The contents of this article are based on my graduate school training as a school psychologist and behavior specialist, research studies on behavior, and 20 years of experience working with children with a variety of challenging behaviors. You will find links to more information within the article.
This is Part 1 of a series. Part 2 is How to Handle Temper Tantrums (Home & School). It is recommended that both parts are read in conjunction with one another.
This article illustrates ways for adults to change their own behaviors, in order to prevent and appropriately respond to temper tantrums. In my experience, adults who have or work with children with behavior challenges are often surprised to hear that they have to change their own behaviors or change the environment to meet the needs of the child.
As a behavior consultant, I have often heard “Why should I have to change? He is the one acting out.” or “It is too much work to make these changes.” In actuality, the adult does not have to make any changes in their own behavior or the environment, but then it is very unlikely that the child’s behavior will change. If you are open to making changes to meet the needs of your child or students, this article is for you.
Additionally, this article is also meant to help educators and parents. Although much of the language is geared towards parents, the strategies presented here are meant for school as well. As you read through the examples below, think of how you can apply the strategies to students in your classroom.
Keep in mind that behavioral strategies, such as the ones in this article, do not always lead to an immediate change in child behavior. Your child may be surprised by the new strategies you are using and behaviors could get more challenging at first. You need to try strategies consistently over a period of time to see their true effect on behavior.
Why Do Temper Tantrums Happen?
Temper tantrums are a normal part of a developing child’s life. They generally occur in young children (4 and under) but also may occur in older children, especially children with difficulty expressing their feelings or communicating their thoughts, wants, and needs.
Tantrums happen when children feel a lack of control in their world. As adults, we have found our own ways to vent our frustrations when things don’t go our way. Many children have not yet developed these skills. Because they have trouble identifying, understanding, or appropriately expressing their frustrations, they have tantrums as a way to vent their feelings or maintain some control over their environment.
Temper tantrums can be very frustrating for both you and your child. They sometimes last for a long time (anywhere from a couple of minutes to an hour or more). They can be very loud and scary. You may also feel bad that your child is so unhappy, and you just want it to stop.
Here are some common reasons children have tantrums:
1. They want something they can’t have (e.g., no, you can’t play with Brian today; no, you can’t have any more candy)
2. They are scared to go somewhere or do something new or they are anxious about you leaving (e.g. I am taking you to the doctor, you are going to a new school today, I am going out and you will stay with Aunt Sue)
3. They are told they have to do something they don’t want to do (e.g., you have to go to bed now, you need to complete your math homework)
4. They are yelled at for misbehaving or told they have to stop their behavior (e.g., stop throwing the ball in the house, don’t touch my purse)
5. They are told to stop doing something they enjoy, to do something they don’t enjoy (e.g., stop playing with your toys and go to bed)
Here are some common responses and outcomes to child temper tantrums:
1. The adult attempts to reason with the child during the tantrum, trying to get them to see that the tantrum is unnecessary and needs to stop – Once a child is having a tantrum, they are almost impossible to reason with. Trying to talk them out of it usually leads to more crying, screaming, etc.
2. The adult gives in to the child, just to make the tantrum stop – Although this works in the short-term, it teaches the child that he can use tantrums to get his way. This will lead to more tantrums in the future.
3. The adult tries to negotiate with the child – Here is an example: You and your child already agreed that you are going to the store for food and they can pick out one toy. When you get to the store, they see three toys they want and they start begging for all three. You negotiate and say, “How about if I buy you two instead.”
If you made an agreement, or you have a rule set in place, only change the rule or agreement if you determine that your rule was unreasonable. Negotiating and changing rules or agreements, reinforces to your child that they can get you to bend the rules by having a tantrum and teaches them that you don’t necessarily mean what you say. This can lead to them not taking your rules too seriously.
4. Some parents resort to yelling or spanking – This type of reaction could cause the tantrum to get worse. If it does stop the tantrum in the short-term, it could lead to more feelings of anger or anxiety in the child, ultimately leading to more tantrums or other types of challenging behaviors in the long-term, such as shutting down or not communicating his or her thoughts or feelings.
For research on the effects of spanking see Why Spanking Should Be Discouraged. For research on the effects of yelling see Longitudinal Links between Fathers’ and Mothers’ Harsh Verbal Discipline and Adolescents’ Conduct Problems and Depressive Symptoms
If tantrums seem constant, unsafe, or feel unmanageable to you, tell your child’s doctor. He/she should be able to provide you with additional resources to help you and your child or refer you to someone who can. If this is happening with a child in your class, request additional support from your school team (counselor, administrator, etc) and tell the child’s parents what is happening.
