Temper Tantrums

A temper tantrum usually involves a violent outburst of anger, with uncontrolled kicking or hitting, screaming, and breaking or throwing objects.

Albert Trieschman described six stages in a temper tantrum, each requiring a different method of handling:

1. Rumbling and grumbling–children are looking for a reason to have the tantrum they have already decided to have. At this point you have a chance to head off tantrums by helping children verbalize what is bugging them.

2. Help-help–children realize they are losing control of their behavior, and signal their need for help, usually by out-rightly breaking a rule. You can help children regain control of their behavior at this stage by teaching them how to ask for help. If their tantrum continues, you may have to physically hold them.

3. Either-or–children may try to prove they are still in control by setting out either-or alternatives. They also may put up more resistance towards you by shouting or calling you names. Their tantrums have gone beyond the point of no return, and your role now as well as in the next stage becomes one of modeling appropriate ways for children to express their anger.

4. No-no–children respond negatively towards you regardless of what you say. At the close of this stage tantrums normally die down.

5. Leave-me-alone–usually by the time children can talk to you and explain what happened you can begin loosening your hold. They still, however, are not ready to resume regular activities. Although children seem more agreeable and cooled down, they typically need some time alone before interacting with other people again. At this point you can offer support to children. Be prepared, however, for them to say, “no.”

6. Hangover–children may act as if nothing happened or feel guilty and embarrassed over their behavior. Your role here is to help children learn better ways of managing their anger. A child who feels guilty is more likely to cooperate in trying out alternative coping strategies than one who feels no remorse.

With younger children, around the ages of two to four, tantrums are a natural stage in their evolving independence and ability to say “no.” As they get older most children learn how to express their thoughts in more acceptable ways, because they realize tantrums won’t give them what they want. Some children, however, do get what they want when they tantrum, and for this reason continue tantrumming. Children also tantrum when they need a way of letting out their bottled-up feelings, or they see their parents doing it and think it’s okay.

o Only set rules in your classroom which are necessary. Too many controls frustrate children and may induce temper outbursts.

o Encourage children to express their anger appropriately towards peers and adults, instead of hiding their feelings. This may involve (a) helping children identify situations which make them mad; (b) describing how their body feels when they are mad; (c) prompting children when they look upset, but cannot say why they are mad, or do not know why they are mad; and (d) helping children let out their feelings as they come up–a series of minor outbursts are better than one major eruption.

o Designate a spot in your classroom for cooling off, where children can go when they feel themselves losing control of their temper. A time-out room is ideal because it gives children the freedom to release their anger the way they want to.

o Incorporate physical activities in your daily curriculum. Letting children run around, work with their hands, or do exercises can help them drain their frustrations and take a more rational view of their problems.

o If you notice children in the rumbling and grumbling stage, give them a way out by sitting beside them, talking about what’s going on with them, and suggesting other ways they can let out their feelings.

o Ask children to imagine situations which typically trigger their anger. Role-play with them controlled, cooperative responses.

o If you see a child silently getting heated up, try speaking on his behalf. Verbalize why he is mad and how he feels the wrong can be rectified. For example, if Brenton is mad at Victor for stepping on his picture, you can say, “Victor, you just left your footprint on my picture, and I feel like tearing your picture in half. I know you did it accidentally, but I want you to say you’re sorry.” This models for students an appropriate way of expressing their anger.

o If students are shouting, start out talking to them in your normal tone of voice, but gradually lower it as you’re speaking. It won’t be long before you detect a drop in the decibel level of their voice as well.

o One of the best ways to take the snap-crackle-pop out of a child’s staged temper tantrum is to ignore it or leave the room. After all what’s the use of putting on an act if no one is watching. Do not try this, however, with a child who is having an uncontrolled fit of anger. In this case you must stay close by to prevent her from ruining property, or hurting someone, including herself.

o When children pose a serious threat you may need to physically restrain them. Your hold provides them with the assurance that you know they cannot control their behavior, and are willing to control it for them. Some techniques for restraining children are (a) holding them from the back, so it’s harder for them to kick and bite you; (b) sitting down and holding a child in your lap, then pressing down his arms across his chest; (c) as children regain control you can respond by easing your hold; (d) assure children in a calm voice that as soon as they get control of themselves, you will let them go; and (e) avoid right away prying into what instigated a tantrum, and do not threaten to punish children. Later you can discuss the incident with them, and suggest ways they could have avoided it.

o Urge children to carry on with their tantrum. This places them in the predicament of doing what you want, which is not what they want.