcing negative behavior (even with time outs) without ample reinforcement of the behaviors you want to see more of, you will get into a negative behavior cycle.
Ignoring temper tantrums is usually the best way to manage them. If you give in to what your child wants then you are only reinforcing the behavior. You also need to stay calm, yelling back at your child or spanking them is not going to help the situation.
If your child is under 2 try to distract them with a book or a change in location. If the tantrum persists then you may need to try a time-out. Start the time out as soon as the unwanted behavior occurs. Use less than 10 words to tell your child why they need to sit down and be still. When kids are under 2 we recommend “quiet time”. Children under age 2 do not have the self control or reasoning skills to understand the traditional time out. They may just have to sit quietly until they can calm down or you may have to hold them for behaviors like hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things.
As your child gets closer to 2 you can try a “time-in”. Introduce the concept of a time-out by sitting with your child. You can read a book, listen to music, or just lay quietly. Sitting with your child avoids the chaos of chasing your toddler and trying to repetitively place them in a chair that they are not going to sit in.
Once kids are older than 2 you can try the traditional time-out. Explain what is going to happen ahead of time. You can even demonstrate with a bear or doll. Then follow these steps for a time-out:
- Check the behavior and give a warning. For example, if your child is not following directions then give them a warning that they will receive a time-out. Wait a few seconds. If your child follows directions then praise them, if they don’t follow through with the time-out.
- Tell your child why they are going to time-out. Say it once in a calm voice. Do not talk to your child when taking him to the time-out chair.
- Have your child sit in time-out. The general rule is one minute per every year of the child’s age. Do not allow your child to play with toys or talk to anyone during the time-out. If your child gets out of the time-out space then return them to the space. Do not talk to your child when you are returning them.
- End time-out. Your child should be quiet before leaving the time-out space. You may want to remind your child what the rules are and what behavior you expect. If the behavior is repeated then return your child to the time-out.
- Praise the next good thing that your child does. It may be when he or she stays calm in a situation that would have normally triggered a tantrum.
Just remember, your child will test you. They are trying to figure out what your boundaries are and they will test limits to see what your reaction is. No single disciplinary approach is going to work overnight. Most children begin to have fewer tantrums by age 3. If your child is having trouble speaking at an age appropriate level, is causing harm to himself or to others, is holding his breath for prolonged periods of time during tantrums, or if the tantrums get worse after age 4 then talk to your child’s Pediatrician.