Dealing with tantrums? We're here for you!

Contributed by Victoria Villicana, a family support worker in our Healthy Families Tennessee program. 

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It happens in the blink of an eye. Your sweet, precious toddler who loves to bring you flowers, snuggle before bedtime, and give sweet hugs suddenly morphs into a screaming, flailing, tantrum-ing alien who cannot be reasoned with and cannot seemingly be tamed. “Where did my sweet baby go?” you may ask yourself. You may also ask yourself, “Why must this happen in the middle of buying laundry detergent at Target?” You may blame yourself for “spoiling” your child. You may think it’s happening for no reason. I’m here to tell you, friends, all behavior – including the middle-of-the-grocery-store, everyone-is-staring-at-you, want-to-crawl-into-a-hole-and-hide tantrum – has a function and happens for a reason. The challenge is determining WHY the behavior is happening before you can figure out how to remedy it. Easy, right? Not always, but using this guide may help you to begin learning how to deal.

So what are the main functions of these behaviors? I’ve broken them down into four categories: access, avoidance/escape, attention, and sensory. Each has different triggers, and each requires a different approach or response.

ACCESS

Toddlers often engage in tantrums because they lack the language needed to communicate their wants and needs. Imagine seeing the thing you want and trying to tell someone about it but lacking the words you need. How frustrating that must be! Here are some ways to set your child up for success when communicating with you, saving frustration on both your parts:

  • Use as many words with your child to teach them how to appropriately ask for what they want. Teaching simple words such as, “I want,” and, “all done,” help your child communicate effectively.
  • Aside from simple phrases, it’s very important to teach feeling words as early as birth. Knowing words such as sad, happy, angry, and jealous teach children to communicate these feelings to you.
  • On the receiving end, when a child communicates an emotion, such as feeling angry or upset, you should respond calmly, demonstrating empathy and understanding. If the child trusts that you will do something about it when they communicate their feelings or needs, they will continue to do so and the major meltdowns can (hopefully) be avoided.

ATTENTION

Kids crave attention, and they will get it however they can. So when they are being ignored, behaviors such as tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression can get them the attention they are desperately seeking, even if it means they are being reprimanded, scolded, or spanked as a result. The best way to proactively treat this kind of behavior is to give the child praise for appropriately seeking attention.

  • If your child does not know how to ask for attention, teach them to gently pat your arm or leg. Reinforce this behavior by immediately giving them attention. If it’s possible, do not make them wait. They need to learn to ask for attention before they can learn to wait for it. Once they’ve mastered the ask, then you can begin to teach them to wait.
  • Provide positive attention throughout the day. Acknowledge good behavior with high fives, hugs, kisses, tickling, having a conversation, or playing an activity your child enjoys.
  • When children are satiated with positive attention, they will no longer seek to engage in problem behaviors to gain your attention.

 AVOIDANCE/ESCAPE

Every parent has been there: play time is over, it’s time to clean up, and the meltdown begins! I can’t blame them too much, I don’t particularly like cleaning up either. I certainly know the feeling of wanting to avoid working on a late-night assignment that is due the next day. Toddlers often feel the same way when we ask them to do something that they feel is an undesirable activity. Using a “first this, then that,” is a simple approach, but there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be realistic when you give your child a task or demand. Make sure that the task is age appropriate. A two-year-old should not be expected to clean an entire room by themselves.
  • Give them the “First this/then that” rule: “Clean up your toys, and then we can play outside, or eat our favorite snack.” If you find that your child is still unwilling to participate, what you’re offering may not be enticing enough for them. So before you make the offer, think about the thing that you know they enjoy and will motivate them to complete the task.
  • As your child complies, praise them!
  • Make it fun. Sing a song, be silly, and make your child want to do this again!
  • Reprimanding and scolding during the task may make your child dislike being compliant, so heap on the praise, and be patient. Like, really patient. Especially if your child is strong-willed. Just go ahead and be prepared to wait, but DON’T change your mind. While you are waiting, don’t allow them access to anything else that is fun. Stand your ground!
  • Be consistent each and every time. This one is hard. You’re tired, you just want to get it done, and you might be tempted just give in and do it yourself. But hang in there! They will learn to comply, and when they do, don’t forget to praise them!

