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Dear Debi,
I have a 2-year-old who’s starting to have tantrums every time we go out, especially to church or to the grocery store. How do I handle this kind of situation?
Monica, Los Angeles, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Create environment that discourages tantrums
  • Make sure your child’s needs are met
  • Help him learn to regulate behavior and identify feelings
  • Give positive attention
Expert Advice
Susan Baxter
Susan Baxter
Early Childhood Education Instructor
A tantrum is the way someone expresses a feeling of being out of control. It is an emotional reaction that is too big for them to handle or deal with in a more appropriate way. When children throw a tantrum, they may be feeling several different emotions: out of control, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, under-stimulated, misunderstood, frustrated, tired, hungry or any combination of the above.

Tantrums are most often observed in children who are still learning how to express their needs and wants through words. That is why we see tantrums in two-year-olds more often than in four-year-olds. Two-year-olds are still learning how to effectively express themselves with words. Their brains are still developing, so that the area of the brain that controls self-regulation and emotional regulation is not well developed yet. They find it hard to control their emotional responses. Children with special needs that struggle with communication disorders or children that have impaired brain development are more prone to tantrums as well.

When a child throws a tantrum, the child care provider should stay calm. Do not take the tantrum personally. First, make sure that the child is safe physically and emotionally. Do not engage in a power struggle with the child – if they are mad because they cannot have a candy at the grocery check out, acknowledge the feeling of frustration being expressed and take them out of the store.

Children in the midst of a tantrum are beyond being able to calm down on their own. Never leave a child alone when they are having a tantrum. Many times small children are frightened by the power of their tantrums and have lost control. I have left more than one full grocery cart in the store as I carried a kicking and screaming child out of the store.

You can help avoid tantrums by not putting children in the position of a power struggle or creating a desire for things they cannot do or have. Observe your children so that you know their trigger points. Have a good rhythm and routine so the children feel in control, are rested and fed. Young children do not need to be in a mall at 9:00 pm. They need to be at home in bed.

Provide children with signs or gestures that help them to express themselves while their language skills are developing. Do not expose them to things they can not handle emotionally or need self-regulatory behavior for.

If a child throws tantrums throughout the day and doesn’t respond to any of these techniques, then get help and support from other child care providers, parent groups or other child development support systems. Some children will take a lot of time to learn the skills needed to reduce temper tantrums. Temperament also plays a fact. Feisty children may be more prone to react than flexible children.
Child Care provider Comments
Sonnia Corzo
Sonnia Corzo
Child care provider for 6 years, mother of four
I have noticed that kids have tantrums for different reasons, like not wanting to do something or having a hard time transitioning. It takes getting to know a child and observing them to understand what their triggers are and what they like and don’t like. Then I arrange my environment to prevent tantrums from starting.
Clarissa August
Clarissa August
Family child care provider for 21 years
Sometimes kids need to be comforted while other times they just need to calm themselves down. If a child needs to be comforted, I’ll walk behind the child, wrap my arms around and sit the child on my lap while I rock him or her. It takes a minute but it’s usually pretty effective in calming the child down.

Other times, I’ll show the kid how silly she looks by getting down on the floor with her and stating very calmly, “What are we doing down here on the floor? This isn’t very fun. I’m going to get up now.”
Parent Comments
Daughter is in child care
How I handle my daughter’s tantrums really depends on the situation. If we’re at home, I just walk away and let her finish. If we’re in public, it depends on how critical the situation is. If we can’t just pick up and leave where we are, then I might give in and let her have what she wants. But I have taken her out of a grocery store and just gone straight home.

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Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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