Are Tantrums Getting the Better of You?

September 26, 2005 at 3:17 pm  •  Posted in Early Childhood Development by  •  0 Comments

By Gary Direnfield, MSW, RSW

Introduction Are There Stresses at Home?
Redirection Check Your Child’s Hearing
Ignoring Tantrums Ask a Social Worker for Help
Calling a Time-Out



Tantrums or “acting-out” behaviors are natural during early childhood development. During a tantrum a child may kick, scream, hold his breath, or behave badly in other ways. Unfortunately, this is often a child’s response to not being allowed to do something or have something he wants.

Tantrums in the two to three-year-old are fairly common and start to decline by age four. They are the child’s way of protesting and signaling to us they really want to get their own way.

During this stage, children are just coming into their own and do not like to be thwarted. They are driven by inquisitiveness and strutting new skills. They have mastered walking and are ever increasing their motor skills. They are ready for exploration, but haven’t yet internalized rules, so they think everything is fair game. And while we may think these young children can totally understand us, in truth, this is still a year and more away. How parents respond is critical to tantrum management.


So it is not enough that we tell them what to do, we must also show them and physically direct their play and areas for exploration. When young children get involved in things they shouldn’t, it is important to simply re-direct them to approved activities and areas of play. You may find yourself doing this dozens upon dozens of times per day! Once will never be enough at this age and this is why parenting two-year-old can be such a demanding time.

Ignoring Tantrums

While redirection is the key for managing behavior at age two, if tantrums persist at age three, ignoring such behavior is the next strategy parents should try. Ignoring tantrums teaches the child that this behavior doesn’t work and so they often stop. Ignoring really means withholding attention for misbehavior, but, and very importantly, it is also a must that parents do provide attention for appropriate behavior. This is usually in the form of verbal feedback, praise, hugs and kisses.

Calling a Time-Out

If ignoring the tantrums isn’t working at age three, you can start to use “time-out” as a consequence. Time-out means time away from anything reinforcing or otherwise pleasurable – like sitting on the stairs or in the corner, or quietly on a chair.

While the general rule is one minute of time-out per age of child, time-outs that are much briefer and a matter of seconds, say 5 to 15 seconds are often MORE effective than longer time-outs. In the life of a three-year-old, 5 to 15 seconds is a long time, but it is not so long that they forget why they were sent to time-out in the first place. The key to effectively using this strategy is to apply a brief time-out each time the behavior occurs. It is better a brief time-out follows at each instance of a tantrum, than only long time-out.

Are There Stresses at Home?

If tantrums persist even with the use of time-out, ask yourself if there are other stresses in the home. Issues of illness, marital violence or discord, alcohol or drug abuse in caregivers all can affect parenting and child behavior.

Check Your Child’s Hearing

You may also want to check your child’s hearing. Many children at this age have had a number of recurring ear infections (otitis media). With each re-occurrence of an ear infection, fluid remains in the ear and diminishes hearing capacity. They will grow out of it, but in the meantime, your child may actually be hard of hearing and as a result, language delayed. Therefore even though a little older, they may not hear you or understand your verbal commands. This is something you should check out with your pediatrician.

Ask a Social Worker for Help

If all the above fails, fear not, but do ask for help. Call a local parenting center, a counselor or social worker or even your family doctor. Odds are something is going on that probably because you are so close to the problem, you do not see. If ever you feel like spanking your child, then give yourself a break to stop yourself. Have a cup of herbal tea, warm milk, a hot bath, or go for a walk. Do anything that works to give you a little distance and a chance to collect your thoughts. Just be sure your child is appropriately supervised while you grab a moment alone. Sometimes this “parental pause” is just the ticket to regain composure and reenter more effectively.

Tantrums? Follow these steps:

  • Redirection
  • Ignore
  • Time-out
  • Check for other stresses
  • Check hearing
  • Ask for help
  • Take a break
  • Learn to deal with your own anger or frustration.

Lastly, you can’t offer too much praise, love and affection to a child. Give generously throughout the day!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Social Workers or its members.

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