Anger management 101

Katie asked about temper tantrums in a toddler: “My 13 month old has already started having violent temper tantrums (screaming, writhing, kicking, throwing things etc.) usually because I pick him up if he’s getting into trouble or take something away from him that he shouldn’t have. I’m trying to minimize potential for tantrums by eliminating triggers but it’s impossible to prevent all tantrums. My concern is that his father has a very bad temper and I would like to help my son so that he learns how to deal with his temper in the best way possible. So, are there any suggestions as to what I should do at this age when he is having a tantrum? I can soothe him by giving him his pacifier or (sometimes) some milk. I have tried ignoring him but it doesn’t help him to cool himself down (or maybe in the short term it will take longer for him to calm down but in the long term it will teach him that this behavior will be ignored?)”

I used a scheme of breaking up tantrums into four parts to talk about the best ways to handle them in my book, Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool. How to best teach your child how to deal with his anger involves teaching him skills not only during a tantrum, but between them as well.

  • Phase 1. “Between Tantrums.” Try to cut down on the overall frustration level by offering choices when appropriate, and trying to keep your child well rested and well fed. Often tantrums are at least partially triggered by hunger, tiredness, or other background issues. If there’s a certain setting that brings out the worst in your child, avoid it if you can. There’s no reason to put your child into a situation that you know will end with a tantrum
  • Phase 2. “The Buildup.” Junior is getting mad—he can’t have what he wants. But the tantrum hasn’t started yet. This is the time for distraction and humor. You can’t give him exactly what he wants, as that will reward his behavior, but you can give him something different and silly, or do a little dance, or anything that can head off the tantrum before it starts.
  • Phase 3. “The Tantrum.” Screaming, yelling, the whole enchilada. You must ignore your child during a tantrum. Any attempts to soothe or “help” will unintentionally reinforce the behavior. Stay physically close and ensure that your child is safe, but remain emotionally distant. Read a newspaper or something.
  • Phase 4. “The Post-Tantrum.” This is the sniffly-sad part. Now: hug your child, and reassure, and say something like “I know you don’t like to lose control. I’m glad you’re feeling better.” Don’t rehash the tantrum, just reassure and move on.

There are other important approaches covered in my book, like helping your child learn word-skills to help his express himself, modeling good anger management, and praising your child for a tantrum that he was able to stifle himself. Remember that what you’re trying to teach your child is that anger is normal, and everyone gets angry; but there is a way to handle it that doesn’t hurt people. It’s a crucial lesson that children can learn very well, beginning even at 13 months of age!

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