A temper tantrum typically involves a violent outburst of anger, with uncontrolled kicking or hitting, screaming, and breaking or throwing of objects.
Albert Trieschman (1969) described six stages in a temper tantrum, each requiring a different handling strategy:
- Rumbling and grumbling–children are looking for a reason to have the tantrum they have already decided to have. At this point you have a chance to head off tantrums by helping children verbalize what is bothering them.
- Help-help–children realize they are losing control of their behavior, and signal their need for help, usually by out-rightly breaking a rule. You can help children regain control of their behavior at this stage by teaching them how to ask for help. If their tantrum continues, you may have to physically hold them.
- Either-or–children may try to prove that they are still in control by setting out either-or alternatives. They also may put up more resistance towards you by shouting or calling you names. At this stage tantrums have gone beyond the point of no return, and your role here as well as in the next stage becomes one of modeling appropriate ways for children to express their anger.
- No-no–children respond negatively towards you regardless of what you say. At the end of this stage tantrums normally die down.
- Leave-me-alone–usually by the time children can talk to you and explain what happened you can release your hold. They still, however, are not ready to resume regular activities. Although they seem more agreeable and cooled down; they typically need some time alone before interacting with other people again. At this point you can offer support to the child, if he wants it.
- Hangover–children may act as if nothing happened or feel guilty and embarrassed over their behavior. Your role here is to help children learn better ways of managing their anger. The child who feels guilty is more likely to cooperate in trying out alternative coping strategies.
With younger children, around the ages of two to four, tantrums are a natural stage in their evolving independence and ability to say “no.” As they get older most children learn how to express their thoughts in more acceptable ways, because they realize that tantrums won’t give them what they want. Some children, however, do get what they want when they tantrum, and for this reason continue tantrumming. Children also tantrum because they need a way of letting out their bottled-up feelings, or they see their parents doing it and think it’s okay.
- Only set rules in your classroom which are necessary. Too many controls frustrate children and may induce temper outbursts.
- Encourage children to express their anger appropriately toward peers and adults, instead of hiding their feelings. This may involve (a) helping children identify situations which make them mad; (b) describing how their body feels when they are mad; (c) prompting children when they look upset, but cannot say why they are mad, or do not know why they are mad; and (d) helping children let out their feelings as they come up–a series of minor outbursts are better than one major eruption.
- Designate one spot in your classroom for cooling off, where children can go when they feel themselves losing control of their temper. A time-out room is ideal because it gives children more privacy to release their anger the way they want to.
- Incorporate physical activities in your daily curriculum. Letting children run around, work with their hands, or do exercises can help them drain their frustrations and take a more rational view of their problems.
- When you notice a child in the rumbling and grumbling stage, give him a way out by sitting beside him, talking about what he’s doing, and discussing other ways he can express his anger.
- Propose hypothetical situations which typically trigger the child’s temper, and ask him to role-play controlled, cooperative responses.
- If you see a child silently getting heated up, try speaking on his behalf. Verbalize why he is mad and how he feels the wrong can be rectified (Maurer, 1985). For example, if Brenton is mad at Victor for stepping on his picture, you can say, “Victor, you just left your footprint on my picture, and I feel like tearing your picture in half. I know you did it accidentally, but I want you to say you’re sorry.” This models for students an appropriate way of expressing their feelings.
- If a student is shouting, start out talking to him in your normal tone of voice, but gradually lower it as you’re speaking. The student should respond by also lowering his voice (Maurer, 1985).
- An effective way of squelching a child’s staged temper tantrum is by ignoring it or leaving the room. Do not try this, however, with a child who is having an uncontrolled fit of anger. In this case you must stay close by to prevent him from destroying an object, or hurting someone, including himself.
- When a child poses a serious threat you may need physically to restrain him. Your hold provides him with the assurance that you know he cannot control his behavior, and are willing to control it for him. Some techniques for restraining a child are (a) holding him from the back, so it is harder for him to kick and bite you; (b) sitting down and holding the child in your lap, pressing down his arms across his chest; (c) as the child begins to regain control you can respond by easing your hold; (d) assure him in a calm voice that as soon as he gets control of himself, you will let him go; (e) avoid talking immediately about what instigated the tantrum, and do not threaten to punish him. Later you can discuss the incident with the child, and suggest ways he could have avoided it.
- Urge the child to carry on with his tantrum. This places him in the predicament of doing what you ask him to, which is unlikely what he wants.