How to Tame Toddler Tantrums

"Skittles!" was the last word Suzanne Harris recalled hearing before she found herself, along with 12 other unsuspecting patrons at a local video store, staring in horror at her daughter. Perched on the lower shelf of the snack display and screaming in a pitch that could shatter glass, 4-year-old Avery was launching candy bars across the store, marginally avoiding an innocent elderly man's forehead with a loaded Snickers bar. "Apparently, 'no' wasn't the word she expected to hear," says Harris. "I was so mortified, all I could do was place my videos on the counter, collect Avery and run for the door."

Many of us recall falling witness to these episodes before having children of our own, silently declaring, "My child will never behave like that in public!" Eventually, we entered the land of Never-Say-Never ourselves, and in due course most of us found that, despite the most delightful of demeanors, nearly all of these little creatures are capable of outbursts that can leave strangers speechless and parents fleeing for the nearest exit.

And of course, Murphy's Law governs that the worst of your child's tantrums will take place in the company of your mother-in-law, who insists he's under-disciplined, in a crowded restaurant, or in a playgroup where everyone else's children seem to be wearing angel's wings.

What exactly is behind the infamous temper tantrum? Is it an insatiable need to triumph in a parent-child power struggle, or does it represent an inability to communicate feelings and lack of understanding of the rules?

Lesia Oesterreich, M.S., Family Life Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University says, "Toddlers throw tantrums for many reasons - some big, some small. A square block won't fit in a round hole. Shoes feel funny, and socks don't seem to come off right. And to make matters worse, you won't let them climb on top of the kitchen table." In short, she offers, "Toddlers have tantrums because they get frustrated very easily."

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