HELP FOR PARENTS WITH STRONG-WILLED, OUT-OF-CONTROL CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS

Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD

Temper Tantrums (Ages 3-12): Guidelines for Parents

“I have a stepchild who is 13 years old and has tantrums that can last for hours. There are 6 other siblings in the house and this can be exhausting. Last night, his tantrum or fit lasted 3 hours. His father sent him outside and we told him he could come back in and finish his homework when he finished his fit. The yelling and screaming and pushing the doorbell and the horn in the truck was just part of it.”

It is much easier to prevent temper tantrums than it is to manage them once they have erupted. Here are some tips for preventing temper tantrums and some things you can say:
  • Avoid boredom. Say, “You have been working for a long time. Let’s take a break and do something fun.”
  • Change environments, thus removing the child from the source of the temper tantrum. Say, “Let’s go for a walk.”
  • Choose your battles. Teach children how to make a request without a temper tantrum and then honor the request. Say, “Try asking for that toy nicely and I’ll get it for you.”
  • Create a safe environment that children can explore without getting into trouble. Childproof your home or classroom so children can explore safely.
  • Distract children by redirection to another activity when they tantrum over something they should not do or cannot have. Say, “Let’s read a book together.”
  • Do not ask children to do something when they must do what you ask. Do not ask, “Would you like to eat now?” Say, “It’s suppertime now.”
  • Give children control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the child can stave off the big power struggles later. “Which do you want to do first, brush your teeth or put on your pajamas?”
  • Increase your tolerance level. Are you available to meet the child’s reasonable needs? Evaluate how many times you say, “No.” Avoid fighting over minor things.
  • Keep off-limit objects out of sight and therefore out of mind. In an art activity keep the scissors out of reach if children are not ready to use them safely.
  • Make sure that children are well rested and fed in situations in which a temper tantrum is a likely possibility. Say, “Supper is almost ready, here’s a cracker for now.”
  • Establish routines and traditions that add structure. For teachers, start class with a sharing time and opportunity for interaction.
  • Keep a sense of humor to divert the child’s attention and surprise the child out of the tantrum.
  • Provide pre-academic, behavioral, and social challenges that are at the child’s developmental level so that the child does not become frustrated.
  • Reward children for positive attention rather than negative attention. During situations when they are prone to temper tantrums, catch them when they are being good and say such things as, “Nice job sharing with your friend.”
  • Signal children before you reach the end of an activity so that they can get prepared for the transition. Say, “When the timer goes off 5 minutes from now it will be time to turn off the TV and go to bed.”
  • When visiting new places or unfamiliar people explain to the child beforehand what to expect. Say, “Stay with your assigned buddy in the museum.”

There are a number of ways to handle a temper tantrum once it’s underway. Strategies include the following:
  • Hold the child who is out of control and is going to hurt himself or herself or someone else. Let the child know that you will let him or her go as soon as he or she calms down. Reassure the child that everything will be all right, and help the child calm down. Parents may need to hug their child who is crying, and say they will always love him or her no matter what, but that the behavior has to change. This reassurance can be comforting for a child who may be afraid because he or she lost control.
  • Remain calm and do not argue with the child. Before you manage the child, you must manage your own behavior. Spanking or yelling at the child will make the tantrum worse.
  • Think before you act. Count to 10 and then think about the source of the child’s frustration, this child’s characteristic temperamental response to stress (hyperactivity, distractibility, moodiness), and the predictable steps in the escalation of the temper tantrum.
  • Try to intervene before the child is out of control. Get down at the child’s eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up, slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.
  • You can ignore the tantrum if it is being thrown to get your attention. Once the child calms down, give the attention that is desired.
  • If the child has escalated the tantrum to the point where you are not able to intervene in the ways described above, then you may need to direct the child to time-out (see “Resources”). If you are in a public place, carry your child outside or to the car. Tell the child that you will go home unless he or she calms down. In school warn the child up to three times that it is necessary to calm down and give a reminder of the rule. If the child refuses to comply, then place him or her in time-out for no more than 1 minute for each year of age.
  • Talk with the child after the child has calmed down. When the child stops crying, talk about the frustration the child has experienced. Try to help solve the problem if possible. For the future, teach the child new skills to help avoid temper tantrums such as how to ask appropriately for help and how to signal a parent or teacher that the he or she knows they need to go to “time away” to “stop, think, and make a plan.” Teach the child how to try a more successful way of interacting with a peer or sibling, how to express his or her feelings with words and recognize the feelings of others without hitting and screaming.
  • You can place the child in time away. Time away is a quiet place where the child goes to calm down, think about what he or she needs to do, and, with your help, make a plan to change the behavior.
  • You can positively distract the child by getting the child focused on something else that is an acceptable activity. For example, you might remove the unsafe item and replace with an age-appropriate toy.

Post-Tantrum Management:
  • Do not reward the child after a tantrum for calming down. Some children will learn that a temper tantrum is a good way to get a treat later.
  • Explain to the child that there are better ways to get what he or she wants.
  • Never let the temper tantrum interfere with your otherwise positive relationship with the child.
  • Never, under any circumstances, give in to a tantrum. That response will only increase the number and frequency of the tantrums.
  • Teach the child that anger is a feeling that we all have and then teach her ways to express anger constructively.

My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Parents with Defiant Children

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