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How Temper Tantrums Work

Taming a Temper Tantrum
When tantrums strike, stay calm and parent on.
When tantrums strike, stay calm and parent on.
Julie Toy/Getty Images

Since scientists haven't puzzled out how to prompt a 2-year-old's prefrontal cortex to grow like some sort of magical beanstalk and effectively nip temper tantrums in the bud, managing the emotional outbursts can be tricky -- but not impossible. A first step to avoiding meltdowns is establishing a consistent and attentive daily routine for young children [source: Cooke]. Often, temper tantrums flare from a basic desire for attention, whether it's for feeding, sleeping or simply seeking contact and interaction; reliable schedules help reassure them that those needs will be met. Also, since toddlers are naturally inclined to test boundaries and yearn for independence, talking and walking on their own, many experts also advise offering them empowering choices [source: Kaneshiro]. For instance, if a tyke doesn't relish putting on his shoes in the morning, ask him whether he'd like to wear sneakers or boots to distract him from the undesirable task.

Inevitably, a temper tantrum will flare, and when it does, parents' primary motivation shouldn't be to talk children out of these massive mood swings. Above all, it's up to moms and dads to stay calm. Often, in fact, the quickest and most effective route toward dissolving a temper tantrum is to ignore it entirely [source: Hoecker]. The impulse to immediately soothe a thrashing child and silence his or her screams may counterproductively translate to positive reinforcement in the toddler's brain [source: Hoecker]. Moreover, merely muffling a temper tantrum may distract adults from noticing underlying conditions, including hearing or vision impairment or learning disabilities, which aggravate the fits [source: Pendley]. Ignoring a tantrum might present more of a challenge in public, but as long as children aren't physically harming themselves or others, parents should turn their backs -- but not blind eyes -- to the freak-out.

Punishing temper tantrums in the moment may also serve as a double-edged sword, only prompting more unpleasant behavior in the end. Reprimanding a toddler in the throes of a fit doesn't teach the child healthier alternatives. Instead, child development experts advise correcting tantrum patterns during moments of calm, role-playing with boys and girls while modeling appropriate ways to make requests, as well as express displeasure [source: Wang]. By telling toddlers precisely what is expected of them in simple language they can grasp (i.e. brush your teeth before bed because it's good for you), rather than moralizing the situation (i.e. don't pitch a fit when it's time to brush your teeth), they're more likely to correct their tantrum-throwing ways more quickly [source: Kazdin].

Then, when the children put those behavioral guidelines into action, even incrementally, caregivers should step up the praise and rewards. If, say, a child starts up a tantrum but ultimately represses it, a parent should acknowledge and incentivize the progress [source: Kazdin]. But reinforcement doesn't just extend to treats and toys; parents should explain to their child specifically what was good about their behavior and also provide loving, affectionate touch.

At the same time, tantrum-taming tips like these should be taken with a grain of salt, because some boys and girls will simply be more manageable than others. With that in mind, excessive temper tantrums in some cases may benefit from clinical, in addition to parental, attention.

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