Tick, tick, tick... tantrum!

How to defuse your child's fury

My daughter, Scotia, had her first full-blown temper tantrum at seven. Seven! I thought this particularly trying rite of passage was confined to the toddler years, and was even feeling a little bit smug that we’d managed to avoid it. Now here she was in full meltdown mode — crying, shrieking, flailing her arms — because I’d asked her to log off Webkinz World right now! and start doing her homework.

“Parents expect the terrible twos to be the temper tantrum stage, but tantrums can happen at any age for any number of reasons,” says Maggie Reigh, a parent educator in Kelowna, BC, and creator of the kit Taking the Terror Out of Temper Tantrums. They’re a common part of a child’s emotional development as she learns to cope with anger, frustration and stress. They’re also a way of getting attention and testing limits — yours!

While you can’t head off every tantrum at the pass, you can reduce the chances of one occurring. The trick is to find out what’s causing the outburst so you can try to avoid that particular trigger the next time. Here’s how to handle some of the more common tantrum traps with your sanity intact.

The daycare pickup

You’ve just picked up your toddler from daycare and you’ve both had a long day, but you really need to grab a few groceries for dinner tonight.

Warning signs Junior is already tired and cranky as you pull into the parking lot. He starts whining and resisting as you try to pop him into the shopping cart.

Quick fix As tempting as it is to make one quick stop (whether for groceries, dry cleaning or diapers at the drugstore), you’re asking for trouble. Toddlers have a short fuse when they’re tired, hungry or bored, says Chaya Kulkarni, a child development and parenting expert at Invest in Kids in Toronto. “Tantrums are a way for them to communicate and get a need met since they don’t have the words yet to express what they’re feeling.” In this case, your cranky little tot needs you to head straight home, order pizza and take care of your errands tomorrow.

The toy store

You’re looking for a birthday gift for your niece at a big-box toy store with your four-year-old in tow.

Warning signs When you get to the checkout, your daughter refuses to ditch the dolly she picked up in aisle 3.

Quick fix “Parents of young children do well to become masters of distraction,” laughs Reigh. It’s always a good idea to pack a small toy, book or stuffed animal that you can pull out in emergencies. If the Sarah Bernhardt dramatics have already started, calmly carry or guide your youngster out of the store — kicking or screaming if need be — away from the crowds and that tantalizing doll, toy truck or chocolate bar. No matter how frazzled or embarrassed you feel, don’t tell your child mid-tantrum that you’ll buy her something if she stops. You want to teach her early that tantrums don’t work. Do your best to keep your own emotions in check — if you’re upset and angry, your child will feed off your frustration, says Reigh. Next time, try to be realistic about what your child can handle, adds Kulkarni. If you know that buying a gift for another child is likely to set little Susie off, arrange to shop solo.
Tying his shoes

You’ve just bought your preschooler his first pair of lace-up running shoes. He’s determined to tie them himself, but he’s having trouble with the technique.

Warning signs After much fumbling and fuming, he sends one of his sneakers flying across the room.

Quick fix While it’s important for your child to master new skills, be prepared to step in and help out before he falls apart. Offer lots of encouragement, says Kulkarni, and teach him the words he needs to verbalize his feelings (for example, “I know it’s hard. Right now you’re feeling really mad and frustrated. Why don’t we take a break and practise again later”). Don’t forget to pay attention to how you react when you’re feeling frustrated, Kulkarni advises, because kids pick up on it. Getting angry and losing control is probably not a coping strategy you want your child to emulate.

TV instead of homework

Your seven-year-old is glued to the TV watching her favourite after-school program. If she doesn’t start her homework, she won’t have any done before Brownies.

Warning signs When you turn off the tube, she turns on the fireworks.

Quick fix An abrupt switch from one absorbing activity to another is a common tantrum trigger, says Reigh. Give your child a few minutes’ warning so she can finish up whatever she’s doing and switch gears. When I told my daughter, Scotia, that she could go back on Webkinz World to put her computer pets to bed, her tantrum came to an abrupt end. And five minutes later, she was ready to tackle her homework. According to Reigh, that was the right thing to do. “She just needed you to listen to her and let her bring conclusion to her task.” Schedules and rules (“No TV until your homework is finished,” for example) are also helpful in preventing tantrums since they build in predictability.

Favourite shirt

Your nine-year-old is searching for her favourite pink Hannah Montana shirt to wear to a friend’s house. She finally finds it in the laundry hamper — still waiting to be washed.

Warning signs Your normally laid-back tween starts tossing around dirty laundry, then dissolves in a puddle of tears.

Quick fix When kids are uncharacteristically cranky and emotional, it’s often in response to built-up pressures that have nothing to do with what’s happening at the moment. That unwashed top may simply be the straw that broke the camel’s back. “You know what it’s like to have a bad day at work and then come home at the end of it and pick a fight with your spouse,” says Reigh. “You’ve held it together all day and you can’t help but unload. If your child has had a bad day at school, home is a safe place where she can give vent to her feelings.” Allow her to have a cooling-off period (a tween time out, if you will) and then, in a quieter moment, encourage her to talk about what’s really bothering her. “It could be while you’re tucking her in bed at night,” suggests Reigh. “Lie beside her and take turns sharing your mad/sad/glad moments.”

Keeping commitments

Your teen is supposed to play hockey on Friday night, but he wants to skip the game and go to a party instead. You, however, insist that he honour his commitment to the team.

Warning signs He slams into his bedroom and starts crashing and banging around.

Quick fix The key to dealing with an out-of-control teen is to stay calm and not take it personally, says Scott Wooding, a child psychologist in Calgary and a leading expert in parenting teens. “He may bluster, yell and scream for a few minutes, but it’s going to die down — unless he gets a response.” When he’s shouting “I hate you!” try to remember that he’s riding a hormonal roller coaster and he doesn’t really mean it. Once you’ve made a decision (“You can play hockey or stay home, but you’re not going to the party,” for example), stick to your guns, advises Wooding. “Parents tend to back down these days, and kids learn that if they persist, they can get what they want by wearing you down.” If your teen gets verbally abusive or storms out of the house, make sure you follow through with appropriate consequences.

Top tantrum triggers

“Parents are the experts when it comes to their own child’s temper tantrums,” says Chaya Kulkarni, a child development and parenting expert at Invest in Kids in Toronto. “If you watch closely, you’ll start to see patterns in what triggers them.” Some of the more common things that may set off your little spark plug include:

Frustration “Most temper tantrums are simply frustration erupting,” says Reigh. “The way to deal with them is not by slamming a lid on them or by intimidating your child. You want to give them a safe space to drain their frustration.”

Too little say Always try to offer your child some input (“Would you like apples or bananas?” “Do you want to wear white tights or red?”) so she feels she has a sense of control.

The hungry/tired/thirsty syndrome Being physically uncomfortable can push your little tyke (and big ones too) over the edge. Keep track of when he last had a drink or a snack, how far he’s walked or how long he’s been cooped up in the house, car or shopping mall.

Irregular schedules Many children thrive on routine, and an unexpected change in nap or snack time can be enough to set them off.

Difficulty coping A tantrum may be your youngster’s way of letting you know that she’s jealous of her new baby brother or is anxious and upset about an illness or death in the family.

Read more:
6 ways to help a sore loser
When your child has a very bad temper
How to stop tantrums – before they start