What is the best way to handle my child’s tantrums?

George Scarlett, deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development in the School of Arts and Sciences, offers some advice

I remember sitting at a table with a toddler when he suddenly picked up his fork and hurled it in anger at his mother, who had simply asked if he would like some more peas. I also remember watching a three-year-old throw herself onto the floor, screaming as if she had just been told the worst news ever—even though she had been asked simply to pick up her toys.

Such fits of anger and tantrums are so common in young children that their absence, not presence, might even be considered a problem. After all, if parents have done a good job of parenting their infant, they should have an entitled two-year-old. It isn’t until age five or six that most children start to understand that the world is not exactly their oyster and that to be “big” and “fair” often means to share control with others.

The first lesson to learn about young children’s tantrums is that they aren’t really a problem, at least in the sense that they shouldn’t happen. They are a problem only in that they can be mishandled.

So what are the ways to avoid mishandling a tantrum?

The first is to see tantrums as natural, even inevitable. Don’t label children having a tantrum as “spoiled” or “mean” or some other term that invites our becoming angry and judgmental.

The second way is to remain patient and reasonably calm, but also firm about whatever it is that needs to get done—or not be done.

The third way is to wait for the anger to pass and take advantage of the moment when children become sad rather than angry. Offer a drink of water, speak softly and reassuringly and try to reconnect after the storm has passed. Sometimes older children will do this on their own by making a gesture to repair the relationship disrupted by a tantrum, what the British clinician Donald Winnicott aptly called a “reparative gesture.” When this happens, we need to respond graciously.

And, of course, we should do what we can to prevent tantrums in the first place. Monitor when a child is getting so tired or hungry that she is primed for a tantrum. Avoid situations that are just too tempting, such as trips to a toy store to buy a gift for a friend’s birthday—and nothing else. And if the tempting situation is inevitable, plan for it rather than being caught off guard. Before entering the toy store, for example, negotiate exactly what will and will not be bought.

It might also help to remember that once children are older, if their tantrums in early childhood have been managed well, stories of those outbursts can be sources of laughter and good humor for all, teenagers included. They can then be messages to convey sentiments of “how far you have come from that day” and “look at what a patient and caring parent you had.” With a certain amount of luck, you both might come to the realization that, tantrums aside, caring deeply is what family is all about.

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