Published on in Health Tip of the Week
Most young children have the occasional challenging moment when they lose their temper. Many have perfectly smooth days until something triggers an emotional outburst. So, what can a parent do when their child loses their cool? And what’s the difference between a pattern of normal temper tantrums and something more concerning?
Psychologist Alison R. Zisser, PhD, ABPP, with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, shares tips for dealing with a child’s anger and when to seek help.
Why does my child have temper tantrums and what can I do about them?
Temper tantrums are typical in very young children, generally peaking in frequency around the ages of 2 to 3 years old. Children this age are just learning to assert their will, but often lack the language to express themselves verbally. Instead, if a situation is not what they prefer, they may act out their frustration or anger by yelling, crying, hitting, biting, flailing around and/or throwing things. It can be upsetting to watch your child lose control, but it’s best to respond calmly and consistently.
- Make sure your child is safe and is not hurting anyone, then wait it out.
- Try not to engage your child during a tantrum other than to help them label their emotion. You might say, “I see you are really angry” or “You’re having some big feelings right now.” You may be tempted to reason with your child, but that is likely to escalate the situation.
- Resist giving in when your child is upset about not getting their way. Otherwise, your child may learn that they will get what they want by acting out.
- When your child is calm again, talk about what happened and give examples for how to more effectively handle the situation that led to the tantrum. For example, “When you want the toy your sister is playing with, you could ask her, ‘May I have a turn?’”
How can I help my child learn to control their temper?
Anger is a normal human emotion. Learning how to manage and communicate it effectively is a developmental process that continues over the course of childhood. Children have fewer tantrums as they become more adept at expressing themselves verbally. This typically happens by the time a child is kindergarten-age.
However, growing up brings new experiences and interactions, some of which may be frustrating or disappointing. You can help your child manage these situations effectively.
- Be a good role model. Resolve disputes and navigate stressful situations calmly at home and elsewhere. Children learn how to express themselves emotionally by watching their caregivers. If caregivers frequently yell or have angry outbursts at home, children may learn to do the same when frustrated.
- Try to determine what triggers your child’s anger. Does it happen at a certain time of day when your child might be hungry or tired? When your child must stop an activity they enjoy to do a less preferred activity, like homework or getting ready for bed? During the morning rush when everybody is getting ready for school and work? If you can anticipate the emotional outbursts, you can take steps to avoid the trigger (e.g., have a snack available when your child arrives home) or prepare your child for what would ordinarily set them off.
- Recognize your child’s successes. Point out the times when your child uses their coping skills to calmly deal with a challenge. Praise your child for their progress.
- Validate your child’s emotions. This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with their behavior. Validating means acknowledging what your child is saying and feeling. It is important that children hear and understand in the moment that it is OK to have their feeling, but never OK to be destructive or hurt others.
What are some signs that my child needs more help managing their anger than I can give?
Some signs that your child may need additional support are:
- The frequency, intensity and duration of tantrums are increasing past the age when children typically have a decrease in tantrums.
- During tantrums, your child is destructive or aggressive toward themselves and/or others, and it is difficult to keep them safe.
- Your child’s anger is making home life stressful, and you or other caregivers also feel angry or out of control during episodes.
- Along with periods of intense anger, your child is often defiant, exhibiting excessive fear or struggling with inattention and hyperactivity.
- Your child’s difficulty regulating their own emotions is affecting how they view themselves.
If you are concerned, speak with your child’s pediatrician for strategies to help your child regulate their emotions. If your child’s anger challenges continue despite your efforts, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a behavioral health specialist to look for and address any underlying concerns that may be contributing to anger episodes. Your child may also benefit from working with a child behavioral health specialist to learn and practice specific skills to improve their emotional regulation.
As your child learns ways to handle challenges without acting out, their self-confidence and independence will grow.
Contributed by: Alison R. Zisser, PhD
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