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How to Handle Temper Tantrums

Unfortunately people don’t grow out of temper tantrums the way they do shoes or car seats. Here’s how to defuse a fit of rage, whether the person throwing it is 5 or 45.

By Elizabeth Passarella
Illustration of a family throwing a temper tantrumLuke Pearson

The Post-Toddler Years

So, hallelujah, tantrums disappear on your child’s fourth birthday, right? Well, not necessarily—as you know if you’ve ever unplugged a Wii in the middle of an eight-year-old’s game. (Of course, if tantrums are happening a few times a day, or if your child is biting and hitting or can’t calm himself down within 15 minutes, you may be dealing with a more serious issue, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] or Asperger’s syndrome. Consider seeing a pediatrician or a mental-health professional.)

Why is this happening? Well, because you unplugged the Wii when he had his highest table-tennis score ever, Mom. Kids this age are still learning coping and communication skills. Also, if you’ve established a pattern of yelling at your child until he does what you want, he may have learned that screaming is the best way to get compliance. (Ouch.)

In the heat of the moment: “People describe their kids as going from 0 to 60 in three seconds, but that’s not necessarily so,” says Harrington. “You probably know the warning signs: Maybe he starts tapping his fork on the dinner table. As soon as that happens, look him in the eyes and say, ‘I can see that you’re frustrated. What are you thinking? How are you feeling?’ ” He may say, “I feel like I hate you,” and then the challenge is to stay calm. No matter how hurtful or irritating your child is being, he needs your unconditional love, since outbursts are often about wanting to be cared for and affirmed, says Harrington. You can discipline or problem-solve later. Right now, say, “I love you no matter what you say, and you’re not a bad kid. But we need to take a break and then talk about this.”

How to handle the aftermath: Make a plan. When the dust has settled, set up rules for times when tantrums are most common. “Don’t be an ‘ish’ person—bedtime is 8 p.m.–ish, guidelines about the computer change every day,” says Harrington. Your rules should include consequences for what will happen if your child doesn’t follow through. Give her a warning (for example, set a timer that lets her know she has five minutes to get ready for bed), and reinforce the idea that her behavior is a choice: “OK, you are choosing no TV for the next two nights because you aren’t following the plan we set.” And don’t get stuck thinking life will always be a battle. “Kids change quickly,” says Jeffrey Bernstein, a psychologist in Exton, Pennsylvania, and the author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child ($16, “You may be in a very different place in just three to six months.”

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