Dealing with Toddler Temper Tantrums in Child Care

Temper tantrums are common in child care, especially in groups of toddlers. Children typically throw temper tantrums out of frustration. Understanding why tantrums happen and having quick strategies for handling and preventing tantrums can help child care providers maintain peace in the child care setting.

Understanding Temper Tantrums

Children throw temper tantrums for many reasons, some big and some small. When a square block won’t fit in a round hole, or their child care provider won’t let them climb on the tables, some toddlers throw themselves on the floor kicking and screaming.

Toddlers have tantrums because they get frustrated very easily and have few problem-solving skills. Most toddlers still do not talk much. They have trouble asking for things and expressing their feelings. Their ability to reason is very limited. Tantrums are most likely to happen when toddlers are hungry, exhausted, or over-excited.

Tantrums are most common in toddlers. Preschoolers are less likely to throw tantrums because they have developed more coping skills and are able to communicate better. Some preschoolers learn that tantrums can be used to get something they want. If child care providers give in to children’s demands, tantrums may become more frequent.

School-age children sometimes react with tantrum-like behavior when they are frustrated by new situations. Learning to get along with friends, work as part of a team, or compete in a sport requires skills that many older children haven’t fully developed yet. Children with limited problem-solving skills or difficulty expressing themselves with words are more likely to express their anger through temper tantrums. Older children can learn to recognize when they are feeling upset or frustrated and learn more acceptable ways to deal with their anger.

How to Handle Temper Tantrums in Child Care

Temper tantrums can be frustrating for child care providers. The following steps can help you defuse an explosive temper tantrum.

  • Stay calm when tantrums happen. Screaming at a child who is having a temper tantrum only makes the tantrum worse. Set a positive example for children by controlling your own emotions.
  • Pause before you act. Take a few deep breaths, and take at least 30 seconds to decide how you will handle the tantrum.
  • Try distracting the child. Focus the child’s attention on something else. Remove the child from an unsafe situation such as climbing on the tables and offer him something else to play with. This technique works especially well with toddlers because their attention spans are short.
  • Remove the child from the situation. Take the child to a quiet, private place away from other children to calm down. Avoid trying to reason with a screaming child. It doesn’t work. Stay nearby until the child has calmed down. Then you can talk about the problem, or return to other activities.
  • Ignore the tantrum. Children sometimes throw tantrums to get attention. If you ignore the tantrum and go about your business as usual, the child will eventually give up. Remember that it’s only safe to ignore tantrums if the child is in a secure space and will not get hurt.
  • Hold the child.Holding an “out of control” child calmly is sometimes necessary to keep the child from hurting himself or someone else. You might say something like, “I can see you are angry right now, and I am going to hold you until you calm down. I won’t let you hurt me or anyone else.” Often this approach can be comforting to a child. Children don’t like to be out of control. A child care provider who takes charge of the situation and remains calm can reassure a frustrated child.
  • Comfort and reassure the child. Tantrums really scare most children. Some children don’t know why they are so angry and feel rather shaken when it is all over. They need to know that you disapprove of their behavior but that you still care for them.
  • Talk about the problem when the child calms down. It’s hard to reason with a screaming child. Insist on a “cooling down” period first. When the child has calmed down, follow up with a discussion about the behavior. Teach the child appropriate ways to handle anger and difficult situations. With practice and encouragement from their child care providers, preschoolers and school-age children can learn to ask for help, go somewhere to cool down, try different ways of doing something, and express feelings with words instead of hitting, kicking, or screaming.

Preventing Temper Tantrums Before They Happen

Tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Most children will have an occasional tantrum when they reach their frustration limit. But if tantrums seem to be happening too often in your child care program, you might want to consider the following suggestions:

  • Observe children’s tantrums. When and where do they seem to occur? Are they happening in specific areas of the child care space? Who is generally involved? What happens before, after, and during a tantrum? Look for patterns in behavior that can give you clues about how to avoid tantrums.
  • Set realistic limits and stick to a regular routine. Predictable meal times and nap times are especially important. A tired, hungry child is only one step away from a tantrum.
  • Offer real choices. Give children choices of activities but be sure they are genuine. Don’t ask, “Would you like to take your nap?” unless you are prepared to honor a child’s choice not to nap. Instead try, “It’s naptime now. What stuffed animal would you like to sleep with today?”
  • Give children warnings before you end an activity. Say, “In five minutes we will need to clean up the art table,” or, “It’s almost time to go inside from the playground.” Warnings help children get ready to change activities, and give them a chance to finish up what they are currently doing. Asking think-ahead questions like, “I wonder what we will have for a snack,” can also help children prepare for what comes next.
  • Challenge children without frustrating them. Children need challenging activities to help them learn new things. Be sure to introduce new challenges step by step. Know each child’s abilities and be sure the challenges are reasonable. Over-challenging children can lead to overwhelming frustration.
  • Choose your battles. Children like to test limits and may respond with tantrums when you enforce them. Be sure the rules you set are important. Choose just a few rules and be sure children experience consequences every time they break one. Avoid fighting over little things.
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