Published on November 11, 2020

Not Just the Terrible Twos

temper tantrum

When is an outburst more than a tantrum? As children begin to develop their language skills, they often express their feelings through their behavior.

When they fall to the ground, cry, scream, kick, hit or bite, children are telling grown-ups that they are not feeling understood or that their wants and needs are not being met.

Temper tantrums are a normal part of childhood. We are all familiar with the “terrible twos,” but what should a parent do if temper tantrums are severe or persist beyond the early childhood years?

Challenging behaviors and heightened emotions can be tricky to differentiate from typical developmental milestones. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 1 out of 7 children ages 2 to 8 have been diagnosed with a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.

“If a child’s behavior causes significant distress, interferes with their functioning in daily tasks or puts them at risk of harm to themselves or others, parents should consult a children’s mental health professional,” said Jill Brown, a licensed social worker, child therapist and director of the Parent-Child Clinical Services Program at The Lourie Center for Children’s Social & Emotional Wellness.

The Parent-Child Clinical Services Program is an outpatient clinic that offers a comprehensive approach to early identification, treatment and prevention of emotional, behavioral and developmental problems in infants and young children. The clinicians in the program help children find healthy ways to communicate with the use of therapeutic play and psychotherapy.

Pay Attention to Signs

During a tantrum, think about what your child may be trying to communicate through their behavior.

  • Is your child tired or hungry?
  • Is their clothing comfortable? Are they hot or cold?
  • Are they trying to be independent or take some control within their environment?
  • Are they having difficulty completing a task?

Thinking about your child’s physical and emotional experience and what they may be trying to express during the tantrum can guide you on how to respond. Children expressing distress are often seeking reassurance and support from parents and caregivers because they are overwhelmed and unable to manage these feelings on their own.

Tips on Managing Temper Tantrums

  • Establish a routine that includes consistent sleep, play and mealtimes.
  • Encourage your child to use words to communicate.
  • Praise good behavior as often as possible.
  • Stay calm and help your child describe how he or she may be feeling during a tantrum.
  • Provide two appropriate options as a way of giving them a sense of control in decision-making.

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