The dictionary defines the word tantrum as "an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child”. Tantrums are a typical reaction of children between ages one and three when they can´t get their way. What is behind the typical tantrum is what concerns us here. We assume that there is not a serious problem. In that case, the situation would require immediate attention and not the kind of response explained here.
By the end of their first year of life, a child who has received loving care at home is already the center of attention in the family and realizes that parents are there to meet all their needs and desires. At this age children begin deciding at times what they want and what they don´t want. When they don´t like parental decisions, tantrums can develop. Children don’t appreciate or understand the limits that parents set. In addition, we must keep in mind that young children are easily frustrated and cannot always express themselves very well.
Let´s imagine for example that Paul, an 18 month old boy, sees a cookie in the kitchen and wants to eat it. The parent tells him that it is not time to eat so Paul gets very upset and starts crying. Let’s begin with what NOT to do when Paul is throwing a tantrum.
1) Ignoring the tantrum. By ignoring the tantrum, the parents would show indifference to Paul´s feelings when he is having a hard time. To begin with, parents can try to soothe Paul by holding him, talking to him or distracting him with something else. But if trying to calm the child down makes the tantrum worse, it would be a good idea to try another technique.
2) Giving in to the tantrum. If the parent gives the cookie to Paul after he has being crying for a while, this experience demonstrates to Paul that if he cries hard enough when he disagrees with his parents, they will probably change their mind. However, when parents do not give in to the tantrum, the child eventually draws a very different conclusion: I am supposed to do what my parents say and crying won´t solve my problem.
3) Stressing too much about the tantrum. For parents, especially for mothers, the first tantrums are stressful because they are used to responding to crying with urgency, because something could be wrong. But it is important to recognize that as the child grows up, sometimes children cry just because they can´t get their way. In this case, parents should see the tantrum not so much as a problem, but as an opportunity to teach important rules of obedience and respect.
4) Getting angry. The parent has no reason to be angry; moreover, the parent should understand that Paul is sad and frustrated because he couldn´t get his way. While it is easy to become angry with the child, parents should try to focus on their frustration and disappointment with not getting what he want with empathy and kindness.
5) Trying to force the child to calm down. If the parent isn’t able to soothe Paul by holding him, talking to him or distracting him with something else, screaming or spanking would only make the child more upset. It is important to understand that in order for Paul to stop crying, he must be able to calm down by himself. Sometimes it is better not say or do anything.
6) Insisting on staying beside the child. At this point it is better to leave Paul alone and give him some space to calm down by himself. If these episodes are frequent, it is a good idea to assign him a safe place in the house where he can retreat to cry until he calms down. In both cases, let the child know that you will be there waiting for him nearby as soon as he calms down.
7) Trying to reason. There will be plenty of occasions when Paul is calm and listening to his parents, to talk about the tantrum and to show him that there are other ways to show mom and dad that he disagrees with them, and to show him techniques to manage his frustration or anger. But it is not the best time to do it in the middle of a tantrum
8) Demanding an apology. Once the child is calm, it is better not to talk about what happened immediately afterwards so that the child will not once more begin crying. It is best to just turn the page and let Paul be engaged with a toy or a book or other distractions.
Assuming that Paul’s parents have followed our advice and that the child has stopped crying, it's time to ask ourselves: was it really important to stop Paul from eating a cookie? Some parent in the same situation perhaps would have allowed the child to eat the cookie. This kind of dilemma speaks to the interaction that the parent and child have throughout the day. Parents should avoid laying down too many rules and setting too many limits and, as much as possible, they should allow the child to enjoy and play around the house as freely as they can safely. Thus parents can avoid unnecessary tantrums just by being more aware of what they “tell” their children every time they speak to them.
In any case, when parents make an unpopular decision and the tantrum is inevitable, parents must remember to be firm, respond calmly. When parents consistently respond this way to the first tantrums in the life of a child, these episodes will be increasingly less frequent and intense. Otherwise tantrums can become difficult dramas that are neither instructive nor productive. The early years in the life of a child are critically important for teaching obedience and self control. . Otherwise, children grow up determined to always get their way which will result in frequent tantrums, and with time, tantrums that may include ugly words, gestures, arguments, screaming, and physical fighting.
Occasional tantrums are a normal reaction in young children when they can´t get their way, but even young children are able to learn how to soothe themselves. Frequent tantrums should not be part of the daily life of any child over three years of age, and if they are, or if a parent feels intimidated or overly upset by them, I recommend that parents seek advice from a professional in order to learn how to respond to these outbursts so that the child can grow out of the need for tantrums.
Pepa Rivero de Wenrich