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How to tame your toddler's temper tantrums

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The University of Kentucky Public Relations and Strategic Communications Office provides a weekly health column available for use and reprint by news media. This week's column is by Angela Houchin, M.D, a pediatrician at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 27, 2023) ­ There’s nothing quite like a toddler’s temper tantrum. While tantrums are a normal part of child development, they can be upsetting, stressful and embarrassing. The good news is they do eventually go away. Tantrums generally peak from ages 1 to 3. During that time, the way you address them can help reduce their severity and recurrence.

Why toddlers throw tantrums

The short answer is children throw temper tantrums when they don't get what they want. For younger children that have less developed verbal skills, the parent or caregiver may simply not understand what they want, and the child gets frustrated and throws a tantrum. Older toddlers with more advanced verbal skills still throw tantrums when they want attention or they don’t get what they want — for example, when you’re in the toy aisle and they want something and you tell them no. Tantrums can also occur when a child’s basic needs haven’t been met. They could just be hungry or tired.

How to handle a tantrum

If you know your child’s basic needs have been met, the best thing to do when your child throws a tantrum is ignore it. The more attention you give to the tantrum, the more they will do it. Survey the area where they are throwing the tantrum to make sure it’s safe, then don’t talk to them, don’t look at them, don’t give them any inkling that you are giving into their tantrum in any way.

Preventing tantrums

Make sure their basic needs are met. Make sure they're getting enough sleep. If you're about to run an errand, don't do it at nap time. Make sure you always have some snacks on hand if you're going to be out and about.

Another important aspect of preventing temper tantrums is setting clear expectations, and most importantly, not giving in. If you give in to the tantrum just to quiet them down, they're going to learn that the louder they are, the quicker and easier it is to get what they want.

Toddlers very quickly learn who they can manipulate and who they can’t. Each parent/caregiver needs to be consistent and be firm. Riding out a tantrum can be difficult, especially in public, but you are doing the best thing for you and your child in the long run.

When to seek help

Tantrums are a normal part of child development. If you handle them as I suggested, but your child still has multiple tantrums a day or extreme tantrums where they get violent or hurt themselves, it is worth bringing up to your child's pediatrician.

If your school age child suddenly starts to throw temper tantrums again, that could also indicate an underlying problem that needs further evaluation from your pediatrician.

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