Children And Tantrums

Young girl throwing a fit

Have you ever been in a public setting and felt everyone staring at you as your child melts down into a screaming fit? Ever find yourself avoiding an errand with your little one due to fear that they will tantrum? Ever been humiliated as you walk out of school and your child melts down, all while the teacher says “this never happens with us”. If so, you are not alone — all children tantrum and most children publically tantrum during their early childhood.

Why do children tantrum?

Children tantrum for different reasons — sometimes because they are tired and this is the easiest way to express it. Other times it is because there is too much going on in the environment and they are overwhelmed (ever observed a tantrumming child at a birthday party?). Sometimes it is for attention — when children tantrum they generally get a whole lot of attention! Often, particularly in public places, tantrums occur when children do not get their way — when you tell them “you have to sit in the cart” and they wanted to walk, or you say “no toy/cookie/3rd field trip to the bathroom in 20 minutes”.

How to make it stop

The first key is prevention — talk to your child frequently, particularly when running errands. Make it fun instead of boring. But, prevention isn’t always possible — sometimes tantrums just can’t be avoided. At these times the single most effective way to prevent tantrums is to IGNORE them. No talking. No eye contact. Sing yourself a song about what a good mother/father/grandparent you are and pretend it is not happening. Don’t worry about the people staring at you — their child had a public tantrum yesterday and they are watching you for tips about what to do. When the tantrum ends, very quickly find something pleasant to talk about — “look, the cheerios are in a new box!!!”.

If you cannot tolerate the public tantrum…

Leave wherever you are. Calmly remove your child from the cart/aisle/party and walk out. You can continue to ignore in the car or just go home. This is less effective if your child was tantrumming because they were bored/wanted to leave. In these instances, let the tantrum ensue in the car and GO BACK to the store, even if it is only for two minutes, to show your child they did not get what they wanted.

Above all else stay calm and remember that this too shall pass!

For additional help feel free to call the Psychology Service for an appointment at 832.822.1900.

About Dr. Marni Axelrad, Child Psychologist

I am a board certified clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital. I work primarily with developing children aged 18 months to 6 years and their families.

I typically treat children with behavioral difficulties. These difficulties can be associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), difficult temperament, or just normal development.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology

6 Responses to Children And Tantrums

  1. Shelley says:

    I needed this post. I have twins and I suffer through many trantrums on a double basis.
    any thoughts on how to get one to stay calm if the other goes crazy
    instead of making it a double whammy. Any suggestions will help.

    • If one is tantrumming and the other is relatively well behaved, have a very enthusiastic conversation with the well behaving twin. Make it simple, because you are going to be very distracted by the screaming of the tantrumming twin, but saying things like “Look how you are sitting so nicely! Since you are following the rules so nicely you choose what we play with/what snack we have/what cereal we pick from the shelf”. Keep up the enthusiastic banter but steer clear of direct comparisons between twins, such as “you are listening so well while your brother is having a screaming fit!” The moment the twin having the tantrum is quiet, enthusiastically engage him/her in the discussion. Be warned, the first couple of times you do this it will make the tantrum worse since you are giving such positive attention to the other twin, but it will only take a couple of times to reduce the intensity and length of the tantrum, and eventually the twin will learn the tantrum does not get him/her anything positive.

  2. Matt Basil says:

    Most tantrums and angry outbursts come and go as children and youth grow in their ability to use language and learn to solve problems using words. But occasionally, fits of temper and violence persist into elementary school and may signal serious problems. Sometimes there are biological sources of anger that require diagnosis by a physician or psychologist.

    If someone is getting hurt or if you use the suggestions listed in this fact sheet and nothing seems to work, it is time to get professional help. Ask your physician, school guidance counselor or psychologist for names of those skilled in working with children on anger issues. Or, check the yellow pages under counselors, for psychologists and marriage and family therapists who specialize in child behavioral problems.

  3. Jane Woolman says:

    Can you comment on meltdowns vs.tantrums?Specifically in Autistic kids.

    • Jane,
      Everyone explains these a little differently. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I like to describe them this way as it helps me to clarify what is occurring and set appropriate expectations:

      I consider a tantrum to be a conscious form of communication. A meltdown is an unconscious communication and loss of control when overwhelmed by a challenging situation.

      During a tantrum a child generally maintains some semblance of self control internally (if not readily obvious to us). The tantrum is a conscious decision by the child to communicate their displeasure. It is calculated to gain what the child wants, or may be an experimental communication to see what will happen. The child is usually careful to avoid hurting him/herself and has a degree of consciousness about their choice of behavior (maybe not in a sophisticated way but definitely as a communication tool).

      In the situation of a meltdown by a child with autism, this is frequently an instinctual response (an auto response) to an unbearable situation. It may be an escape from (or complaint about) sensory stimuli that is overloading their system. It may also be a response to the word “No.” Children with autism have fixations, they perseverate, and to hear a “no” to that fixation is devastating because they lack the flexibility to mentally and emotionally adjust to the “No.” They do not have typical coping skills or a way to regulate their emotions yet. When a child with autism is having a meltdown it may be helpful to gather them into a hold and use deep pressure to calm the physiological arousal. It is of course best to try to work with the pre cursors to a meltdown. Identify what happens before a meltdown and look for patterns that trigger this. A useful resource to address challenging behaviors is @ Autism Speaks, they have a new booklet you can download: “Challenging Behaviors Toolkit.”

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