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

Typically, the best way to respond to a tantrum is to stay calm and ignore the behavior. You also might try to distract your child. A different book or a change of location might help. If you can't stay calm and you're at home, leave the room for a minute.

If your child is hitting or kicking someone, hold him or her until he or she calms down.

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."

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. Wait for your child to calm down. Consider giving one minute of timeout for every year of your child's age.
  • Stick with it. If your child begins to wander around before the timeout is over, return him or her to the designated timeout spot. 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, discuss the reason for the timeout and why the behavior was inappropriate. Then return to your usual activities.

Don't use timeouts too much, however, or they won't work.

What about tantrums in public?

If your child has a tantrum in public, ignore the behavior if possible. If your child becomes too disruptive, take him or her to a private spot for a timeout. After the timeout return to the activity — or your child will learn that 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 begin to have fewer tantrums by age 3 and a half. If your child is having trouble speaking at an age-appropriate level, is causing harm to himself or herself or others, holds his or her breath during tantrums to the point of fainting, or if tantrums get worse after age 4, 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.

July 28, 2015 See more In-depth