When my daughter hannah was 4 -- safely past the tantrum stage, I thought -- she had her first meltdown. In a crowded restaurant, in the middle of a family dinner, she threw a full-fledged fit because the cheese slid off her pizza and onto her plate. Her three siblings, her dad, and I watched in amazement as she flailed and screamed inconsolably. Her father whisked her outside to the car, where she eventually ran out of steam, while the rest of us sat at the table, amused and incredulous.
Of course, tantrums don't only happen during the "terrible twos" -- kids have outbursts like Hannah's from the time they become mobile until they start school (and sometimes beyond). Understanding why and how children erupt this way can help us empathize, cope, and even cut down on the behavior.
Karen Miles's last article for Parenting, on nurturing children's math ability, appeared in the September issue.
At any age, a child will be more prone to outbursts when he's hungry, tired, or ill, says Meg Eastman, Ph.D., author of Taming the Dragon in Your Child.
And if he's stressed -- whether because of normal developmental leaps like learning to walk or use the toilet; changes in environment or routine; or everyday emotions, such as fear or jealousy -- he's also more likely to pitch a fit.
Throw in the frustration that can occur over a variety of situations throughout his day, and you have all the necessary ingredients for an out-of-control reaction. Your baby may protest when you rescue him from an enticing but dangerous situation, such as an electrical outlet. A toddler might ignite over her desire to be independent, while preschoolers are often set off by their inability to do something, such as tie their shoes, or by occurrences that simply don't meet their expectations. Shlomo List, 4, of Baltimore, would fall apart when the ketchup wound up in the wrong place on his plate or when his mom cut his sandwich straight across instead of diagonally.
Sometimes, a child's need to cry gradually builds, and then the slightest disappointment sets her off. For Hannah, the slippery cheese on her pizza -- surely not the day's first letdown -- was just a pretext to release her tension.
Although lack of control is a given, occasionally you may wonder whether a tantrum is staged. "But even a child who's trying to manipulate you with a tantrum doesn't feel good about it," says Gery LeGagnoux, Ph.D., associate clinical professor of psychology at UCLA. "He simply feels he doesn't have another avenue to get what he wants or needs, or he doesn't know how to find one." Don't waste too much time trying to determine whether your child is purposefully pushing your buttons -- in either case, your response should be the same.
Taming the Beast
One thing you definitely shouldn't do when your child has a tantrum: Give in. That teaches her that an outburst works. Instead: Stay calm and focused. Your primary goal is to comfort your child so that he can regain control. Soothe a baby with your voice as you rock him. Tell a toddler or preschooler firmly, but with empathy, that you know he's upset but you can't help him until he calms down. You want him to understand that his tantrum isn't getting him anywhere but that you're there for him when he settles down.
Angie Tucker of Garden Grove, CA, says it made all the difference in 3-year-old Joshua's tantrums when she shifted her approach from punitive to supportive. When time-outs and yelling didn't work, she tried talking calmly to Joshua when he got upset. She took him in her arms and asked him to tell her what the problem was. "He realized I wasn't fighting him. I didn't give in to his demands, but I let him know I cared." Hold on. Many children, like Joshua, respond well to being held -- especially early on in a tantrum -- because it gives them a bit of security when they're otherwise feeling out of control. You're not spoiling her or caving in to her needs by hugging an angry child. Some kids, though, are overstimulated by physical contact when they're upset. If your child becomes more irritated when you touch her, don't force it. Just go about your business nearby and tell her, "I'll stay here until you feel okay." Distract. You might be able to divert a child under 3 from a tantrum, especially if you catch him before he's totally lost control. Try to arouse his interest in something you're doing -- start to color, for example -- or in something you spot out the window: "That bird has a red cap!" Respect the need to let it all out. "Cries and outbursts have a healing effect," says Aletha Solter, Ph.D., author of Tears and Tantrums. "Children use them to resolve their feelings and release tension." Instead of trying to stop them, teach your child to let out her anger and frustration at an appropriate time, to calm herself down when she can, and to let you be her ally. Stop her if she becomes destructive or disruptive, but don't insist on "shushing" her when there's really no need.
Strategies for the Real WorldSure, the advice seems reasonable now, but how can you put it to use when you're faced with a kid who's shrieking and shaking his fists at you? Some likely scenarios, and how to handle them: Your 9-month-old cries endlessly when you pick her up just short of her destination -- the cord from the drapes in your living room. Childproofing your home is the best -- and safest -- solution: Do everything you can to minimize the number of times you'll need to admonish your child. When you do need to say no, try distraction. Give her a toy to play with after she's out of harm's way. Your 2-year-old has a playmate over, but he screams whenever his friend reaches for his favorite toy. "Parents need to have realistic expectations for their kids," says Rona Novick, Ph.D., coordinator of child psychology at Schneider Children's Hospital, in New Hyde Park, NY. A 2-year-old shouldn't be expected to share a prized toy, so before visitors arrive, you might decide together which toys he's willing to share and which ones to put away. If he has an outburst over the toys that are fair game, calmly take him out of the room and explain that he can join his friend again when he quiets down. Keep in mind that he simply might not be ready to share anything yet! Your 3-year-old gets into a tizzy at the toy store. Kids at this age can be especially strong-willed, but try to enforce the same rules in public that you do at home, says Novick. Otherwise, your child will learn she can manipulate you in certain (embarrassing) circumstances. Set limits ahead of time: "We'll buy one small toy for you after we find a birthday present for your brother." Once a tantrum starts, immediately take your child out of the store, then help her calm down. Teach her that she gets things only when she behaves well. When the dust has settled, explain that you won't take her back to the store until she gets a better handle on how to behave there. Whatever you do, don't let her think there's any benefit to throwing a tantrum in public. Your 4-year-old falls apart while struggling with his shoelaces. Preschoolers are often obsessed with doing everything for themselves. When you can, allow extra time for your child to futz with his buttons and laces, and teach him the skills he's ready to master. Give lots of encouragement and offer to help once you see his frustration mounting: "You really work at learning to do new things!" If he's having a full-fledged tantrum, simply tell him you understand and that you can help him learn to tie when he's feeling better. Your 5-year-old melts down at a birthday party. Big events like these are fraught with triggers. Your child may be overstimulated, or tired, or disappointed that she didn't win any party games. In any case, you'll need to separate her from the other kids. Take her to a quiet area if there's a possibility that she'll collect herself, or take her home if she's really at the end of her rope. She'll probably feel terrible about having to leave and miss out on things, so have her talk about it, and how she might handle a similar situation differently.
The AftermathNo matter the scenario, once the hysterics subside, your child's likely to be exhausted and plenty unhappy with himself. He just lost control, and gaining control is often what much of the fuss is about in the first place. So resist the urge to lecture, blame, or punish. Instead, find something positive to say, like "You did a good job calming yourself down." Don't give in to any of his demands, but do give him a clean slate, then enjoy something relaxing together -- take a walk, read a book, mix a batch of cookies. Just don't pay him an unusual amount of attention, or he'll think that meltdowns are the best way to get your attention.
If your child's tantrums get worse, or are accompanied by frequent nightmares, regression, stomachaches, or headaches, talk to your pediatrician -- these may be signs of something more serious than an everyday developmental struggle. More likely, though, as your child matures and can better handle his growing independence, the sound and the fury will ease off -- if not completely, at least enough for you to catch your breath between episodes.