You don’t need a master’s degree in child psychology to recognize a temper tantrum when you see one or to realize that all children have them. But have you ever stopped to think about the reasons behind the rage?
“A temper tantrum is a child’s expression of frustration because his or her language is not as well developed,” says Kimberly Sirl, PhD, clinical child psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “These outbursts commonly occur in children between ages 1 and 3. Young children lack the vocabulary and developmental skills necessary to express their emotions verbally, and when frustration levels rise, a tantrum is their only means of release.”
Dr. Sirl points out that frustration is as normal a part of life for children as it is for adults, and that parents should use tantrums as opportunities to teach their little ones to calm themselves.
How Should You React?
“Try to keep your cool in the face of a tantrum,” says Rose Rudert, manager at St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s Child Development Center. “If the parent gets frustrated too, that will only add fuel to the child’s fire. Instead of focusing on the bad behavior itself, try to identify the underlying cause and, if appropriate, fix the problem.”
Whatever you do, don’t give in to a tantrum. If you reward it, next time it will be bigger and louder. Stand firm, and when the storm subsides, praise your child for calming down.
Lastly, be a good role model.
“How you handle your situations will be seen by your child and affect how he or she responds,” Rudert says. “They’re going to do what you do, so modeling appropriate behavior is something that parents always need to keep in mind.”
When to Seek Help
Tantrums should diminish by age 4, as language skills develop. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends consulting your pediatrician if:
- Tantrums increase after age 4
- Child harms property, self or others during tantrums
- Child holds breath or faints during tantrums
- Child displays signs of emotional distress