Care.com / Dr. Gail Gross

2- and 3-Year-Old Tantrums — and Beyond!

August 7, 2015
3-year-old crying

If you’re worried what to do about those 2-year-old tantrums (or 3-year-old tantrums, and so on), you’re not alone. Many parents find themselves at the mercy of their child’s screams when they’ve said “no” to a plea for a toy or snack. Usually these stormy scenes play out in a public place. While passersby stare in judgment, you want to hide in a hole.
But tantrums are developmentally normal and not a sign of bad parenting. “In my experience, tantrums are typically thought of as an indication that a child is spoiled, purposefully manipulating their parents or just generally a bad kid. I believe that is rarely the case,” says Dr. Timothy Gunn, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist with a focus on children.

“When faced with a temper tantrum, appreciate that your child is no longer in control,” saysDr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a family and child development and behavior expert. Once you understand why your child is having a tantrum, it’s easier to keep calm and help your child navigate frustration.

Tantrums at Age 2
A 2-year-old’s tantrums are infamous for being loud and long and relentless. Your child may start screaming, hitting and kicking. Dr. Gunn says this is related to a lack of language skills. “Two-year-olds are typically going to tantrum more because they are not getting what they want or they are uncomfortable or out of frustration because they have limited language skills and can’t express their needs,” says Dr. Gunn.

He adds that something as simple as your child not wanting to wear the clothes you’ve chosen or what is on the dinner plate can start a tantrum for a 2-year-old. He suggests parents quickly change the environment as a way to calm the situation down. “The best course of action is to change your toddler’s environment. Pick him up and take him somewhere else,” he advises. Doing so will relieve the tension and distract your child from the object of attention.

Tantrums at Age 3
The 3-year-old tantrums are less emotional, according to Dr. Gross. They “occur less often and with less intensity,” she says, adding that at this age, a child may argue, kick, scream or hit in an effort to get what’s wanted. But kids this age often begin to realize that tantrums can be affecting getting what they want.

To handle your 3-year-old’s tantrum, Dr. Gunn suggests handing over “small amounts of control” to the child, perhaps by allowing him to select his own clothes for the day. This method works well, says Dr. Gunn, because “your toddler will feel a sense of independence that will satisfy his developmental stage and his need to push out in a way that fosters a secure sense of himself.”

Tantrums at Age 4
At this age, tantrums tend to become more verbal, says Dr. Gross. Kids may start using hurtful phrases, such as that dagger to every parent’s heart — “I hate you!” — without fully grasping what that means. Your child may also start to tantrum by hitting or punching you, which parents need to address every time.

“It is never too soon to teach respect. This lesson is the first time your child will comprehend a true boundary — one of the most important lessons of his life,” says Dr. Gross, adding that at the end of the day, nothing serves parents as well as a good sense of humor. Tantrums are a behavior that is all part of kids growing up.

Tantrums at Ages 5 to 10
At this age, as children have more developed language skills, “temper tantrums may get more sophisticated,” says Dr. Gross. Parents will notice more pouting, power plays such as refusing to eat and saying things that are unkind. One strategy for taming a tantrum for this age group, according to Dr. Gunn, is “to avoid giving in to frustration.

Try to remember that a child has a legitimate need and focus on trying to figure out what that need is.” It’s all in how you handle it. “It obviously does not send the right message to get angry while trying to teach the child how to stay calm,” he continues. “The key to handling these situations is to override your own impulse to react.”

As a general coping strategy, Dr. Gunn advises, “Rather than focusing on eliminating tantrums in younger children, parents should focus on discovering what the child needs and helping them get their needs met in an appropriate way.” By doing so, your older children will be less likely to tantrum since they’ll be armed with the tools they need to calm down when they’re angry or frustrated.

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