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Friday, July 24, 2009

Temper, Temper

For the first year of writing my column I had my own idea of what information I needed to pass along, and what topics needed to be addressed. But after talking to family, friends, and readers I will likely never meet, I came to realize I am much more effective when I write about the challenges my readers have on their minds. So, I began asking readers, former classmates and social networking site friends, what topics they needed me to research and address. Such is the case this week.

One of my high school classmates posed the question, “Do temper tantrums change over the years from the ages of two to fifty?” While her question is somewhat tongue in cheek, the answer is a bit more complicated. When children are small, approximately from one until three years of age, they, like the rest of us, wish to control their world. Unfortunately, they are largely unable to do so.

In addition to constantly being inundated by a great deal of visual and auditory stimulus, and a limited ability to process the stimuli, they are less able to express frustration. So the first suggestion from the experts is to try to avoid situations of lots of stimulus when kids are tired, hungry, etc. Try to give kids positive choices over little things and consider the child’s requests and accommodate when you can. Last, make sure you are providing LOTS of attention for positive behavior.

For adults, tantrums are a seemingly more common occurrence, and likely for some of the same reasons children have them. When adults are stressed beyond their capacity to process their stressors they can melt down into a tantrum. Almost all of us have seen the person at the airline ticket counter who, when facing the prospect of missing a flight or being delayed, goes into meltdown. In a world moving ever faster, and more visual and auditory stimulus competing for our processing capacity, it is little wonder that those with limited self-control and maturity will succumb.

The commonality between children and adults doesn’t end at the causes for a tantrum. Adults prone to tantrums should self-monitor to avoid becoming over tired or allowing blood sugar levels to drop too low. Key to dealing with anyone in the throes of a tantrum is to stay calm and avoid feeding into the tantrum. This is especially true with an adult, as they can become dangerous if they become physically violent.

With both adults and children, make sure you do not give to their tantrums. If a child throws a fit when asking for a toy or a treat, let them know that while you might have allowed it, you will not give the item this time, but maybe next time if they can behave. With an adult, if you see the tantrum coming, you can leave the room. If there isn’t an audience, they have no one to feed on. Another tactic for both is to try to distract them by getting them away from the stimulus causing the outburst; this can be especially effective in children because of their shorter attention spans.

Last, when the tantrum is over, speak to the tantrum thrower in a loving and age appropriate manner. Explain it hurts you to see them in such a state and you hope they will allow you to help them. For a child, keep in mind tantrums are usually short lived in the grand scheme of things, and for an adult, reminding them that such outbursts can drive away the people who care the most can sometimes cause them to rethink their actions. In both cases, don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you believe it’s needed.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

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