Throwing a tantrum is a very normal part of childhood development if it occurs when it’s supposed to. Not all kids will tantrum, but if they do, it typically occurs between 15 months to 3 years of age. A tantrum is defined as a child reacting emotionally to something he wants and cannot have – it’s associated with screaming, crying, throwing things, biting, and/or hitting. More “exuberant” behavior is when a child throws himself on the floor, bangs his head on the floor or wall, and sometimes holds his breath until he turns blue, which can be pretty scary indeed!
Again, parents need to remember that this is normal behavior, to a point. What’s most important is how a parent or caregiver responds to the tantrum which will ultimately dictate how long the tantrum will last or how frequently a child does tantrum. Especially when a child throws a tantrum in a very public place like the mall, during a church service, or at a family reunion, a parent’s first reaction – to get the child to stop as quickly as possible – is not the best one. Obviously, it is the ultimate goal to prevent tantrums in the first place, but if you try to stop a tantrum too quickly, you are ensuring that there will be more.
If you’re raising a child in that tantrum-age “sweet-spot”, it’s very important to remember P.T. Barnum’s adage, “There is no such thing as bad publicity” or Oscar Wilde’s, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Kids usually learn the power of how to tantrum by accident. Think of this scenario: a child wants a piece of candy and mom says, “No.” The child throws herself down on the floor and begins to cry and scream. In panic or fear or the need for peace, mom gives in and hands her child the candy, and voila! That child has been rewarded for her tantrum, has succeeded in getting immediate parental attention, and has learned that it’s a path to get what she wants.
Remember, too, that every interaction with a child in this age range is a learning moment – toddlers are observing and processing and studying everything. Therefore, it’s also dangerous to yell back at a child, because, while it may stop the tantrum in the short run, she then perceives that if it’s okay for you to “throw a fit” to get what you want, it’s okay for her to do it, too.
My best advice for parents and caregivers is to never, ever give in, but don’t get into a fight, either. If a tantrum is in full swing before you, you just need to ignore it – don’t laugh or pay attention to your child in any way. As long as children are not endangering themselves, it’s okay to let them go.
It’s also important for parents to understand that even those extreme behaviors – like a child banging his head on the floor – do not endanger a child’s health. Rarely will a child do them to the point of truly hurting themselves. Now of course it can be a scary thing to observe your child banging his head or holding his breath, but it’s important for a child to learn that it won’t get him anywhere; moreover, he’ll usually reach the conclusion, “Gee, this hurts!” and the behavior will cease more quickly than if it was acknowledged.
Remember that piece of candy that started our tantrum example? Well, some parents wonder whether it’s okay, once the child has calmed down and is no longer throwing a tantrum, to give the child that piece. My answer is still “No,” as it’d still be rewarding a child for that behavior, and more importantly, it’s reneging on your first answer and changing the limits you set for your child. That’s confusing and hard for children because they do look to their parents to set limits, to make the world smaller and less scary. They throw tantrums when they are testing the boundaries, but if you stay firm and consistent, they will ultimately be happier that those boundaries exist. The best advice is to ignore the tantrum as if it never happened.
What’s amazing and resilient about children – especially at the toddler age – is how easily they will forget the entire event and simply move on. Thankfully, they’re not very good at holding grudges, so if you ignore the tantrum from start to well past its finish, they too will let it go.
For older children who still may tantrum and who can be reasoned with, it’s a good idea to wait until they calm down. Then, talk to your children logically and don’t moralize to them. Don’t say things like “You’ve been bad,” “You were rude,” or “Grandma won’t like you.” What they’ll respect and listen to are the practical aspects – it is therefore okay to say “Look, I couldn’t give you what you wanted, it wasn’t appropriate and you were out of control, anyway. Let’s see if we can come up with a way to deal with this in the future.” You can express how the tantrum made you feel, but you just shouldn’t assume how your child should feel.
Conversely, when your child does something very good, even if it’s by accident, praise it…a lot. Give them the attention they desire and tell them how smart and terrific they are – positive reinforcement can go a very long way indeed!
If parents feel they are trying their best but are worried about the amount or severity of their child’s tantrums, they should have a discussion with their pediatrician. Rarely, tantrums can be a sign of a mental or a neurological problem. Know, too, that we will not assume you are a bad parent! Tantrums represent a normal phase of childhood, and our job as pediatricians is to find a way to help both parent and child work through this common hurdle of child development.