Tackling Temper Tantrums In Tiny Tots

Temper tantrums are a small child’s way of trying to cope with frustrations, or with a lack of attention. They are common between the ages of one and four. As a child grows and develops more refined verbal communication skills, temper tantrums often disappear. However, they do persist longer in rare cases.

•    One-year-old Shreya tends to hold her breath when she cries, often becoming limp and blue
•    Vivek, an eighteen-month-old, screams and falls to the ground often, rolling on the floor and refusing to stop. He does this both at home and in public places
•    Jasmine, a two-year-old, starts banging her head against the wall, when she gets angry

These are some classic examples of temper tantrums, which most of us have seen children throw at some point of time.

What Causes Temper Tantrums?

Temper tantrums fall under two broad categories:

•    Frustration-related tantrums
•    Attention-seeking tantrums

A small child’s body structure develops faster than his or her ability to communicate or to do certain tasks. The child is often lost in this world of adults – people who do not easily understand it and its needs they are not sufficiently equipped with the necessary mechanisms – the ‘stoppers’ – that restrain adults from verbalizing their emotions and erupting in public.

Small children express their frustrations through tantrums. They tend to get frustrated when they do not get what they want, like a toy or a candy at a shop. A child may also throw a tantrum while seeking the attention of either parent.

The child knows experientially that nothing attracts a parent’s attention more effectively than a high-pitched scream or a bout of rolling on the floor. Children who are peaceful or contented by nature are likely to throw fewer tantrums than those with inherent aggressiveness and demanding natures.

Temper Tantrum Triggers

Most tantrums have a triggering factor – a fact that most parents soon come to realize. The most common reasons for a tantrum could be an inability to do some physical task, like climbing onto a chair or putting on socks. Other common triggers are excessive hunger, fatigue, over-stimulation, sleepiness, the presence of too many people and the presence of an ailment.

Keeping calm is the best way to handle a meltdown

What To Do When Your Child Throws A Tantrum

During a temper tantrum it is always advisable that the parents remain as calm as possible, since the child eventually depends on its parents for comfort.
If the temper tantrum is an attention seeking measure, the child actually wants the parents to react.

Any form of parental reaction only reinforces the child’s conviction that throwing a tantrum can get my parent’s attention, and to focus on it. The underlying idea here is that ‘negative attention is better than no attention’.

Shouting and screaming at the child, or using physical violence to stop the tantrum, will not help. If the parent can remain calm, half the problem is solved.

Other effective measures during and after a temper tantrum are:

1)    Anticipation: If the parent is well attuned to the child, s/he can sense that a tantrum is likely to occur – especially if the circumstances or triggers are present.

2)    Creating a diversion: At a very early stage of the tantrum (before the child completely loses it) you could divert his attention by taking the child for a drive, giving him a toy or candy etc.

3)    Preparation: If the parents can preempt that a difficult time lies ahead, they can prepare for it by seeing that the child is well fed and rested before taking him shopping or on a social visit.

4)    Time outs: This is a useful technique when a tantrum is in progress. The mother silently removes herself from the scene of the tantrum, while keeping an eye on the child without interacting with him. Children soon understand that if they scream, they court a time out situation (which they dislike and fear).

5)    Helping the child settle down: Holding and hugging the child, using soothing words and reassuring him with appropriate voice and body language that all is well and things are under control will help in cutting short a tantrum.

6)    Rewarding the child: A parent should also reward the child when he or she has been good. This helps them feel worthy, happy and loved.

7)    Spend time with the child: Spending a lot of time with the child is a good way of bonding and makes the child feel secure.

Copyright © Dr. P. V. Vaidyanathan

Dr. P. V. Vaidyanathan is a Mumbai-based pediatrician and published author. His recent book on child stress management has won critical acclaim.

Photo credit trexor




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  1. Loving Your Child June 5, 2010