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Temper Tantrums: Teaching Your Child Coping Skills

Perhaps no single set of skills is more important for your child than coping skills. Coping skills are needed to learn to walk, to play a game, to participate in sports, to get along with siblings, and to do homework. Children with good coping skills have fewer behavioral and social problems.

Normal children throw tantrums. It is one way that they express their anger, disappointment, or frustration. As a parent, you can help your child learn that he CAN handle minor upsets like being told "no" without having to scream, cry, stomp, throw things, or be destructive.

How can I encourage coping skills in my child?

  • Start by letting your child deal with daily problems and frustrations on his own.

    Example: If your child cannot get to the next level on her video game and she screams at the game, let her keep playing without your help. If given the chance to figure it out, most children will try again. And, with repeated practice, they will see that they are successful at calming themselves down AND figuring out the problem. As they develop these calming skills they begin to feel far less dependent upon you -- they come to know that they can do it.

  • Support and reinforce your child's coping skills.

    Example: As soon as your child is quiet and has gotten over whatever upset her, give her a hug and praise her for handling such a frustrating problem so well. Be sure to keep it as brief and as low-key as possible so that your child can get back to task at hand.

What should I say or do when my child has a tantrum?

Avoid saying anything until your child has calmed himself down. Trying to talk to or reason with a child who is in the middle of a tantrum usually makes things worse. Comments meant to calm your child can increase your child's anger and get in the way of letting your child learn how to calm down on his own.

Children have to learn to calm themselves. Your major role is in deciding when they can have a chance to practice their calming skills. When your child starts screaming or getting mad, quickly evaluate the situation to see if it is a serious problem, such as an injury. If it is a simple problem, such as the blocks falling down, let your child try to handle it on his own.

Once you see that your child can quiet himself, it will be easier for you to stay out of the situation. A child's energy for a long tantrum almost always comes from the adult who is trying to help stop it. Without that extra attention your child's tantrum will wind down.

Most children outgrow temper tantrums by the time they are 4 years of age. Some children may continue to have tantrums in spite of your best efforts to teach self-calming skills. If your child's tantrums seem full of rage, involve hurting others, or are only one of many behavior problems, contact your healthcare provider during office hours for further help.

Is there a way to avoid tantrums?

Since tantrums are a normal part of child development, sometimes they can't be avoided. Here are some ideas that might help reduce how often your child throws tantrums and how severe the tantrums are.

  • Avoid overstimulating your child. Tantrums are more likely when your child is tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or has done too many things in one day. Plan your day carefully and take your child on outings when he is rested, fed and healthy.
  • Avoid temptations. If your child gets upset in certain situations, avoid those things until the child has passed this tantrum stage. For example, waiting in long lines, going down the candy isle at the grocery store or shopping for another child's birthday present are things that might be best avoided until the child is older.
  • Be consistent with your expectations. If children know what to expect, they are less likely to get frustrated or throw a tantrum.
  • Distract the child. When you start to notice a tantrum brewing, try to get them to focus their attention on something else. Activities that involve touch such as playing in the water or touching something soft, can often help get your child interested in something else.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your provider if:

  • Your child has hurt himself or others during tantrums.
  • Temper tantrums last for more than 15 minutes.
  • The tantrums occur 3 or more times per day.
  • The tantrums also occur in school.
  • Your child has several other behavior problems.
  • One of the parents has tantrums or screaming bouts and can't give them up.
  • This approach does not bring improvement within 2 weeks.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Adapted from Edward R. Christophersen and Susan L. Mortweet, Parenting that Works: Building skills that last a lifetime. Washington, DC: APA Books, 2003.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-01-27
Last reviewed: 2009-09-01
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
2010 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.
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