SENSORY

Behaviors that are sensory related usually occur without the involvement of another person. Tantrums may result from being overstimulated from loud sounds, too much play time, and not enough rest. Keep in mind that all children are different and what overstimulates one child may not another. Become familiar with your child’s triggers. Do meltdowns happen in the early evening? Between breakfast and lunch? They might just be over tired, or maybe they need a snack. “Hangry” is a real thing, people. Pay attention to how your child responds to bright lights and loud noises, and always keep an eye out for possible illness or exhaustion. Children don’t know how to regulate feelings of tiredness, being overwhelmed, and frustration. Let’s be honest, most adults don’t either. So use these techniques to help remedy sensory overload when it happens, and prevent it when you can. (Feel free to use these on yourself, as well.)

  • Provide an appropriate outlet. If a child is having difficulty adjusting to loud music, remove them from the environment. If that’s not possible, give them headphones and let them listen to soothing music.
  • Most toddlers become fussy and irritated when they lack a routine. Having predictability teaches children when it is time to be excited and when it is time to be calm and quiet. Naps are very important for children at this age. If your kid is the kind who refuses to sleep during the day, encourage them to spend at least 15 minutes of quiet time with no television or loud noises.

These are all great methods, but what happens when you are in the middle of an epic tantrum? What should you do then? When you reprimand, scold, or spank a child who is engaging in a tantrum, you may think it will get the child to stop, and it may in the moment, but it’s only a matter of time before they do it again and possibly even more intently. If this is the case, your response is actually reinforcing the behavior. They have learned to behave this way to get your attention. Remember that when you have been reinforcing these unwanted behaviors for a long time, they are well learned, and it will take time to unlearn them, but it is possible!

PUNISHMENT

Never use punishment as your first option. When you do use punishment, it’s because you have tried to properly and effectively use redirection, giving attention for wanted behavior, or any other reinforcement strategy and it has not worked. Punishment strategies generally include time-out, planned ignoring, losing privileges, removing earned tokens from a token board, or adding aversive tasks like extra chores

  • Planned ignoring is used in the middle of a tantrum. Do not yell, scold, or try to reason with your child. With planned ignoring, you ignore your child until they are calm. Put yourself in time-out by walking away, doing the dishes, or reading a book. Tell your toddler one time that you will wait until they are ready to talk. Do not engage with them at this time and be ready to practice lots of patience. Over time, your little one will learn that tantrums no longer get them what they want, and as long as you continue to reinforce appropriate behavior, they will learn to use those behaviors instead.
  • Expect behavior to get worse before it gets better. When using planned ignoring, you may experience what is called extinction. The yelling, fussing, and screaming will intensify. This is normal! You may also see tantrums last a little longer. It’s good news when you reach extinction! It means you are using planned ignoring correctly and it’s working to eliminate the tantrum. Be patient and don’t give in. It’s temporary and will eventually cease. Giving in now would only reinforce the intensity and duration of the tantrum, so hold fast!
  • The only time you should interfere is if the child is seriously harming themselves or someone else.
  • As soon as your child begins to exhibit a calm voice and appropriate behavior, be ready to respond with your own calm voice, and reinforce their appropriate behavior.

If you do use punishment, never use it without reinforcement. Never spank, hit, or insult a child. These are types of punishment, but they are also abusive. Always reinforce more than you punish!

I wish I could tell you there is a magic silver bullet for eliminating tantrums at this developmental stage. The truth is, every child is so different, and you know them best. Paying attention to patterns, triggers, and your child’s responses to their world is the best way to know how to prevent tantrums and respond to them when they do happen. Positive reinforcement and attention will go a long way, and rest assured that you are not alone in this. If you are continuing to struggle with your child’s behavior, contact us for help! Our in-home parenting classes and support can give you information and strategies that will be tailored to your needs. We are here for you.