Whether it's at the grocery store, dinner table or playground, toddlers are bound to throw a temper tantrum a time or two. Here's advice explaining why they happen and how (and when) to respond.

Has your youngster ever thrown a temper tantrum? Mine did in a busy Kansas City mall. Imagine my embarrassment and challenge to discreetly handle Laura's outburst in public.


Every toddler, for whom independence is a passionate issue, will attempt a tantrum. Variation in temperament means that some are more passionate and persistent about it than others. Trouble is, if we don't handle it skillfully, this negative behavior will be reinforced. It becomes a habit or pattern for gaining satisfaction.

I know a 12-year-old boy who still falls on the ground kicking and screaming in protest when something doesn't go his way. Children whose tantrums are tolerated and reinforced are most at risk for emotional problems as adults.


Children will resist, test limits, say no, and try to get their own way. Occasional resistance to you or angrily stomping her foot is not a tantrum. Those are normal, difficult behaviors. A tantrum is when your child loses control, perhaps throwing herself on the floor, howling and shaking.


You will probably see the first of this behavior between 14 and 24 months of age. The best medicine? Ignore it. Do not get excited, talk to her, send her to time-out, or cave in. Go directly to another activity and simply ignore her ugly behavior. At the moment she quiets or calms herself, make a comment on the improved behavior. Something like, "Oh, you've quit crying. Let's read a book now" is sufficient. Exalt your child's selfcalming
ability. This way you give attention to her amiable, relaxed behavior and redirect attention to a positive behavior. This is skilled parenting.


"What? You mean I don't punish her for the tantrum?" No. Research shows that punishing unwanted behavior is less effective than rewarding the positive behavior you want to see.


Observe your child vigilantly. When you see a meltdown coming, prevent it by altering the surroundings or shift to a quieter activity. Some children throw tantrums as a result of overstimulation.


Caution: if your child is throwing tantrums several times a day, injuring herself, or destroying property, seek professional help. Discuss it with your pediatrician or family counselor. While many tantrums are pure manipulation, some have other underlying causes, which require a different response.


Let's go back to my daughter. I turned away from her public tantrum in the mall. She regained her control. I then talked to her, and we strolled on down the aisle. I had a sense of parental pride until two elderly ladies flanked me and scolded, "You're a mean mother!"


Excerpted with permission from The Birth to Five Book: Confident Childrearing Right from the Start by Brenda Nixon (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2009).