Stomping feet, clenching fists and flushed cheeks, these symptoms are well known to any parent. Temper tantrums are as common among teens as they are with headstrong toddlers. In both age groups, the origin of the tantrum is the same.
“The child is struggling to establish some measure of independence, to an age-appropriate extent,” said Dr. Jason Andrus, a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.
According to Andrus, there is more to these temper tantrums than stubbornness. Children will test boundaries as part of their development. “It is healthy for children to seek mastery over their environment and develop their sense of competence and autonomy,” said Andrus. But, it is important for parents to remain supportive instead of resorting to negative ‘I told you so” messages. “Sometimes the toughest thing for a parent is not intervening,” said Andrus.
And remember, your toddler is smarter than you think: tantrums will only persist if they pay off by getting what he or she wants. That is also why giving in during or right after a tantrum only enforces the behavior.
Aside from giving in, parents encourage their children’s outbursts in other ways. Toddlers and teenagers model their behavior after their environment. It is unsurprising that children may become violent after they witness domestic abuse. Although that is an extreme example, the average parent should also consider how their own behavior is perceived. Do disagreements between spouses lead to arguing and shouting? Are voices raised, doors slammed, or items thrown on the floor? Kids will believe that these are ways to express frustration, and just take the volume up a notch to make sure they are heard in the commotion.
When anger is the source of a tantrum, parents can help their teen or toddler recognize the initial stages and try to resolve the conflict before the first door is slammed. “We encourage parents to develop a plan in conjunction with their child to manage anger in all its phases,” said Andrus. When parents recognize the signs of an outburst, they can help their children communicate their true feelings and channel their frustration in a more reasonable and productive manner. “Overwhelming anger turns off the thinking and problem-solving parts of the brain,” said Andrus, “the more powerful the rage, the less an individual is fully in control.”
Bottom line, each child will have different needs at the different phases of anger. “For example, some teens really do need to take some space for themselves and be left alone to cool off,” said Andrus. Other children may need a parent to problem-solve with them when they cannot think clearly. Most importantly, the child needs to know the parent is there for them if they need help.