What's the best way to respond to a tantrum?

Typically, the best way to respond to a tantrum is to ignore it.

When your child quiets down, you might say, "Tantrums won't get my attention. If you want to tell me something, you have to use your words."

Remember, your ability to stay calm and in control will help your child feel secure. If you lose your cool or give in to your child's demands, you'll only teach your child that tantrums are effective.

What if my child becomes destructive or dangerous?

If a tantrum escalates, remove your child from the situation and enforce a timeout:

  • Select a timeout spot. Seat your child in a boring place, such as in a chair in the living room or on the floor in the hallway. Pull the chair away from the walls and furniture if you think your child might try to engage you by peeling off wallpaper or causing other types of damage.
  • Be firm. You might say, "You don't hit. Sit down."
  • Wait for your child to calm down. This might take a few minutes or longer.
  • Stick with it. If your child begins to wander around before the timeout is over, return him or her to the designated timeout spot. Remind your child that he or she is still in timeout.
  • Don't engage your child. Don't respond to anything your child says while he or she is in timeout.
  • Know when to end the timeout. When your child has calmed down, end the timeout and return to your usual activities. You might say, "You're sitting quietly. Are you ready to keep your hands to yourself?"

What about tantrums in public?

If your child has a tantrum in public, ignore the behavior if you can. If your child becomes too disruptive, take him or her to a private spot — such as a rest area or the car — for a timeout.

When your child calms down, you might say, "You're sitting quietly. Are you ready to sit in the cart while we shop?" If not, continue the timeout.

Remember, though, it's important to eventually return to the activity — or your child will learn than a tantrum is an effective way to escape a given situation.

When is professional help needed?

As your child's self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children outgrow tantrums by age 5.

If your younger child's tantrums seem especially severe, your older child is still having frequent tantrums or the tantrums have pushed you beyond your ability to cope, share your concerns with your child's doctor.

The doctor will consider physical or psychological issues that could be contributing to the tantrums. Depending on the circumstances, you might be referred to a mental health provider or, in some cases, a school or community program.

Early intervention can stem future behavioral problems and help your child succeed both at home and at school.

Aug. 10, 2012 See more In-depth