Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up. A Mayo Clinic specialist explains how to respond to temper tantrums — and how to prevent tantrums in the first place. By Mayo Clinic Staff

You're shopping with your toddler in a busy department store. He or she has spied a toy that you don't intend to buy. Soon you find yourself at the center of a gale-force temper tantrum. Everyone's looking at you, and your face is burning with embarrassment.

Could you have prevented the tantrum? What's the best response? And why do these emotional meltdowns happen in the first place?

Consider these tantrum tips.

A tantrum is the expression of a young child's frustration with the challenges of the moment.

Perhaps your child is having trouble figuring something out or completing a specific task. Maybe your child can't find the words to express his or her thoughts or feelings. Whatever the challenge, frustration with the situation might trigger anger — resulting in a temper tantrum.

Consider this: Most 2-year-olds have a limited vocabulary. Parents might understand what a toddler says only some of the time. Strangers understand even less. When your child wants to tell you something and you don't understand — or you don't comply with your child's wishes — you might have a tantrum on your hands.

If your child is thirsty, hungry or tired, his or her threshold for frustration is likely to be lower — and a tantrum more likely.

It might seem as if your child plans to misbehave simply to get on your nerves, but that's probably giving him or her too much credit.

Young children don't have evil plans to frustrate or embarrass their parents. For most toddlers, tantrums are simply a way to express frustration.

For older children, tantrums might be a learned behavior. If you reward tantrums with something your child wants — or you allow your child to get out of things by throwing a tantrum — the tantrums are likely to continue.

There might be no foolproof way to prevent tantrums, but there's plenty you can do to encourage good behavior in even the youngest children.

For example:

  • Be consistent. Establish a daily routine so that your child knows what to expect. Stick to the routine as much as possible, including nap time and bedtime. It's also important to set reasonable limits and follow them consistently.
  • Plan ahead. If you need to run errands, go when your child isn't likely to be hungry or tired. If you're expecting to wait in line, pack a small toy or snack to occupy your child.
  • Encourage your child to use words. Young children understand many more words than they're able to express. If your child isn't yet speaking — or speaking clearly — you might teach him or her sign language for words such as "I want," "more," "drink," "hurt" and "tired." The more easily your child can communicate with you, the less likely you are to struggle with tantrums. As your child gets older, help him or her put feelings into words.
  • Let your child make choices. To give your toddler a sense of control, let him or her make appropriate choices. "Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?" "Would you like to eat strawberries or bananas?" "Would you like to read a book or build a tower with your blocks?" Then compliment your child on his or her choices.
  • Praise good behavior. Offer extra attention when your child behaves well. Give your child a hug or tell your child how proud you are when he or she shares toys, follows directions, and so on.
  • Use distraction to change your child's focus. If you sense frustration brewing, try to distract your child. Suggest a new activity or change location.
  • Avoid situations likely to trigger tantrums. If your child begs for toys or treats when you shop, steer clear of "temptation islands" full of eye-level goodies. If your toddler acts up in restaurants, make reservations so that you won't have to wait — or choose restaurants that offer quick service.

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.

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?"

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.

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