Taming Temper Tantrums in the Strong-Willed Child

By Mark Hutten, Family Therapist and Online Parent Coach

Moms and dads expect temper tantrums from a 2-year-old, but angry outbursts don’t necessarily stop after the toddler years. Older children sometimes have trouble handling anger and frustration, too. Some children only lose their cool on occasion, but others seem to have a harder time when things don’t go their way. Children who tend to have strong reactions by nature will need more help from moms and dads to manage their tempers.

Here are 20 “temper-taming tips” for the “strong-willed” child:

1. By the time you arrive at the scene of the fight, you may be at the end of your own rope. After all, the sound of screaming is upsetting, and you may be frustrated that your children aren’t sharing or trying to get along. (And you know that this toy they’re fighting over is going to be lost, broken, or ignored before long anyway!). In these situations, the best thing to do is to keep your own self-control intact. Teaching by example is your most powerful tool. Speak calmly, clearly, and firmly — not with anger, blame, harsh criticisms, threats, or putdowns.

2. Create clear ground rules and stick to them. Set and maintain clear expectations for what is and what is not acceptable. Your youngster will get the message if you make clear, simple statements about what’s off limits and explain what you want him or her to do. You might say: “There’s no yelling in this house. Use your words to tell me what’s upsetting you.”

3. Encourage your youngster to take control. Compare a temper to a puppy that hasn’t yet learned to behave and that’s running around all over the place getting into things. Puppies might not mean to be bad — but they need to be trained. The point is that your youngster’s temper — like a puppy — needs to be trained to learn when it’s OK to play, how to use all that extra energy, and how to follow rules.

4. Find a way to (safely) get the anger out. There may be no punching walls or even pillows, but you can suggest some good ways for a youngster to vent. Doing a bunch of jumping jacks, dancing around the bedroom, or going outside and doing cartwheels are all good choices. Or your youngster can choose to write about or draw a picture of what is so upsetting.

5. Help children put it into words. If your youngster is in the midst of an outburst, find out what’s wrong. If necessary, use a time-out to get your youngster to settle down or calmly issue a reminder about house rules and expectations — “There’s no yelling or throwing stuff; please stop that right now and cool your jets.” Remind your youngster to talk to you without whining, sulking, or yelling. Once your youngster calms down, ask what got him or her so upset. You might say, “Use your words to tell me what’s wrong and what you’re mad about.” By doing this you help your youngster put emotions into words and figure out what, if anything, needs to be done to solve the problem.

6. Help them label emotions. Help children get in the habit of saying what they’re feeling and why — for example, “I’m mad because I have to clean my room while my friends are playing.” Using words doesn’t get a youngster out of doing a chore, but having the discussion can calm the situation. You’re having a conversation instead of an argument. Praise your youngster for talking about it instead of slamming the door, for instance.

7. If it’s uncharacteristic for your youngster to have a tantrum, on the rare occasion that it happens, all you may need to do is clearly – but calmly – review the rules. “I know you’re upset, but no yelling and no name-calling, please” may be all your youngster needs to gain composure. Follow up by clearly, calmly, and patiently giving an instruction like “tell me what you’re upset about” or “please apologize to your brother for calling him that name.” In this way, you’re guiding your youngster back to acceptable behavior and encouraging self-control.

8. Children that have learned that it’s not OK to yell or hit or throw stuff when they’re upset need other strategies for calming down when they’re angry. Offer some ideas to help them learn safe ways to get the anger out or to find other activities that can create a better mood.

9. Learn to shift. Explain that part of calming down is moving from a really angry mood to a more in-control mood. Instead of thinking of the person or situation that caused the anger, encourage your son or daughter to think of something else to do. Suggest things to think of or do that might bring about a better mood. Your youngster may feel better after a walk around the block, a bike ride, playing a game, reading a favorite book, digging in the garden, or listening to a favorite song. Try one of these things together so you both experience how doing something different can change the way a person feels.

10. Listen and respond. Once your youngster puts the feelings into words, it’s up to you to listen and say that you understand. If your youngster is struggling for words, offer some help: “so that made you angry,” “you must have felt frustrated,” or “that must have hurt your feelings.” Offer to help find an answer if there’s a problem to be solved, a conflict to be mended, or if an apology is required. Many times, feeling listened to and understood is all children need to regain their composure. But while acknowledging your youngster’s feelings, it’s important to make it clear that strong emotions aren’t an excuse for unacceptable behavior. “I know you’re mad, but it’s still not OK to hit.” Then tell your youngster some things to try instead.

11. Reacting to a child’s meltdown with yelling and outbursts of your own will only teach him/her to do the same. But keeping your cool and calmly working through a frustrating situation lets you show — and teach — appropriate ways to handle anger and frustration.

12. Regulating emotions and managing behavior are skills that develop slowly over time during childhood. Just like any other skills, your children will need to learn and practice them, with your help.

13. Remember that you’re trying to teach your youngster how to handle anger. If you yell or threaten, you’ll model and ingrain the exact kinds of behavior you want to discourage. Your children will see that you’re so angry and unable to control your own temper that you can’t help but scream.

14. See that children get a lot of physical activity. Active play can really help children who have big tempers. Encourage outside play and sports your youngster likes. Karate, wrestling, and running can be especially good for children who are trying to get their tempers under control. But any activity that gets the heart pumping can help burn off energy and stress.

15. Take a break from the situation. Tell your children that it’s OK to walk away from a conflict to avoid an angry outburst. By moving to another part of the house or the backyard, a youngster can get some space and work on calming down.

16. To help tame a temper, try to be your youngster’s ally — you’re both rooting for your youngster to triumph over the temper that keeps leading to trouble.

17. Try to be flexible. Parenting can be a tiring experience, but try not to be too rigid. Hearing a constant chorus of “no” can be disheartening for children. Sometimes, of course, “no” is absolutely the only answer — “no, you can’t ride your bike without your helmet!” But other times, you might let the children win one. For instance, if your youngster wants to keep the hide-and-seek game going a little longer, maybe give it 15 more minutes.

18. Try to be patient and positive, and know that anger-control skills take time to develop …and that just about every youngster can improve with the right parent-coaching.

19. Whether you’re reacting to an occasional temper flare-up or a pattern of outbursts, managing your own anger when things get heated will make it easier to teach children to do the same.

20. While your own patience may be frayed by angry outbursts, opposition, defiance, arguing, and talking back, it’s during these episodes that you need your patience most!!! Of course you feel angry, but what counts is how you handle that emotion.

As anyone who’s been really angry knows, following sensible advice can be tough when emotions run high. Give your children responsibility for getting under control, but be there to remind them how to do it. Most children can learn to get better at handling anger and frustration. But if your youngster frequently gets into fights and arguments with friends, siblings, and adults, additional help might be needed. Talk with the other adults in your youngster’s life — teachers, school counselors, and coaches might be able to help, and your youngster’s pediatrician can recommend a counselor or psychologist.

Mark Hutten, Owner of onlineparentingcoach.com is a Counseling Psychologist, Home-Based Family Therapist and Online Parent Coach.

This article originated from MyAspergersChild.com.