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Temper Tantrums: Teaching Your Child Coping Skills

Perhaps no single set of skills is more important for your child than coping skills. Coping skills are needed to learn to walk, to play a game, to participate in sports, to get along with siblings, and to do homework. Children with good coping skills have fewer behavioral and social problems.

Normal children throw tantrums. It is one way that they express their anger, disappointment, or frustration. As a parent, you can help your child learn that he CAN handle minor upsets like being told "no" without having to scream, cry, stomp, throw things, or be destructive. How can you help your child learn to cope when things are not going her way? Surprisingly the answer may start by having you do very little. All babies are born with the ability to comfort themselves. Left to his own, your child can handle minor upsets. When you try too hard to help your child stop a tantrum or to rescue them from frustration, your child does not learn how to do so on his own.

How can I encourage coping skills in my child?

  • Start by letting your child deal with daily problems and frustrations on his own.

    Example: If your child's blocks keep falling over, causing your child to fuss or throw the blocks, give him time to try again without your help. If your child cannot get to the next level on her video game and she screams at the game, let her keep playing without your help. If given the chance to figure it out, most children will try again. And, with repeated practice, will see that they are successful at calming themselves down AND figuring out the problem. As they develop these calming skills they begin to feel far less dependent upon you -- they come to know that they can do it.

  • Support and reinforce your child's coping skills.

    Example: As soon as your child is quiet and has gotten over whatever upset her, give her a hug and praise her for handling such a frustrating problem so well. Be sure to keep it as brief and as low-key as possible so that your child can get back to task at hand.

What should I say or do when my child has a tantrum?

Avoid saying anything until your child has calmed himself down. Trying to talk to or reason with a child who is in the middle of a tantrum usually makes things worse. Comments meant to calm your child down like "do you want people to think you are a baby?" or "you are embarrassing me" increase your child's anger AND get in the way of letting your child learn how to calm down on her own.

Children have to learn to calm themselves. Your major role is in deciding when they can have a chance to practice their calming skills. When your child starts screaming or getting mad, quickly evaluate the situation to see if it is a serious problem, such as an injury. If it is a simple problem, such as the blocks falling down, let your child try to handle it on his own.

Once you see that your child can quiet himself, it will be easier for you to stay out of the situation. Remember that a child's energy for a long tantrum almost always comes from the adult who is trying to help stop it. Without that extra attention your child's tantrum will wind down.

Some children may continue to have tantrums in spite of your best efforts to teach self-calming skills. If your child's tantrums seem full of rage, involve hurting others, or are only one of many behavior problems, contact your health care provider during office hours for further help.

When should I call my child's health care provider?

Call your provider if:

  • Your child has hurt himself or others during tantrums.
  • The tantrums occur 5 or more times per day.
  • The tantrums also occur in school.
  • Your child has several other behavior problems.
  • One of the parents has tantrums or screaming bouts and can't give them up.
  • This approach does not bring improvement within 2 weeks.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Adapted from Edward R. Christophersen and Susan L. Mortweet, Parenting that Works: Building skills that last a lifetime. Washington, DC: APA Books, 2003.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-10-10
Last reviewed: 2006-07-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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