Temper Tantrums and Whining

Temper Tantrums and Whining

It is a safe prediction that most children will have a tantrum sometime after their first birthday.  A tantrum is a fit of ill temper (screaming, kicking or bucking) by a child in response to a frustrating situation or displeasing decision.  How you, as a parent, handle this behavior will largely determine whether your child will continue to throw tantrums to get his or her way.

When a tantrum begins, ask the following questions about the setting or situation:

  • Is my child sleepy?
    • A sleepy toddler is often an ill-tempered child who shows poor self-control.  Train your child to be a healthy sleeper.  From ages 1 to 3, children need about 10 to 13 hours of sleep a day. Toddlers typically need 2 naps a day until 14-18 months of age, and then one nap a day.  Bedtime should ideally be 7-7:30 PM, assuming a wake-up time of about 6AM.  Toddlers sleep more deeply if they are not dependent upon a parent to fall asleep.  So, put your child down to sleep while he is still awake, at designated times, and in a crib.  When trained to fall asleep on their own, toddlers will more consistently sleep through the night and wake well-rested.  If you are having trouble getting your child to sleep, focus your efforts here first.  A well-rested child is less likely to have tantrums.
  •  Is my child hungry?
    • Hunger can also cause a toddler to be ill-tempered.  Train your child to be a healthy eater.  Plan to eat at designated mealtimes and offer healthy snacks in between (mid-morning and mid-afternoon).  Serve a variety of foods and avoid short-order cooking.  Be a good example to your child by eating your veggies.

Next, determine the type of tantrum your child is displaying.

  • Is this tantrum due to frustration with a difficult task, or protest over a decision you have made?
    • If frustration: Help your child with the task, encouraging him to stay calm and self controlled.  Example: A toddler trying to open a box, or reach a toy.
    • If protest: Ignore the act and look or walk away. Don’t reverse your decision.  Think about it:  Why is your child having the tantrum?  Answer: To rebel against your decision, and persuade you to change your mind.  It follows then, that the continuation of this behavior requires an audience and occasional success in getting you to change your decision.  Even if you change your decision only one in ten times, it will be worth nine tries to your child.  The cure: Ignore the tantrum and don’t give in.

Further Guidance on Dealing with a Protest Temper Tantrum

A protest temper tantrum usually begins when your mostly nonverbal toddler is denied a request or refused a desire.  A simple and brief expression of disappointment from your child over your dissatisfying decision is acceptable.  However, when this escalates to screaming and thrashing about in protest (a tantrum), it is no longer appropriate.

Keep in mind, your goal is to teach your child self control in all situations, even in disappointing ones.  When the expression turns into a tantrum, tell your child (in a short firm statement) that the behavior is inappropriate.  If it continues: Ignore the behavior by looking away or walking away.  Don’t be an audience to the behavior; this is what she wants.  Also, don’t change your decision (this will only cause her to try this again).

This same approach can be used for fits of head banging.  Some children will slap their head or knock it against the wall or the floor in protest of your decision.  Surprisingly, the more you intervene to stop this behavior, the more you encourage your child to repeat it.  The discomfort of the act and the loss of your attention to it will eventually cause her to stop.  Persistent head-banging should be brought to the attention of your pediatrician.

If the ignored tantrum goes on longer than 1-2 minutes, try the following:

  1. Inform your child that you are not going to change your mind and that he must stop “screaming.”  It is important to give the tantrum behavior a name, such as screaming, yelling, or a tantrum.
  2. If it continues for another 1-2 minutes, take him to his room and place him on the floor.  Tell him that he may not come out until he has stopped “screaming.”  Walk away.
  3. If he comes out screaming, take him back and give repeat the instruction.  If he comes out a second time, put him back in his room and close the door for about 2 minutes.  Now, open the door.  If he is quiet or sobbing in remorse, pick him up and go back to the original setting, reminding him that you are not going to change your mind about the matter.  If he is protesting even louder, close the door again for 2-3 minutes.  Repeat this process until he is remorseful.
  4. If, while in the room, your child’s tantrum becomes even louder or he displays aggressive behavior, like hitting the door or throwing things within the room, a spanking may be necessary to gain his attention and diffuse the situation.

What to do when Your Child Whines

Like tantrums, whining (that high pitched complaining voice) is another immature attempt by a child to convince a parent to change a decision or to at least give more attention to a matter that should be closed.  A child’s whining is most effective when used in a setting that would delay or embarrass the parent, such as when in a hurry or in a public place.  Also like tantrums, the cure is not to reward the action, but to ignore the request until the child can speak in a proper tone.  Say, “I don’t hear you when you whine.  Let’s try that again.”  If the whining persists, the child should be excused to another room.

Anticipation is the Best Prevention

Anticipate situations where tantrums or whining are likely to occur and plan ahead.  Before entering these situations, inform your child (get down on his level and speak eye-to-eye) of your expectations of proper behavior and of the consequences for misbehavior. Remind him of the consequences that occurred last time he misbehaved, and how proud you were when he behaved properly at other times.  Tantrums and whining are most effective for the child when you are in a rush.  Don’t fall into the trap of giving in for your temporary convenience.

Examples of putting this strategy to work:

Grocery store: Before entering the store, remind your child that he is to stay in the shopping cart, that he is not to beg you to buy various foods/candy, and that if he whines or tantrums, he will be disciplined.

Telephone call: Before you make that lengthy phone call, forewarn your child that she is not to interrupt you (unless it is an emergency).  If she has a true need, she can quietly come to your side and wait for an opportunity to make her request.  If she disobeys, she will be disciplined.

Visiting friend: Before an invited friend arrives, review the ground rules with your child.  “First and best for our guests,” may be a good start.  Tell your child that you expect her to share generously.  Remind her that if there is whining, the play time will be shortened and further discipline applied, if necessary.

Self Control

Self control is a basic and essential character quality that should be pursued for every child at an early age.  It is fundamental to acquiring other character qualities such as obedience, respect for authority, honesty, and patience.  Teaching a child self control requires that a parent model a steady temperament, praise good behavior, and calmly correct misbehavior.  For children with milder temperaments, success can occur earlier and with less effort by the parent.  For the more defiant child, more time, energy and creativity will be required to produce proper behavior and correct rebellious behavior.  Successfully managing temper tantrums and whining is a great start toward teaching your child self control.