“I want this now!” shouts
a two-year-old, pulling candy off a grocery shelf
“Not today,” says his mother.
“Yes, I want candy!”
When his mother again refuses, the child responds with a
full-fledged temper tantrum: screaming, crying, thrashing, and
kicking. Tantrums like this are hard to watch, they are
embarrassing, and they can make parents feel helpless.
Why do children have tantrums? At times, the child is simply over
tired or hungry. Most often, however, the answers are rooted in
developmental characteristics. Children have very little
self-control; they live in the here and now and act on their
immediate desires. When parents respond to a child’s wishes by
saying “no,” he reacts negatively, sometimes sensing rejection.
Young children lack the ability to think logically and follow adult
reasoning. A child will probably not understand why his parents deny
one of his wishes, even though their explanations may make perfect
sense to them. Another reason for tem per tantrums, particularly
with pre-verbal toddlers, is the young child’s inability to express
his needs and wants fully. When his parents can’t understand him, he
becomes easily frustrated.
If you’re concerned about temper tantrums, there are a number of
approaches you can try, including prevention. Since you know your
child’s wants, you can guess which situations are likely to cause
tantrums and plan ahead for these times. For example, when you
anticipate a struggle at the candy counter or when shopping at a
mall, carry a few small toys, some juice, or crackers with you. If
the situation becomes tense, use these to distract your child. You
also can set limits for your three- or four-year-old before you
leave the house:
“We’re only looking today,” or, “Remember, I’m only buying you one
thing.” Try to be sure he understands the limits, but remember it’s
hard for him to “only look” and not buy.
There’s another technique that may prevent a tantrum: compromise.
You can tell your child, “I won’t buy candy, but I will buy you a
pretzel.” This and the other prevention methods sometimes work well,
but at times he may have a temper tantrum in spite of your efforts.
If this happens, you’ll have to decide how to respond. Most likely
your reaction will vary with the situation, depending on where you
are and whom you’re with. But your choices will be the same—you can
meet your child’s demand, distract him, or let him have the tantrum.
You may choose to meet his demand because you realize that it’s not
so unreasonable after all. Perhaps you were being too rigid when you
first rejected his request. Or perhaps you feel that saying “no” is
not worth the struggle or tantrum.
If you don’t give in to your child, you may try distracting him.
Remind him about a recent pleasurable experience, point out
something interesting, or talk about something good that will happen
You may be surprised at how effective distraction can be in defusing
Finally, you may choose to let the tantrum run its course. Although
coping can be hard, if you wait calmly, your child will soon quiet
down. Just be sure he’s safe during his tantrum and unable to harm
himself or others or cause any damage.
Tantrums are difficult for you and your young child. But as he grows
older he’ll gain more understanding and you’ll find it easier to set
limits. Once he outgrows that urgent need to have everything now,
there will be far fewer tantrums to struggle with.