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TEMPER TANTRUMS   Temper tantrums are quite common and a normal part of growing up. This behavior occurs equally among boys and girls. It occurs between the ages of one and four years but is most common in two and three year old children. When your baby was an infant, crying was the only way to express discomfort or get attention. As he got older, he was able to point to what he wanted. He then learned to speak and thus express his thoughts. This gave him more control over his environment. When your child started to walk, he was able to explore a whole new universe. Through ambulation and vocalization your child satisfies his strong drive to master the world around him. He desires to control his environment but becomes disappointed when he confronts his limitations.

The toddler and preschooler still has immature coordination. This and the limits set by the family rules can often trigger emotional outbursts. Tantrums are expressions of your child's frustration. It occurs when he is not able to accomplish a task or when he has to follow a rule. They occur when emotions exceed the child's ability to control them. It is hard for him to understand why he can't accomplish tasks beyond his perceptual and motor coordination abilities. Your child also becomes frustrated by the limits you set. You tell your child when to go to bed and what to eat. You tell him what to wear and where to go. All these rules can be overpowering even for the most resilient child. These restraints, your child's limited ability and strong desire for control will give you some insight on how your child feels. Your child will eventually learn to handle these frustrations. You can help with this learning process.

What can you as a parent do to reduce the frequency of temper tantrums? First, be as firm and as consistent as you can. It is easier for your child to follow the ground rules if he knows them. Safety-proof your home. Keep valuables and breakables out of the sight and reach of your child. This will minimize the need for you to say "No" and "Don't." The less control you have to exercise over your child the more freedom your child will feel he has. You can also present your child with choices. Letting him choose which vegetable to eat or which story to hear before bed lets your child make the decision. Giving him this authority gives him more control of his life.

Tantrums begin when frustrations exceed control. When frustrations begins to mount, redirect your child to another activity. This is successful if you interact before the tantrum has started. You should leave your child alone if he is already having a temper tantrum. Keep her in sight to prevent her from harming herself but let her get it out of her system. You can tell the older child to go to her room. It is better to send your child to her room until she regains control. Don't send her to her room for a fixed time because this has the implication of punishment. Avoid using the term "bad" if your child is having a temper tantrum. Use words like "out of control" to describe his behavior. Praise your child for being able to get back in control once the tantrum is over. Your child should not use the tantrum as a substitute for his original behavior. You or your child should complete the original task that first caused the tantrum.

As your child improves his verbal skills, he is able to channel his emotions into more acceptable forms of expression. As he gets older he is able to separate his thoughts from his actions and substitute words for deeds. With your help temper tantrums will be an emotional experience over which your child will soon have control.

The following are books for further reading on tantrums and other behavior problems:

  • "The Magic Years," by Selma Fraiberg
  • "Babyhood," by Penelope Leach,
  • "Your Toddler," by Richard Rubin, John Fisher and Susan Doering
  • "Your Child's Health," by Barton Schmitt
  • "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care," by Benjamin Spock and Michael Rothenberg.

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