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How to Deal With Tantrums

Tantrum Tips: When Kids Thrash, Hit, or Headbutt

Tears and screaming are one thing, but what should you do when your toddler or preschooler's temper tantrum turns more violent? 

"My son is going to seriously hurt himself," says worried Circle of Moms member Savannah R. of her 1 year old. "What I worry about is the fact that he throws himself around. If he's sitting up he will throw himself backward and half the time [will] hit something as he goes down. Or if there is something in front of him he will slam his head into it. Table, wall, couch, you name it." Similarly, mom Kayla P. says her 18-month-old daughter "will not stop hitting herself in the head or banging her head on the floor when she gets angry."

If you, too, are wondering what to do when your child starts head-butting and hitting during tantrums, consider these seven tips from Circle of Moms members.

Keep reading.

1. Stay Calm and Quiet

Tantrums are sparked by some event or emotion that your child is unable to process, Circle of Moms members say. Consequently, if your child is flailing about during a tantrum, be sure your own emotions don't escalate the problem.

"Stay calm," advises mom Kelli M. "Do not get angry with your toddler — it will make it worse. Do not argue with your toddler. If you feel that you are going to lose your temper, go out of the room and take some deep breaths. Losing your temper will make the matter worse; your toddler will be scared, and it will take longer to calm him down."

Additionally, Kelli suggests that if your toddler is trying to tell you something during the tantrum but you can't understand him, "gently let him know that because he is so angry his voice is hard to understand." Then, "ask him to see if he can calm down just a little so that you can hear his lovely voice."

Traci M. agrees with the notion of keeping calm. In fact, the louder her kids get during tantrums, the softer she makes her own voice. "When my kids start to throw tantrums . . . I start to talk in a lower voice," she explains. "If they don't stop, I lower my voice and keep lowering it to a whisper. My kids can't hear me during their tantrums, so eventually they realize they are 'missing' something, [and] most kids never want to miss anything, and they start to quiet down." 

2. Ignore Outbursts

When your child is having a tantrum and hitting himself, Circle of Moms members generally agree that you should ignore bad behavior, but then talk to your child about his feelings once he's calmed down. More often than not, when children realize physical outbursts do not garner attention, they'll stop the bad behavior. Diane H. recommends: "You just need to treat it like any other tantrum behavior. When she's done, talk to her about how it hurts her when she does that and wouldn't she like it better if she didn't do it? Eventually, she'll realize that it's not worth it and she'll give it up." 

Tiffany W. says her daughter used to hit herself when she had a tantrum until she was about 1-and-a-half years old. "I know it sounds mean and horrible [to ignore the behavior], but it really does work. My daughter stopped real fast when she realized I wouldn't notice it," she says. 

3. Acknowledge Emotions 

Kate C. agrees children will learn quickly when tantrums don't lead to the attention they are seeking, and then you can talk calmly about the root of their emotions. Her daughter once banged her head on her grandma's tile floor during a tantrum. "She banged her head really good one time on that floor and never did it again. Granted she had a big knot on the back of her head, but after some ice and a soft talk — about 'When you throw fits like that you end up hurting yourself. If you talk to me like a big girl I can help you,' — [it] made everything better," she says.

"Tantrums are a phase because these little people are having such a hard time communicating with us," Didi D. says. For a child that has a tantrum about bed time, she suggests parents "reflect his emotions back to him and ask how you could make bedtime better. He may have suddenly become afraid of the dark, or a whole host of other issues that he feels he cannot control and lashes out at bedtime."

Miranda B. adds that after the tantrum has subsided, recognizing your child for good behavior can help her learn there is a positive outcome to talking about feelings but keeping emotions in check. 

4. Offer Distractions 

Sometimes, parents can diffuse tantrums by providing a distraction. Circle of Moms member Stella M. says her son would head-butt starting at about when he turned 1 year old. "His pediatrician said it was totally normal, and that some kids are totally dramatic about it," she says. So, when her son couldn't properly process and verbalize his frustration and anger, she would try distracting him by introducing a new activity. "Most times for him, the distraction works well. Now at 16 months, he babbles lots, says lots of words, and those head-banging sessions are now few and far-between."

Susan H. also advocates parents provide another outlet for your child's emotions. "In my experience, distraction is the key. They are bright and know if you get upset, and will do it more because they are getting attention for doing it," she says. 

5. Give a Hug

If you are really fearful your child could hurt herself on a sharp corner or something similar while thrashing about during a tantrum, then Circle of Moms members say it's OK to calm your child down with a hug. "Hugging actually will work," Ciji W. says. "When someone is anxious nervous and extremely upset, hugging tightly releases endorphins that calms the body and brain. It also takes them back to when they were in [the] womb."

While you don't want to give your child attention so that they think tantrums are OK, notes Tasha, nor hold your child so hard that it hurts, "some children, in order to calm down, need just the extra hug." 

Cheryl W. says at the advice of a specialist, she holds her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter firmly on her lap, wraps her legs around hers, and holds her arms so they are hugging her body, and just hugs her until she settles. "The therapy team explained that she just wants to know that I am the one in control of the situation. And honestly, she has quit throwing herself into things in just over a month of using this technique. Her outbursts have also gone from 40 minutes to 10-15 minutes on a bad day, and like 2-5 minutes on a good day. It has been a lifesaver for sure!" 

6. Provide a Punching Bag

To help your child process his emotions and avoid any self-inflicted harm, parents can provide something soft to hit, some Circle of Moms members suggest. For instance, Amanda P. recommends letting your child choose a special pillow specifically for this purpose: "Tell her when she's angry that she can hit this pillow . . .  and that's her only choice!"   

7. Consult a Professional

Malinda S. also suggests parents talk to a pediatrician about the behavior. While head-banging during a tantrum is in some cases normal child development, in other cases there might be another cause for bad behavior, especially if it is an ongoing problem.

In Miranda's case, her son's hitting had an unexpected cause. "After learning that he had food allergies, we took milk and wheat out of his diet. The moment we did this, the temper and head-hitting stopped dead in their tracks," she says. Of course, she notes that this won't impact every child's behavior, but suggests it is an avenue worth exploring.

As Michelle M. concludes, it's always smart to check with your pediatrician if you're worried: "I would check with my doctor just to be on the safe side."

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