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How to Handle Temper Tantrums

Updated on July 12, 2018
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M. D. Jackson has studied psychology since 1989. While her specialty is family relations, she also loves neuroscience and behaviorism.

Teaching Children to Behave

It’s been a long day for you. Probably more than once you have questioned why you had kids. Maybe you have yelled, spanked, or attempted to ignore your child’s outrageous behavior. Nothing seems to be working. The first thing I want to tell you is that you are not alone. Parenting is a job without training. You show up, make your best guess and hope it works. If you are luck you have a mom who has useful advice. Either way, today is your lucky day because, you just found this article. Together we are going to stop your child’s horrible behavior.

Understanding a Child

From the time a child is born their needs are catered to immediately. If a child is wet they are changed and if they are hungry they are fed, and that is how it should be (forget Dr. Spock he was a jerk). Once a child hits the age of 15 months, they start to do some things on their own. This new found independence conflicts with a child’s previous roll in which they were waited on hand and foot. Since the child got what they wanted previously it would seem logical that this mode would continue, but as any good parent knows you should not give a child what they want. In fact, giving a child everything they want is a good way to make a child a miserably lazy person (we will come back to that). From the child’s perspective you are supposed to give and do everything for them. This is why parents need to start early getting children to things for themselves. A parent should never do a task that the child can complete.

Contributing Factors; Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Parents should be aware of a child’s physical needs prior to entering a public situation. If you have not fed and changed your child prior to entering a store you are causing the problem. Children function very closely to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, which states that a person will fulfill their physiological (biological) needs first. If a child is hungry they will be difficult until they get food. If they are hot or cold they will cry until the temperature is to their liking. You get the idea. If you are dealing with a child under the age of five, always have water and food on you. That takes care of basic needs.


Children have a limited understanding of language. I hate to make this analogy but let’s consider your dog for a moment. Your dog does not understand sentences. If you throw the word “out” into a sentence and your dog knows “out” means we are going outside, that dog will get excited because you have said the magic word. The other words you said with “out” do not mean anything to your dog. Small children are the same way. If you use the word “park” and then go to the store, you are asking for trouble. Time is not an understandable concept to a child. You can’t tell them a laundry list of things and have them understand what you are saying. Tell them things that are going to happen immediately. As they get older you can give them the days run down. Also, do not tell them about treats that will happen later, again that is abstract. They don’t know now that is it.

This limited understanding of language carries into their ability to vocalize ideas to you as well. When a child is getting sick or hurts they do not vocalize it the way you would. They simply get irritable. Sometimes if you ask a child if they are feeling ok, they can answer that, but they are not going to be able to tell specifics.

A phrase I picked up “Are you hurting? No? Well we do behave that way unless we are hurting” I’m going to tell after three kids, none of them cried or whined unless they were hurt. This was a good indicator something was wrong. I didn’t have to guess by the time they were two, no tears or tantrums unless something was wrong. One of my sons was crawling in a window ledge and fell out a first story window (don’t judge I had just checked on him and they were playing on the floor). I had to call 911 and they insisted that he was fine even though he would not stop crying. I told them, he broke something because he doesn’t cry when he’s not hurting. He had fractures his femur. So teaching your children when it is appropriate to cry, pitch a fit can be helpful.

The Tantrum

The casual trip to the store becomes a nightmare as a child makes the decision to have something that is off limits. The parent saying “no” causes a tantrum just short of the child’s head spinning around. People within earshot of your child turn to see if they can get a video tape of you beating your child. Let’s face it, at this point you are irritated. You would like nothing more than to muzzle your own child, but there is probably a law against it and rightly so.

What do you do?

Stay calm. Realize that your child knows you are in public, they have learned that in public you will behave a certain way. Calm is important in this situation. Pick the child up and walk out of the store (leave the cart). Calmly tell the child as you leave that his/her behavior is not allowed in the store and you cannot stay in the store with that child behaving this way. Once you are outside reinforce to the child that unless proper behavior is displayed, you will not go back in the store (and mean it). I know what you are thinking “what if I really needed to go to the store?” I am going to tell you that unless you want to spend the next four years listening to your child scream in the store, you will not give in to this behavior. Once the child has calmed down and agrees to behave, reenter the store. I know what you are thinking; this is not going to work. Well you have probably tried everything else. So humor me.

There are extreme cases where it may become necessary to do a mock shopping trip and actually leave the store when the child misbehaves. Skeptics will say that this does not work, they are wrong. It does not work when parents yell and spank. By the time my children were three years old we started taking them to antique stores with us. As a parent taking a small child to an antique store sounds like a good way to have to pay for something, however the boys never broke anything and they never pitched a fit. We called these stores “don’t touch” stores. If I can train up kids that survive antique stores than you can train up a child not to throw fits in the stores.

