It’s a universally recognizable scenario which qualifies as the Armageddon of parenthood. A red face; ear piercing, soul scratching, vocal cord hemorrhaging screams and body thrashing – all characteristics of the temper tantrum. As a father of four, and grandfather, I’ve seen hundreds of temper tantrums. Each and every one has left me feeling more or less spent, not to mention saddened as a parent. Where do they come from and what can be done about them? During the holiday season, when they tend to peak, it seems timely to review what might be helpful.
The most common age for this behavior is between 3 ½ and 4 ½ years – the twelve to eighteen months before they start kindergarten. Tantrums seem to cluster around those moments when your children – and often you – are hungry, tired, scurrying about, running late and/or stressed out. It’s important to remember that they don’t usually ‘come out of nowhere’ – they tend to be a last straw for your child. Developmentally, they occur when children are struggling to manage their bodies (often having just finished toilet training) and their emotions (aggression, frustration).
My colleagues at Yale’s Parenting Center have been looking at temper tantrum management for years and are on the right track from my view point. They have highlighted the single most critical component of the parent/child temper tantrum interaction – the parental tendency to equal the child’s emotional intensity. This is not helpful. Your child is almost completely unaware of the storm he/she’s making, so when you leap in emotionally and physically charged ‘to get your child’s attention and stop this,’ your child ‘reacts’ to your intensity and escalation is the name of the game.
Their advice (with which I concur):
- Forget punishment and yelling. It could terrify or confuse your child, often has no relevance to their distress given their immature sense of cause and effect, and only briefly satisfies your need to be in control.
- Stay calm. Count to ten, turn away briefly, bite your lip, and above all – breathe – this way you won’t fuel the fire and it allows you and your child to recover more quickly.
- Ignore the negative behavior. This de-escalates the tantrum faster than any other single thing a parent can do.
- Turn your attention to praising the next ‘good thing’ your child does. Be very specific about what you appreciate and why, be sincere in your tone and behavior, and look them in the eye.
After a few weeks of these tactics, you’ll notice the tantruming is less frequent and less severe. One day you’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, it’s been months since the last meltdown.’