How to Defuse a Child's Temper Tantrum

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One of the main challenges of childhood is learning about boundaries and appropriate behavior. Although the temper tantrums seem to stop after age six, and start up again around adolescence, children test boundaries in many different ways. When parents enforce a rule or an expectation, a child can respond with everything from calm acquiescence to a full-blown temper tantrum.

How we respond to that tantrum is often determined by whether or not we happen to be in a public place. Did you say "no" to a new toy at the mall or a sugary food at the grocery store? Is your child refusing to eat her vegetables, or angry about being refused dessert at a restaurant? Are the in-laws over for a visit? Is it safe to walk away and leave your child alone until he or she realizes their behavior isn't getting the response they wanted? And how much of this particular outburst is caused by low blood-sugar, hunger, exhaustion, lack of sleep, or your child's disturbing ability to pick up on your own anger or stress, and reflect it back to you?

If you are at  home, especially when other children or adults are present, it is important to send or carry your child to another room and leave them there to collect themselves. Children are embarrassed as easily as adults. Your child's outburst may be as much about their feelings of shame at having done something "wrong" in front of someone they want to impress as it is about being corrected or punished in front of that visitor or friend. If you see a tantrum coming on, take your child aside and ask friends and siblings to go play for a minute. This privacy and show of respect on your part may help the child regain control of their emotions.

Using this private moment to ask them to verbalize-- to use words and tell you what's wrong-- may also help them overcome their tendency to start screaming and throwing things. If none of that works, or you've recognized the situation too late to divert it, use the privacy to send the child to the "away room" or the "angry chair" until they can calm down and tell you what they want without screaming or throwing things. If the child is too focused on their tantrum to stop or to walk to the designated "away" space on their own, carry them there.

It is important to explain what you are doing, and why, especially if you are changing your reaction to an unwanted behavior. You might walk your child to the designated chair, and then say to your child that it makes you sad when he or she child cries, so you're not going to watch. They can come back when they have calmed down and stopped screaming/crying/etc. Walk away, and make sure nobody else goes to visit the child until the child comes out to be social again on their own. If the child seems to be calming down, it is okay for you, the parent, to call in to them and ask if they'd like to come back out and play now. Sometimes children don't realize you've given the control to them-- the choice of when your child is ready to be with the family (or her friends) again.

My parents took turns being responsible for my behavior in restaurants. As a young child, if I exhibited unacceptable behavior in restaurants, one of them would tell me what behavior was unacceptable, and then tell me what they'd like to see me doing instead. If I didn't heed that one warning, one parent would simply pick me up and take me out to the car so that nobody else's dinner had to be disturbed. That parent would either pretend to read a book and ignore me as we sat in the car, or would leave me in my seat and walk away-- far enough that I didn't know they were there, but close enough to make sure I was safe.

It was so embarrassing to be carried screaming out to the car, and so lonely to sit there by myself with no music and no family and no food that my parents only ever had to take me out of a restaurant twice, and after that my one warning was enough. Eating out is a treat, not a right. This also means that if it is just you and your child, you need to do a little prep-work before you go, so that if you need to leave, you can put down enough cash on the table to cover the bill, and walk out.

A single parent with more than one child has fewer options available in a restaurant setting. One option is to ask for a seat near the front entry, so that you can either remove your child to the entrance and have a talk there, while keeping an eye on your table and other child. Another is to request a seat in a corner or at a table with chairs, so that you can either pull your child's seat away from the table until their behavior improves, or send them to sit in the corner of the restaurant (right by your table) until they get it together.

Another option for any sort of family is to explain before you go out that this activity is a treat, and you can only do it again if your child behaves well this time. If it doesn't go well, wait until the meal or the grocery trip is over, and then tell your child that they can't go to the store or to a restaurant with you again until they show you they can have good behavior there. And stick to it. Ask your child if they'd like to pretend dinner at home is a restaurant tonight, so they can show you their wonderful manners, and talk them through "good restaurant behavior" as the meal progresses. If they do well, plan a lunch out with them for the following day, so the child connects the treat with the behavior.

If you are in a grocery store when the tantrum erupts, wheel the cart to the customer service desk, and tell them your child is not behaving well, so you have to go out to the car. You'll try to come back for the cart in a few minutes, but if it takes longer, you'll go straight home. Telling the customer service person is the same as telling your child. And it means you may not have to do ALL the shopping over again. Clerks have to restock the shelves all the time, so this is not something you have to feel guilty about. It is more important to respond immediately to your child's bad behavior by again removing them from the situation and from their audience-- this time the other shoppers.

I've also seen parents successfully sit their child down against a blank stretch of wall in a store as a make-do time-out. It's dirty on a grocery floor, but it shows your child that you will not let them get away with bad behavior in any environment. Stand a few feet away so you can pretend disinterest in your child, while clearly still keeping an eye on them. This is for your child's safety, and for the peace of mind of other shoppers.

If your child is starting to fuss, but the tantrum hasn't yet emerged, there are three basic responses to stop the tantrum before it starts:

  • Ask your child if he or she is hungry. After nap and before a meal is one of the most common tantrum times because children are still not really awake, and they are getting hungry. A small nutritious snack of fruit, or cheese and crackers and water will boost their energy and their tolerance level without ruining dinner. Give your child a choice of two or three different snacks so they get to have some control.
  • If your child hasn't slept well the night before, or is learning to live with fewer naps, or if it is close to nap-time, consider offering to read books of your child's choice aloud. Maybe even turn on a favorite educational movie for a set time period-- fifteen minutes at most. These things give your child a chance to rest without the dread word NAP or SLEEP getting him or her upset. The idea is to offer calm non-interactive activities to your child so that there isn't an excuse have a tantrum in the first place. A walk in a stroller, or  time to run around in the back yard can serve a similar purpose-- just pick something you already know your child really enjoys doing. This will buy you a little time until dinner is ready or bedtime is real, or the visiting children go home.
  • Take your child aside, and tell them you can see they are starting to get upset. You want to help; can they use words to tell you what is wrong? You might even try asking about specific problems-- Are you upset that your sister isn't sharing? For example. If you can figure out what is upsetting them and help them find a reasonable solution (Let's take turns with that toy, since you both want to play with it. Sarah can finish playing with it, and in one minute, it will be Jordan's turn for five minutes, then Sarah can have the toy back.)-- you just might stop that temper tantrum before it starts.

Good parenting is labor-intensive. It is also very rewarding. Explaining your reasons and your expectations to your child before putting them into a new situation or giving them a punishment will go a long way to changing the behavior over the long-run. Make sure that your responses to your child's behavior are predictable, so the child knows you mean what you say. This also helps the child know what to do or what to expect when you give them a warning, or tell them to take a time out until their behavior improves. Everything you can do to help your child take responsibility for their own choices and their own behaviors is another step toward dependable good behavior and good decision-making as your child grows up.