Understanding Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification is a method of using positive or negative reinforcement to alter behavior patterns. Unfortunately, most parents reinforce the tantrum by bargaining or giving in to the child’s behavior. If a child is throwing a tantrum and you give them the candy they wanted, you just taught your child that if they have tantrum you will give them what they want. This is how most kids get in the habit of pitching a fit. Here is the tough part, maybe you only gave in once at grandma’s funeral when your child wouldn’t behave. That was all it took. That child found your weakness. Now it is time for behavior modification to work in your favor. Know that you will have to reinforce the child’s good behavior as well as deterring the bad behavior for this to work.

If your child is behaving well in a social situation you need to praise that behavior. Tell the child you are so proud of them behaving. This is when you reward them (do not use food as a reward). Using food as a reward creates bad eating habits. Take them to the park or to do something they like to do. Possible let do an activity that is not a normal thing. Reward children carefully to reinforce the good behavior.

Watching a Cell Phone in the Store

Hear recently I’ve noticed that children in grocery stores are very quiet. In fact it is almost alarmingly quiet. This quiet is due to parents who give their child a $600 cell phone to watch while they shop. Giving a child a cell phone to watch may seem like you are keeping the peace for other shoppers. What you are really doing is failing to teach a child how to behave in society. Children learn behavior from an early age. If the behavior they learn is to not pay attention to the world. This could lead to negative behavior later. Your child’s teacher is not going to hand your kids a device to keep them quiet in class.

By the age of three a child should be able to sit in a cart and behave or walk with the parent. This is part of the developmental process. By handing your child a device you are placating them instead of teaching them. I know letting them watch the phone is tempting, however it messes with their attention span. Television is not a babysitter. Studies have shown that children who listen to classical music are smarter (Rauscher, 1993). I find it interesting that parents who have failed to teach a child to behave will hand that same child an expensive phone. If you can teach a child to handle a phone, you can teach them to behave.

Sears Method

We have all heard the term "attachment parenting". It carries an almost negative connotation. Having your child attached to you sounds miserable. That is not what attachment parenting is about. Attachment parenting is about bonding physically/emotionally to your child so that you pick up on cues from them. These cues include their needs, wants, times of the day they are cranky, ect. In our world today we consider parenting secondary to many things such as jobs and relationships. However, you have taken on the responsibility for this human being and I can tell you there isn't a greater responsibility.

You do not have to constantly practice attachment parenting. You do have to observe what the tantrum triggers are for your child (Sears, 1995). If your child has late afternoon tantrums because he/she is tired then you need to recognize that fact. If your child is grumpy when they haven't eaten by a certain time, notice that. By knowing your child you can be a better parent. That means you have to be close to them.

A Child's Life

People are only children for a short time. By making an extra effort to raise your child properly you are going to save yourself a ton of hear ache as they get older. The goal is to create productive well adjusted human beings. That goal is not met easily. To succeed as a parent takes determination, focus, and love. Parenting should be a time you can look back on with fond memories. Stay strong parents.

Effects of Food on Children

The truth is not always easy. What I am about to tell you is something you may not want to hear. The food your child eats has an effect on their behavior. We will start with extremes. Years ago I knew someone who's two year old was out of control. This kid went from tearing up one thing straight over to destroying something else. It was an intense game of ping pong all day. The parent of this child insisted that the child had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This child was hauled to the doctor and put on medication. What that doctor never asked this young mother was "what does the kid eat and drink". If the Doctor had asked that question, he would have known that this two year old was getting coffee and soda in his bottle on a regular basis. This is an extreme case however, what kids eat has an effect on their behavior. If you load a kid up on sugar or caffeine they are going to crash.

Under the age of eight years old children should only have sugar sparingly. If a parent makes a big deal about this, it can be a problem. One of my sons could not have any sugar when he was younger. It would make him bounce off the walls. I literally never bought items with sugar in them. Sugary snacks were for special occasions where I could control the environment. This was tough for my other two kids who didn't have these issues processing sugar. We didn't have cookies, cakes, or sugary snacks available to my kids. It made all the difference in dealing with my son. In fact teachers were instructed at the beginning of the year, not to give him these type of treats.

Some of you may remember the red dye Number 5 association with ADHD. In other countries anything with an artificial coloring has to be marked “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Do you feel cheated right now? You should. Artificial flavors and coloring has been linked to child behavior for over 20 years. The bottom line is that it does not hurt to remove items with artificial colors and flavors from your child's diet. Try it for a week, see if it makes a difference. I know the foods with these dyes are cheaper you can change your shopping habits. Real fruit is a good replacement for artificial snacks.


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