PARENTING TODAY: Learn the art of avoiding temper tantrums

Parenting carries with it some predictable challenges. One of our least favourite concerns the child having a tantrum.

You know, the kicking, screaming, red-faced behaviour we will all see from our child at one point or another.

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Toddler tantrums are different from those of our preschoolers, so I’ve separated them out and we’ll look at toddlers first.

We are not surprised when we hear that a toddler “lost it” over some seemingly insignificant event.

 Temper tantrums are pretty typical behaviour for a toddler and are most often the result of frustration.

Two-year-olds have a strong belief in themselves as they assert, “I can do it myself!”

When they try to do everything they want, they simply can’t. So they lose it.

Tantrums can often be prevented. It’s a good idea to allow children a certain amount of independence and success.

Choose clothing which is easy for them to put on, get sturdy stools which permit them to reach the sink to wash their own hands, and put toys on low shelves. These all help them to feel competent and reduce the frustration. The more they can do for themselves, the better they’ll feel about themselves.

Little ones who are tired or hungry are more likely to overreact. Children who have a schedule, are fed on time and have regular naps are less likely to have tantrums.

It’s easy for little ones to get over-tired and be unable to handle themselves. It’s up to us to read the signals and act before there’s a problem.

Of course, we can’t prevent all tantrums. During the tantrum the best thing you can do is keep an eye on him so he doesn’t hurt himself. Then just let it happen.

Don’t try to talk to him. He can’t hear.

There’s a point at which you’re likely to see a change in the tantrum. One minute he’s raging and the next he’s looking scared. Now he needs you because he isn’t sure he can stop. Hold him and reassure him that he’s going to be OK and help him settle himself. With toddlers, once it’s over just move on.

Sometimes a tantrum is a way to relieve stress. They may use some little incident to blow off some steam. We do the same thing when we find ourselves blowing up over some little thing or crying at a movie.

The trick is to pay attention. When is he most likely to have a tantrum? What can you do to prevent it?

It would be nice to think that turning three means an end to tantrums. But it’s not that easy. While there are similarities, there are also differences.

I remember a five-week, cross-Canada car trip we took when our kids were young.

One evening we pulled into Winnipeg, we were later than usual and having trouble finding a place to stay. Finally, we got a room. Now, in this room there was a long, dark red wall. Boy was it red!

Being tired, hungry and frustrated the wall acted as a catalyst as the whole family watched one of us experience a complete meltdown. Under the circumstances it was understandable.

It would, however have been more appropriate had it been one of the children. But no, it was Mom — and I really lost it.

My husband took the correct action. He bundled the kids back into the car and they headed out to find food while I calmed down. After dinner it was all funny and today it is still a family legend.

So, when we’re hungry, tired and frustrated we can all lose it. Problem is, that once our kids are three years old we think it’s all over and forget to monitor our kids the way we did when they were younger.

Make sure you’re paying attention to their schedule and their needs. They need to have meals and naps on time.

Before we continue to talk about preventing tantrums in our preschoolers, let’s take a look at what we can do when they occur.

First, move them from the source of the problem. Take them to another room or at least a quiet corner. If they’ll let you hold them do so. Then feed them. With this, just like I did in the Winnipeg motel, they will be able to regain control.

You can talk to preschoolers after a few minutes have passed. Unlike toddlers, they can remember what happened and you can help her learn how to let you know when she is about to lose it, how to use language to express her upset and ways to handle her stress.

You can teach her to say, “I need a break right now,” or “I’m really hungry, can I have a snack?”

While toddlers become frustrated because they just can’t do everything they thought they could, preschoolers become upset when their moves toward independence are thwarted. 

You think the green sweater would be perfect, but your child has her heart set on the blue one. The choice is yours.

Allow her to assert her independence and wear the blue one or spend your time both trying to force her into the green one and handling the subsequent tantrum.

The more she feels in control of her environment, the happier and calmer she will be.

With toddlers you need to control their environment to prevent tantrums, but you can prepare preschoolers ahead of time by letting them know your expectations.

“At the store you can choose a cereal but not a sugary one. You cannot have any candy at the check-out counter.” She can be expected to remember that or hear when you remind her at the store.

Avoid major problem areas. She hates going to the mall? Leave her with her dad, grandparents or arrange babysitting when you go. 

Finally, make sure she has lots of outlets for her frustration and her anger.

Lots of large-muscle, outdoor play activity will help her to handle herself in a way that will please both of you.


Kathy Lynn is a parenting expert and author of Vive la Différence, Who’s In Charge Anyway? and But Nobody Told Me I’d Ever Have to Leave Home. If you want to read more, sign up for her newsletter at

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