10 Ways to Tame Your Kid's Tantrums
The smart parent's guide to coping with your kid's fits.
When your kid's in the middle of a tantrum, it can be tough to keep yourself from having your own meltdown, too.
"Meltdowns are terrible, nasty things, but they're a fact of childhood," says Ray Levy, PhD, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. "Young kids -- namely those between the ages of 1 and 4 -- haven't developed good coping skills yet. They tend to just lose it instead." And what, exactly, sets them off to begin with? Every single tantrum, Levy says, results from one simple thing: not getting what they want. "For children between 1 and 2, tantrums often stem from trying to communicate a need -- more milk, a diaper change, that toy over there -- but not having the language skills to do it," says Levy. "They get frustrated when you don't respond to what they're 'saying' and throw a fit." For older toddlers, tantrums are more of a power struggle. "By the time kids are 3 or 4, they have grown more autonomous," Levy adds. "They're keenly aware of their needs and desires -- and want to assert them more. If you don't comply? Tantrum city."
So how can you stop these outbursts? What follows are 10 freak-out fixes that both parenting experts and other moms swear by.
Ignore the Kid
The reason this works is fascinating: "During a tantrum, your child is literally out of his mind. His emotions take over -- overriding the frontal cortex of the brain, the area that makes decisions and judgments," says Jay Hoecker, MD, a Rochester, Minnesota, pediatrician. "That's why reasoning doesn't help -- the reasoning part of his brain isn't working." Says Alan Kazdin, PhD, author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, "Once you're in a situation where someone's drowning, you can't teach them to swim -- and it's the same with tantrums. There's nothing to do in the moment that will make things better. In fact, almost anything you try will make it worse. Once he chills out, then you can talk."
Give Your Child Some Space
"Sometimes a kid just needs to get his anger out. So let him!" says Linda Pearson, a nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle. (Just make sure there's nothing in tantrum's way that could hurt him.) "I'm a big believer in this approach because it helps children learn how to vent in a nondestructive way. They're able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together, and regain self-control -- without engaging in a yelling match or battle of wills with you." This trick can work on its own or in tandem with the whole ignoring bit.
Create a Diversion
This is all about a deft mental switcheroo -- getting your kid engaged and interested in something else so she forgets about the meltdown she was just having. "My purse is filled with all sorts of distractions, like toys -- ones my kids haven't seen in a while, books, and yummy snacks," says Alisa Fitzgerald, a mom of two from Boxford, Massachusetts. Whenever a tantrum happens, she busts 'em out, one at a time, until something gets the kids' attention. "I've also found that distraction can help ward off a major meltdown before it happens, if you catch it in time," she adds. If your kid is about to go off the deep end at the supermarket because you won't buy the super-frosted sugar-bomb cereal, try quickly switching gears and enthusiastically saying something like, "Hey, we need some ice cream. Want to help me pick a flavor?" or "Ooh, check out the lobster tank over there!" Explains Levy: "Children have pretty short attention spans -- which means they're usually easy to divert. And it always helps if you sound really, really psyched when you do it. It gets their mind off the meltdown and on to the next thing that much faster." Fitzgerald agrees: "You have to channel your inner actress and be an entertainer -- one with props!"
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