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Why does my child have temper tantrums?

Temper tantrums are exhausting and no parent enjoys experiencing it with their child.  As much as we do not like dealing with one, whether it occurs at home, while shopping, in the middle of a restaurant, or even in the car, they happen. Often, when we least expect it.  Sometimes anything can set your child off into whining, crying, screaming, kicking, or hitting.  Leaving you tired, embarrassed, and helpless.

Here's some information to help you better understand why temper tantrums happen, strategies to help you deal with temper tantrums in your child, and when to seek help for temper tantrums.

Temper tantrums usually begin to surface between one to three years of age and are equally common in boys and girls. They most commonly occur in your child’s second year of life, as this is usually when language begins to develop for your toddler. For some children, temper tantrums occur frequently throughout the day and other children rarely have them. Temper tantrums are a normal part of your child’s development. Children will usually have a temper tantrum to show they are upset or frustrated. Why they may be upset or frustrated really just varies from child to child and can be situational. For instance, they can occur when your child is tired, hungry, uncomfortable; or even when they cannot get something they want.  Since your toddler’s language skills are just developing, they may not be able to communicate what they want, feel, or need. Their difficulty in communication causes them to feel frustrated, causing the tantrum. As your toddler’s language skills improve, you may begin to see a decrease in tantrums. Over time, your child will learn to deal with frustration, a necessary skill needed throughout their life.

Temper tantrums can also occur as your child’s way of expressing his or her desire for independence and control over their environment; often leading to a power struggle. The tantrum most often is a result of your child realizing that he or she cannot do or have everything they want.

Strategies to help avoid temper tantrums.

Familiarize yourself with your toddler’s mood. Running errands with your toddler can wait if you notice he or she is tired or grumpy.

Instead of using the word NO for everything, incorporate other words in your vocabulary. Toddlers hear the word “no” quite often and sometimes that word can lose its meaning for them. You can start using other words for different situations that essentially have the same effect as “no”. For instance, if your child wants to touch the stove, walk in a busy area without holding hands, or jump off high surfaces say DANGER or HURT. You can essentially use any word you want, as long as you keep it consistent.

Out of sight and out of mind. Keep off-limit objects away from your child. If they do not know it exists, they may not be tempted to have it. This, of course, is situational, as you cannot control every environment your toddler encounters.

Encourage positive behavior. This requires you to really pay attention to your toddler. Every time you catch your toddler being well behaved, reward him or her with some positive remarks. This can sound as simple as “Thank you for being so patient while I was on the phone”, “Thank you for waiting your turn”, or “Thank you for showing kindness in sharing your toy”. In this manner, not only are you encouraging further positive behavior, but you're also teaching your child about virtues.

Offer choices. Sometimes feeling like they have no control can cause toddlers to feel even more frustrated. By offering your child minor choices you are giving them some of the independence they are seeking. Choice giving can sound like: “do you want milk or juice?” or “do you carrots or broccoli?” You’re also more likely to hear “no” less from your toddler because they chose their decision. You're giving them a sense of control.

Make sure your child is receiving enough sleep for his or her age. Children are easily bothered and emotional if they are not receiving enough shut-eye a night. Keeping your child well rested can often reduce the frequency and duration of temper tantrums.

Whatever tactic you choose, it is important to keep in mind that all children are different. What may work for one does not work for the other.  Consistency is also key. If you try something once and you do not get the outcome you had hoped- try again! Some of the above tactics just take some practice for your toddler.

What can I do when my child is having a temper tantrum?

It is important to always keep your cool when dealing with temper tantrums. Yes, it natural to feel frustrated and angry; however, by doing so you may only exasperate the problem.  Your child is looking to you for examples. Remaining calm can help your child learn to calm down. However, using force or physical punishment, such as hitting and spanking, can only result in more negative behaviors from your child.

There is not one specific way of handling your child’s temper tantrums. Each tantrum may need to be handled differently depending on what caused the tantrum in the first place. For instance, provide a snack if he or she is hungry; provide comfort when they are sad or upset; provide an alternative when they want something they cannot have.

Never reward a child’s tantrum by giving in. For in doing so, you are teaching your child that his or her tantrum is effective which only encourages future tantrums.

Once your child’s temper tantrum has subsided and your child is back to being calm, it’s a good idea to talk to him or her about what happened.  Acknowledge her frustration, and help her put her feelings into words, this could sound like, “You were very angry because your food wasn’t the way you wanted it.”  Let her see that once she expresses herself in words, she will get better results.

When should I seek therapy to help with temper tantrums?

If you find that your child’s temper tantrums are beginning to take a toll on you and your family, therapy can be your best option. It is also important to seek therapy for temper tantrums if the duration and/or frequency of your child’s temper tantrums are becoming frequent; your child’s temper tantrums have not stopped around age four, or your child’s actions are causing harm to either himself or others. Use the Heads Up Checkup symptom checker to see if you should follow up on your concerns.

What can I expect from therapy for temper tantrums?

Therapy for your child’s temper tantrums can be very useful for you and your child. A mental health professional will typically work with you and your child to help reduce temper tantrums in your child by providing useful therapeutic approaches. Depending on the needs of your family and child, the therapeutic approaches can range from helping your child with his or her coping skills, establishing a schedule and routine, teaching choices and reinforcement, skill building, emotional development, or developing meaningful tasks. The number and length of each session will depend on your concerns and goals for therapy. The primary focus of therapy for temper tantrums is helping you and your family change and manage your child’s behaviors. Sometimes resolving a discipline problem in your child is not necessarily changing how your child behaves, but rather helping parents learn new and more effective ways to interact with their child.

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