Strategies for Preventing Temper Tantrums
Now let’s look at the examples I mentioned above and talk about how to prevent a tantrum for each type of scenario.
Your child wants something they can’t have (e.g., no, you can’t play with Brian today; no, you can’t have any more candy).
Rather than just saying “no.” use the “EECR Approach” Empathetic Statement, Explanation, Choice, Reminder
Let’s look at an example:
Your child asks for more candy. You have already told them that they can only have one piece a day, because you want them to eat food that is good for them (and candy is not). They already had their piece of candy for the day, but come to you asking for more.
Empathetic Statement – “I understand you want more candy because it tastes so good.” (this helps your child feel understood).
Explanation – “But it is important for our minds/bodies to eat food that is good for us” (reiterating the rule or explaining the reason)
Choice -“If you are hungry, you can have an apple or yogurt.” (making them feel valuable/giving them a sense of control)
Reminder – “You can have a piece of candy again tomorrow.” (reminding them that they will enjoy some candy again soon). This step would not apply if your child is trying to get to something that they can never have (e.g., something unsafe). If that is the case, still use empathy, explanation, and choice.
It is important to tell the child what is expected (e.g., it is important for our minds/bodies to eat food that is good for us) rather than what is not expected (e.g., you can’t have candy because it is bad for you) This type of negative phrasing leaves more room for arguing or talking back.
Language may need to be shortened or modified for young children or children who have language-based difficulties. (e.g., instead of saying no, show empathy and offer a choice). Very young children or children who have language-based difficulties may have trouble visualizing the choices, and may benefit from being shown their choices.
People often have a hard time giving up the word “no” because they feel children need to accept it without argument since this will be expected in the “real world” when they grow up. This is an unrealistic expectation on the part of the adult.
Children often have a hard time seeing past the word “no” and thinking of alternatives to meet their needs. This is why they beg and plead. They get stuck on the fact that they can’t have something without seeing the whole picture.
People often say that parents who don’t say “no” end up with spoiled kids. This can be true if you give your kids whatever they want, but using this saying “no” without saying “no” approach, allows the parent or teacher to remain in control while helping the child feel respected and understood. It also helps the child visualize other scenarios than the one they are hoping for, which will lead to the ability to better accept “no” as they get older.
This approach may sound like a lot of work compared to just saying one word “no” but it saves a lot of time because children who get this type of response are much less likely to argue, beg, cry, or have a tantrum.
Your child is scared to go somewhere or do something new or they are anxious about you leaving (e.g. I am taking you to the doctor, you are going to a new school today, I am going out and you will stay with Aunt Sue).
Prepare your child for the upcoming situation. Tell them what to expect, so they are not surprised. Obviously, you can’t predict everything, so just try your best.
For children with language difficulties, pictures can help them understand what to expect. Social stories (e.g., stories which explain what an event will be like, such as a doctor visit or first day of school) are a great tool to prepare a child for these types of situations.
*Side Note – Social stories can also be used to teach children about behavioral expectations, such as how to act in a store, restaurant, or movie theater. There are resources to obtain social stories later in this article.
Sometimes pictures and words in a story are not enough to prepare a child. Some children need one or more practice visits before the actual event.
Let the child know exactly when the event will happen and give them reminders as it is getting closer (i.e. “We are going to the doctor today. Do you have any questions about what it will be like?” or “I am going out tonight and you will stay with Aunt Sue. Do you have questions”?)
Empathize with your child’s feelings (e.g., I understand going to the doctor can be scary for you) rather than dismissing their feelings (e.g., you don’t have to be afraid, it’s not scary).
And once again, simplifying language or using pictures can help children with language-based difficulties.
Let your child know that they did well after the event is over (e.g., “I know going to the doctor was scary for you, but you did it anyway. Nice work! You should feel proud.”).
If you have to leave your child for the day, evening, etc. reassure your child that you will be back, be empathetic about their feelings (“I understand you are scared to be without me, but you will be taken care of by Aunt Sue and I will be back after dinner.”) and hug and kiss your child before you go (if they like that type of affection). You can leave a picture of yourself with your child, or another object that they associate with you, if you find that helps.
When you return, be affectionate and act excited to see your child. If applicable, let them know that you are proud of them and they should be proud of themselves for behaving appropriately or staying calm while you were gone.
