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Taming Your Toddler's Temper Tantrums

Parenting columnist Sarah Beth Martin discusses some of the causes of temper tantrums and ways parents can deal with them.

Once upon a time, before I had children of my own, I would look at a child throwing a temper tantrum in a store and think to myself, “When I have kids, they’re never going to act like that!”  I’d pass silent judgment on the child’s mother, secretly condemning her for not being able to control her offspring.

Now, years later, when I go shopping with my toddler in tow, I’m on the other end of the scenario: It’s my daughter who’s throwing the tantrum, and I’m the one the childless shoppers are scowling at.

When a child throws a temper tantrum, it’s a very unpleasant experience for the child, her mother and anyone within earshot, but as unpleasant as it might be, a temper tantrum is a natural part of child development. Many early childhood experts say parents should be concerned if their children do not have tantrums.

Tantrums generally occur when a child doesn’t get what she wants. The child lacks the language skills to express what she needs in words, so she cries and screams to get her way.

Just as her language skills aren’t fully developed, neither are her social skills. She can’t comprehend the social rules and expectations that prevent most people from freaking out in public, and trying to explain these things to her when she's upset is futile.

The best way to control a tantrum is to prevent it in the first place. Avoid situations that make a child more likely to have an outburst, such as when he is tired, hungry, sick or otherwise uncomfortable. In other words, if you don’t want your child to go into a fit of rage in the middle of the grocery store, be sure to feed him, change him and let him rest before taking him on a shopping spree.

While this will make a tantrum less likely, it won’t guarantee an outburst-free excursion. Even when a child has had all his primal needs met, he can still go into a frenzy if you don’t give him enough attention or, worse yet, if you don’t agree to buy him whatever food, toy or other item he wants.

Case in point: A few days ago, after she had napped earlier in the day and feasted on Cheerios and string cheese, I took my 2-year-old daughter, Maggie, shopping with me. Things were going fine until she didn’t get something she wanted.

What she wanted was 10 wallets.

She had grabbed several wallets from a nearby display unit. When I took them from her, all hell broke loose. In the blink of an eye, she went from an adorable little girl to a raving rugrat on a rampage for 10 wallets.

Her eyes, nose and mouth were running and dripping. Limbs flailing, she repeatedly proclaimed, “I want 10 wallets, Mama! Give me 10 wallets now, Mama! Please! Pleeeeeease!”

There was no talking sense to her. She whined about 10 wallets for nearly 10 minutes, until we both were red in the face. My only recourse was to end our shopping trip.

When she was younger, I could distract her with a hug or a song. Those things don’t work anymore. Not much does. I’ve more or less come to accept the fact that she’s just going through a normal phase and that I’ll have to grin and bear it until it passes.

Though, by the time my oldest is out of the tantrum stage, my youngest will be entering it.

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