Cincinnati Children's Blog

Understanding and Help Managing Preschool Temper Tantrums

Understanding and Help Managing Preschool Temper Tantrums

Preschool temper tantrums. Every parent has been through it, some of us more than others.

Having a preschooler of my own gave me new perspective on this topic, as a psychologist specializing in preschool behavior and development. It was apparent to me just how humbling these episodes are, especially when they happen in public. Parents have been asking me questions about them for years in our Preschool Parenting Therapy Groups. The two that most frequently come up are: Are they normal? And is it possible to prevent them?

What I like to tell parents is that temper tantrums, for the most part, are a normal part of your child’s development. It might be difficult to remember this in the heat of the moment, when your child is throwing himself on the floor in the grocery store. But it truly is hallmark of early childhood.

Defining Preschool Temper Tantrums

About 84% of all preschoolers have a temper tantrum about once a month.  These typically involve stamping feet, holding breath, yelling, becoming easily frustrated, falling out, or melting down.  These are likely to happen when frustrated, angry, or upset, when tired, hungry, or sick. Or when they don’t get something they wanted or during daily routines, such as bedtime, mealtime, or getting dressed.

The possibility of preventing them is a more complex and involved question. The short answer is that if we can understand why they happen, we will be more likely to prevent them. Temper tantrums happen for a lot of different reasons.

Why preschool temper tantrums happen and how to manage them:

  • Physiological needs. The most basic cause of your child’s meltdown is when she needs food, sleep, or downtime due to an illness. If your goal is to avoid public tantrums, plan your grocery trip after nap and snack time.
  • Temperament differences. Review the nine temperament traits and understand where your child falls on this spectrum. Tailoring your activities around them can be helpful in preventing temper tantrums. For instance, if your child has a “high” activity level, try burning off energy at a playground before tackling those errands.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Before taking your child into a public environment, it is helpful to have realistic expectations of how your child should behave. It is not realistic to expect a child to wait patiently and quietly for two hours before eating at a fancy restaurant. But it is realistic to think that your child could sit through a 30-minute dinner at a family-friendly restaurant with the proper distractions (see next section).
  • Preparation. This goes hand-in-hand with having realistic expectations. If your doctor is notorious for running an hour behind, bring activities and toys with you. A favorite toy or something new, snacks, reading and activity books, and even electronic devices (when used judiciously) are all appropriate and will go a long way in preventing tantrums.
  • Understanding expectations. The other side of preparation is mentally preparing your child. Depending upon her temperament for adaptability, start talking with your child about how you’d like for her to act at an upcoming birthday party. For instance, watching quietly while her friend opens her own presents. How much in advance you mentally prepare your child depends on your child’s temperament. Preparing too far in advance can induce anxiety in some children.
  • Consistency. Preschoolers thrive on routines and repetition. Being consistent about the rules at a particular store or restaurant will go a long way to helping you prevent those tantrums in the future.
  • Missing warning signs. As parents, we are busy, distracted, and trying to do our best to keep our families running. But sometimes that means we miss the early warning signs. Temper tantrums are like an approaching police siren. Even though it’s far away, you can still pick up on it. But as more time passes it gets closer and louder. Intervening sooner might help prevent the early whining from turning into a full-blown meltdown.
  • Special issues. Some children are sensitive to bright light, noise, or big crowds. If your child is always upset by the noise level in a particular store, find out if there are times in the day in which they don’t have the music blaring. If the music level doesn’t vary, it might be a good idea to go there without your child, if that’s an option.
  • Positive reinforcement. Now I’m not suggesting that you buy a candy bar whenever you get successfully through the checkout line. But I do think it is important to positively reinforce the good behavior. And you can play into your child’s interests by rewarding her with non-food, non-monetary things. Like getting to choose the radio station on the drive home. Or playing with something that he only gets to do on special occasions. Similarly, if she breaks the rules, she needs to know that there are consequences.

Preventing preschool temper tantrums

The bottom line is that not all temper tantrums are preventable, but if you can begin to predict what triggers your child’s tantrums, you can start to change the behavior and prevent some of them. Think about the scenario in which your child had a tantrum. What was the situation? What time was it? Was he hungry?

I often recommend that parents write these things down so that they can get a better sense of the patterns. Some parents find practice runs helpful. Instead of taking your child on a really long grocery trip for the first time, try running in for only a gallon of milk and see how it goes.

While the vast majority of temper tantrums are completely normal, there are times when you might want to seek additional help. If your child’s temper tantrums are consuming a lot of your time, upsetting to the entire family, and are getting in the way of family functioning, talk to your pediatrician about it. He or she may recommend a referral to a child psychologist specializing in preschool behavior.

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