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Dealing with Preschool Temper Tantrums

How To Deal With Preschool Temper Tantrums

No matter how many parenting techniques you have at your disposal, a preschooler's tantrum can catch you by surprise. Fatigue, hunger and frustration seem to be the common ingredients. Add late afternoon and you have a recipe for a major meltdown.

Bridgette Moore from Rochester, N.Y. works in the mornings, and afternoon is her prime shopping and errand time. If her daughter, Breanna, is hungry and tired, and the store is busy, that's the perfect combination for a tantrum. But at least she can prepare in advance.

"Other times it's completely out of the blue," says Moore. Moore remembers one incident with Breanna a few days after Halloween when she dropped her off at preschool. Breanna had been calling her classroom the "pumpkin door" because of the pumpkin decorations. On this day, the decorations were gone and Breanna began crying, "It not the pumpkin door! It the number door! I no go in there!" She lay down on the floor, crying, and refused to move.

A Normal Part of Childhood
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that at this developmental stage a young child is learning to be independent and wants to make her own choices but doesn't have the coping skills to deal with the frustration of not getting her own way.

But even knowing this, a parent can feel frustrated. "Especially when a tantrum is making me late for work, or I am trying to just get done with the grocery shopping," says Susan Whipple, mother of 3-year-old Rhiannon living in Charleton, N.Y. But Whipple's 10 years experience teaching in a Head Start program has taught her that Rhiannon is not having a tantrum to make her angry. "It's a phase she has to work through," she says. "I need to help her do it without her feeling shame or hurting herself."

Head Off Tantrums Before They Start
A parent knows her child best and can anticipate some situations that might be troublesome. "Being proactive helps," says Whipple. For example, she suggests trying to head off the tantrum by having a quick drink and snack ready for your child before expecting her to get dressed or before you make dinner.

But if you can't avoid the meltdown, the AAP recommends these general suggestions:

  • Use distraction
    - Interrupt the behavior by pointing out something or suggesting a new activity. Gentle restraint may be necessary if the child is physically out of control, and sometimes humor can be helpful. Making a silly face or singing a song has worked for some parents.

  • Keep calm
    - It's hard to witness your child's anger, but if you get angry, it's likely to make things worse. If you find yourself becoming angry, leave the room, if possible. Wait a minute or two, or until the crying stops, before returning to your child.

  • Ignore minor tantrums
    - If possible, stand nearby or hold your child until he calms down. Some tantrums cannot be ignored. If the child hits or kicks or in any way hurts anyone, throws things or yells or cries for a prolonged period of time, firm intervention is warranted.

Should You Punish for Tantrums?
The AAP suggests removing the child from the situation. If discipline is called for, try a "time-out." Time-out is a commonly used discipline method for children this age – one minute for each year of the child's age. A 3-year-old would receive a three-minute time-out. Designate a special spot for time-out. If the child will not stay in the spot, you may have to remain there with her.

"The most important advice I have received in training is that the child feels very out of control and is scared," says Whipple. "They need the adult to stay calm."

Afterward, if your child is 3 or 4, she has enough language skills to talk about what happened. A calm, soothing voice with a matter-of-fact attitude will go far to helping your child feel supported.

Putting the Advice Into Practice
Psychology professor Stephanie Stein, who teaches developmental psychology at Central Washington University, says that her oldest son, now 5, can have "frightening losses of temper where he hits others, throws things, cries and slams doors."

Her son's most recent meltdown occurred when he found out he couldn't go to the children's museum, something he had been looking forward to. He began to cry loudly and attempted to hit her. When he refused to go to his room to calm down, Stein says that she "helped " him to his room. He proceeded to throw toys against the door. Her strategy was to wait until he quieted and then go inside and talk to him.

"We talked about how he was feeling, what happened that upset him, what he did and how he could respond differently in the future," Stein says. Sometimes it takes a while for a child to calm down enough to talk. When Stein's son calms down, she requires that he apologize for his behavior to anyone that he hurt.

"In my opinion, the discipline strategy that is not appropriate for tantrums is to lash out in anger and physically punish the child," says Stein. "Angry put-downs are a bad idea, too. Your goal is to get the child to calm down, not to vent your anger at their behavior."

Stein says that she tries hard to keep her tone of voice calm. "But if I'm feeling too angry to deal with my son, I will often ask my husband to step in." She tells her son that "Mommy is mad and needs a time-out." This really helps her calm down and models for her son how to handle anger.

When to Consult an Expert
According to the AAP, when tantrums happen often or when a child holds his breath and faints or if they get worse after age 4, you should consult a pediatrician to make sure that your child has no physical or psychological problems.

Stein says that one doctor encouraged her to ignore her son's rages as much as possible. Another suggested that maybe their son felt jealous since he has two younger siblings who get a lot of attention for how cute they are. She has noticed since she began to spend more special time alone with her son that his tantrums have decreased.

You're Not a Bad Parent
"Preschool temper tantrums happen for a variety of reasons, and it doesn't mean you are a bad parent," says Stein. "That's something to remember when you see other people's kids throw tantrums, too."

"Don't ever be embarrassed over public tantrums," says Whipple. She explains that if people are staring, it's likely in sympathy because they've been there or perhaps in appreciation because they wouldn't have the patience to deal with it.

"Every child has a major meltdown in the grocery checkout lane at least once in their lives. You did it, your child does and your grandchildren will," says Whipple. "They are just a fact of life."

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