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How to Deal with Temper Tantrums

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Temper tantrums, like any natural disaster, have a tendency to blow in without warning — they wreak havoc and then vanish, leaving fear and destruction in their wake. I know this because I live with a 5-year-old hurricane. One minute my daughter is showering me with love and telling me about her day, and the next minute she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. Her arms flail, her nose crinkles in contempt. “What’s wrong?” I ask, frustrated and angry when I’m at home, but more like mortified and ashamed when we’re on the sidewalk. And what
is wrong? Well, the answer is never the same, and it isn’t always as clear as “I’m hungry!”. Usually it’s, “You don’t understand My Little Pony!”, or “Stop asking about school!” or (a personal favorite), “My finger!” 

If your child is anything like mine, you’re also dealing with an adorable, pint-sized puzzle whose temper sometimes flares. “Temper tantrums are a normal developmental phenomenon,” says Claudia Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Community Health Programs of the Berkshires in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and author of Keeping Your Child In Mind. Tantrums are most common in the toddler and preschool years when there are massive developmental shifts in a child’s verbal and thinking skills, she says. Little kids simply don’t have the emotional maturity to properly express frustration, helplessness, and powerlessness. 

RELATED: 21 Things Only Moms Who Have Dealt with a Threenager Know

It’s normal to feel helpless when your child has a temper tantrum (please god, tell me it’s normal!), but with a few key strategies you can manage her fits and possibly even avoid them.

1. Try not to lose your sh*t. Yes, it’s hard to be patient when your kid is freaking out, but you really have to ride tantrums out. See, there are different phases of temper tantrums: the inciting event, the reaction, the escalation, the peak, and then the deescalation where kids move into the quieter phase where they’re able to calm down, explains Mollie Grow, MD, a pediatrician with Seattle Children’s Hospital. “When they are in the escalation and peak — the ‘out of your mind/body’ screaming fit — there’s not much you can do but sit by and wait patiently,” she says. “Talking doesn’t help because they just can’t hear it.”

2. Give your kid some space. When he’s in the throes of a temper tantrum, he may not want to be touched, says Dr. Grow. Generally, a child needs space to work it out on his own. Let him spend time in, say, his room; he’ll have his own space but still be close enough that you can keep an eye on him.

3. Soothe your child. Eventually the tantrum will start to deescalate, and that’s when using a gentle, calm voice and rubbing your child’s back or cuddling her can be helpful, says Dr. Grow. Making your kid feel safe will probably lead to a quicker resolution. 

4.  Remain calm. This one is difficult — but essential to remember. “Analogous to the airlines rule of adjusting your own oxygen first, the most important component of dealing with a tantrum is for a parent to herself remain calm,” says Dr. Gold.

5. Identify triggers, in an effort to minimize (or even prevent) future temper tantrums. Dr. Grow recommends considering the H.A.L.T. acronym: Is your child Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? These things are triggers for all of us but especially for young children who have less developed coping skills. Keep in mind that in addition to every day triggers, tantrums can be provoked by times of intense stress or change, such as a new baby in the house, a move, or a death in the family.

6. Distract your kid. When he’s in a situation that could trigger a tantrum — say, you’ve just gotten home after a long day of preschool — turning on a pro-social show such as  “Daniel Tiger” can be a great brief diversion, says Dr. Grow. “Just be clear about when you’ll need to turn off the TV, to help prevent a meltdown during that transition.”

7. Do what works for you. Remember that every child is unique, says Dr. Grow. We’ve been learning a lot about tantrums that can help us, but parents do have to trust their instincts and find what works for them,” she adds.

Now that you’ve got the tips, go forth and conquer! Just kidding, we all know nothing is that simple. But feel reassured in the knowledge that most children do get better with self-regulation over time, says Dr. Grow, and tantrums will start to dissipate in intensity and frequency with time. So patience is key. Got it? Still, if I had a dollar for every one of my daughter’s temper tantrums, I would buy myself a lobotomy and forget each and every one of her irrational screaming fits. But maybe that’s just me.

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Photo: Getty