If your child is having a tantrum as you are trying to get out the door, do not prolong leaving or try to get your child to accept that you are leaving, this will likely prolong the tantrum, just go. Most children will adjust quickly once you have actually left.
Here are five social stories free for your use
- A Social Story to Prepare Children for Doctor Appointments
- A Social Story to Prepare Children for the Dentist
- An Interactive Story to Prepare Children for the School Day
- An Interactive Story that Teaches Kids About Restaurant Behavior
- A Story that Teaches Children How to Respond to the Word No
Your child is told to do something that they don’t want to do (e.g., you have to go to bed now, you need to complete your math homework).
Prepare your child for upcoming changes and try to stick to a routine when possible so your child knows what to expect. For example, you can read your child a story each night and let them know ahead of time that after the story is bedtime.
For an older child, you can let them have a half-hour of computer time before getting ready for bed and let them know that after the computer they will be getting ready for bed. Children are less likely to argue or tantrum when they know what to expect and they have had time to mentally prepare themselves.
Related Article: How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
Children with language-based difficulties or those with trouble understanding the concept of time, do well when activities have a definitive ending (e.g. “When this show is over, it is time for bed.”, rather than “It is bedtime in a half an hour.”).
If your child is doing something without a definitive ending, such as browsing the internet, using a timer can be helpful. See 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion for using timers with children who have trouble understanding the concept of time.
Children who get overwhelmed, frustrated, or simply do not want to complete homework, chores, or other tasks often benefit from breaks during the work and earned privileges upon completion.
For example, if you want your child to complete 20 math problems, try saying, “Do ten problems, take a five-minute break to do an activity of choice, then do the next ten problems. When you are done, you can watch a show.”
Stay away from language like, “If you don’t do your math homework, you are not watching tv.” This sets the stage for talking back, not listening to you, and tantrums. Children respond much better when they can earn privileges (e.g., “After your math homework, You can watch tv.”).
For children with language-based difficulties, a “first/then board” or visual schedule can help, such as in the articles 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
For Research and Resources on this Topic See Collaborating with Parents in Reducing Children’s Challenging Behaviors: Linking Functional Assessment to Intervention
Your child is yelled at for misbehaving or told he has to stop his behavior (e.g., stop jumping on the couch!)
Rather than yelling or telling your child to stop the behavior, give a directive phrased in the positive, in a neutral, confident tone (e.g., “Come down off the couch”) and/or redirect your child to a different activity providing choice (e.g., “You may jump on your trampoline or use your jump rope.”).
Children are much more likely to respond to your requests when you tell them what to do instead of what not to do, because the new direction gives them an alternative, which young children often have trouble finding on their own.
An explanation can be helpful as well to help them understand your perspective or the reason for the directive (e.g., that can break the furniture). If they argue, stick to your rule and do not go back and forth with them about it. After your child complies with you, acknowledge their compliance (e.g. thank you for following directions).
*Side Note – Eliminate the word “can.” For example, “Can you come down off the couch?” It is not a question for them to decide “yes” or “no.” It is a directive given by you that they are expected to follow.
For more on this topic check out How to Use Positive Language to Improve Your Child’s Behavior by the US Office of Special Education Programs
Related Article: 17 Ways to Get Your Kids to Listen to You and Show You Respect
Your child is told to stop doing something they enjoy, to do something they don’t enjoy (i.e., stop playing with your toys and go to bed).
Use the same strategies listed in number 3.
Prepare your child for upcoming changes and try to stick to a routine when possible so your child knows what to expect. For example, you can let your child know that in five minutes it is time to clean up and go to bed, or after the tv show it is time to do dishes, rather than saying “stop watching TV and go do the dishes”).
As I said before, children are less likely to argue or tantrum when they know what to expect and they have time to mentally prepare themselves. They also respond better to directives phrased in the positive “after the TV show it is time to do dishes”, rather than the negative “stop watching TV and go do the dishes”).
Again, refer to How to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion, 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior for more clarification on any of these strategies.
I also recommend 14 Strategies to Help Children with ADHD in the Classroom or at Home (effective strategies for children with and without ADHD).
For children with language-based difficulties, a “first/then board” or visual schedule can help, such as in the articles 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
See Part 2, How to Handle Temper Tantrums (Home & School), for what to do once that tantrum starts.
Recommended Books and Tools to Help with Temper Tantrums
Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, caregivers, educators, counselors, and therapists to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers. If you want Rachel to write for your business, offer behavioral or academic consultation, or speak at your facility about research-based strategies that support children, email her at email@example.com.