Emotional outbursts in children: What's normal and how to diffuse them

Jennifer Geer

Experts say temper tantrums are an expected part of childhood development.

I have such a different opinion these days than I used to when I see a child throw a fit in public. Before I became a parent, I actually believed there was something the parent could or should be doing to stop their child from having a meltdown.

But now I know the cold, hard truth. Kids have tantrums. It's completely normal and expected for them to lose it from time to time.

More than likely, it's going to happen at the worse possible moment. Like when you are eating out at a restaurant, or in the middle of a long line at the grocery store, or anywhere out in public where you feel the judging eyes of others.

My daughter had the most intense fit of her life when she was two years old at a Kohl's store. I had told her she couldn't buy some overpriced toy, and she was incensed. She screamed, she yelled, she lay on the ground. I didn't know how to handle it, so I picked her up and carried her out, leaving our cart behind and feeling eyes staring as we made our noisy way to the door.

She's older now, and I'm happy to report her days of epic meltdowns are behind her. If any of you are in the midst of the tantrum age, take comfort in knowing that it doesn't last forever.

What ages do kids typically throw tantrums?

Children usually start having fits around one year of age, and these begin to taper off by around four years.

My daughter began her fit-throwing phase when she was a toddler. She might collapse on the ground dissolving in tears over something as simple as handing her the blue sippy cup filled with milk because the purple one was in the dishwasher.

Be aware the Mayo Clinic suggests if your child's tantrums worsen after age four, or if they hold their breath during one until they pass out, you should check with your pediatrician for possible underlying conditions.

Why do kids have tantrums?

When they're little, children can't fully express their wants and needs. It's one reason why you should see tantrums begin to wane as kids grow older and their vocabulary improves.

On top of that, a child's brain is not fully developed. In fact, our brains don't finish growing until we are in our 20s. And the frontal lobe, which is where emotions are regulated, is the last part of the brain to finish developing.

Without this ability to regulate emotions, or even communicate them, a young child feeling hungry, tired, overwhelmed, or even bored may express this by crying or yelling.

What to do when your child throws a fit?

You know it's a normal part of development, and you know all kids have tantrums. But that doesn't make you feel much better when you're walking through the produce aisle with a kicking, screaming two-year-old in your arms. So how to handle it?

Experts suggest the best way to deal with a small child's tantrum is not to react. It may be hard to do this, but keep calm and don't respond with anger. This will only heighten the situation and make the child even more upset.

Little kids have short attention spans, so you might be able to distract them from their anger. You can try making a funny face or pulling out a favorite toy or book.

For my daughter, no matter what we were going through, if we were at the grocery store and I asked if she wanted to visit the fish tanks at the pet department, her anger would go away, and she'd end up smiling at the fish.

How to control your anger and stay calm

If distractions don't work and you feel your temper rising at home, it's okay to step out of the room for a few minutes and let the child throw their fit. As long as they aren't in physical danger, you may need a short time out for yourself. Take a deep breath, wait a few minutes, and go back to check on them. Hopefully, their fit will have begun running out of steam.

Don't set limits when you and your child are both angry. Once you both calm down, you can rehash the situation. But in the heat of anger, you may end up making demands that you later regret. You can always tell your child you will talk about it later when everyone is calm. Don't think this makes you look weak to your child. It shows them that you are the grownup and you can control your anger.

Finally, remind yourself your child is not trying to be difficult or misbehave. Their little brains aren't fully formed yet, and they just can't communicate their needs properly.

For more information, you can check out the book Peaceful Parent: Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham. In this book, Dr. Markham gives research-based advice on how to connect with your child and avoid power struggles and tantrums.

All kids have tantrums

Remember, a temper tantrum is not a sign that you're a bad parent. It's developmentally supposed to happen.

Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist told Parents.com, "Tantrums help kids learn to deal with their negative emotions. Sometimes children get so overwhelmed with their new independence that they get overstimulated and meltdown."

If you feel overwhelmed or like your child's tantrums are out of control, or that your child is growing too old for tantrums, don't go it alone. Reach out to your family doctor or pediatrician for guidance.

And take solace in the fact that the tantrum years don't last forever. Although coming up next is puberty and the teen years, making me a bit nostalgic for the simple days of screaming fits caused by the wrong colored cup.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL
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