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A temper tantrum is an abrupt loss of emotional control, characterized by behavior that ranges from whining and crying to shrieking, kicking and hitting. Some children even hold their breath to the point of fainting. A tantrum is more than just a bad mood-your child may reject anyone who tries to reason with him and could harm himself or others. Tantrums are common in young children, especially when they're between the ages of 1 and 3. There is no link to gender-boys and girls have these blow-ups with equal frequency.

Almost anything can trigger a tantrum, including fatigue, hunger and fear. But frustration is often the key. Your toddler may “pitch a fit” because he can't communicate with you effectively-can't tell you that he's hungry or sleepy or that there are too many people talking in the restaurant. Development plays a role, too: Your child may be upset when he can't walk, draw, or make a toy work exactly the right way.

Your toddler also might have tantrums to test your authority. Between the ages of 2 and 4, children begin to want more independence; at the same time, they know that they need their parents and probably won't prevail in a serious disagreement. That conflict can lead to a tantrum: You tell your toddler to put on his shoes, but he doesn't want to. His anger boils up, yet he can't find the words to express it. All of a sudden, he throws himself to the floor, kicking and screaming. Did you do anything wrong? Probably not-though loosening the ground rules now and than can head off some fits. Try asking (not telling) your child to put on his shoes or quietly putting his shoes on him yourself to keep it from becoming an issue. Whenever you can, give him a choice between two things (“Do you want to wear your red shoes or your brown shoes?”) so he can practice being assertive without disobeying you.

Children between the ages of 1 and 3 are not having temper tantrums to manipulate their parents. Older children often use tantrums to get something they want or to avoid doing something they dislike, but younger children generally have tantrums because they're hungry, tired, or frustrated. Even so, it's important to respond to tantrums correctly and consistently. Rewarding your child for ending a tantrum, for example, teaches him that good things happen when he loses his cool.

How to Respond to a Tantrum

First take steps to prevent your child from hurting himself or anyone else. In addition, try these tips:

If your child's outburst escalates to the point where he's hitting people or pets, throwing objects, or screaming non-stop, your response must be firm. Put him in a safe place, such as his bedroom where he can't harm himself. Tell him why he's there (“Because you hit Aunt Sally”), and let him know he has to stay put until his unruly behavior stops.

The key to preventing tantrums is learning when and why the tantrums happen. Keep a diary and anytime your child has a tantrum, note what led up to it and what helped end it. Did your child lose control after a long day when dinner was later than usual? Does he have tantrums at restaurants, friends' houses and other places where he feels less secure than at home?

In addition do what you can do to eliminate or reduce the demands and activities that frustrate your child. Is that puzzle too difficult? Look for better toys suited to his skill and age. These tips will also help:

Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor if your child's tantrums are so frequent or so severe that the coping methods described here don't help. You should also call the doctor if your child harms himself or others, holds his breath to the point of fainting, or commonly has tantrums after he's passed the age of 3-1/2. Your doctor can make sure there's no serious physical or psychological problem triggering the behavior and may suggest ways to deal with the outbursts.