K-State professor says tantrums are part of the process of mastering social skills
By Jessica Clark
You're at the store and you hear a child wailing and screaming, then you see him kicking and writhing on the floor. Yes, it's a temper tantrum.
Many people have witnessed tantrums and many parents have dealt with tantrums. A Kansas State University professor says knowing and understanding your child may be one of the best ways to prevent or reduce child tantrums.
Bronwyn Fees, assistant professor of family studies and human services, says there are many reasons a child may throw a tantrum and also many effective ways to prevent or handle a tantrum.
Unfamiliarity or unpredictability may bring on a tantrum.
"Parents need to communicate to their child where they are going or what is planned," Fees said. "They need to talk with their child about what to expect. A fearful or confused child may tantrum as a way of expressing frustration with the lack of predictability.
"Disrupting a child's routine may also bring on a tantrum. As adults, we like our coffee in the morning and our lunch breaks at noon and get grumpy when those routines are disrupted. Children, too, like their routines.
"A child may see another child in a tantrum. The next time you and your child are at the store, he may try this same behavior to see if it will get him what he wants. Observational learning occurs when a child replicates behavior that was observed at a different time and place. In this case, the response of parents is of great importance. If the child is rewarded by getting what he wanted, he may try this method again," Fees said.
Fees said tantrums might also come about for other reasons including limited verbal skills, poor planning by the parent or a child who is tired or hungry.
If parents know it is their child's naptime or they haven't eaten yet, it may be best to run errands at a later time. Very young children often lack the verbal skills to express what they are feeling or are unable to communicate effectively, so they resort to acting out physically or having a tantrum, Fees said.
"Not all children show frustration in the same way. One child may yell and scream, while another may totally close up his body by crossing his arms and refusing to comply. Tantrums are as individual as every child and knowing your child well will help you know what is and isn't normal behavior for them," Fees said.
Tantrums often occur between the ages of 2 to 5 years, but tantrums may start as early as 15 to 18 months when children begin to realize they are separate autonomous individuals from their parents. It is during this time the first words begin to appear, Fees said.
By the age of 5 years, most children have the cognitive and social skills to know how to control many of their emotions and frustrations, are able to wait and are able to anticipate what is coming next. Researchers have found children who possess these self-regulatory skills are more academically and socially successful in kindergarten, Fees said.
"The key skill children are trying to master at this age is being able to self-regulate, that is controlling their emotions and learning to focus attention as well as self-initiate behaviors. If a child is 5 or 6 and still throwing tantrums on a regular basis, then parents may need to take a closer look at that child's environment to find out what is causing the tantrums," Fees said.
Fees said parents' reaction to tantrums is important because children will frequently imitate their actions.
"To children, adults are very powerful and important people," Fees said. "Children are watching and relying on their parents for cues on appropriate ways to behave.
"The most important quality for parents to remember is to stay calm. Parents must keep a calm and gentle voice. Whether it's a gentle pat on the back or a tight hug, it's important to know what works best for calming your child."
Fees said another important step in dealing with a tantrum is to stop what you are doing and take the time to recognize the problem. "Ignoring the tantrum will not make the underlying problem go away, but acknowledging the child's frustration and probing for the cause may help to resolve it.
"Ultimately, knowing your child and helping them to regulate their emotions and feelings in appropriate ways are keys to preventing tantrums. Children need supportive, loving environments like everyone, and understanding their needs will help them master the skill of self-regulation," Fees said.