For months Kate and her family have been looking forward to taking a vacation -- and this year they've traveled south to Disney World in Florida. Kate's parents have promised that she can spend the entire day at Epcot Center. Kate's excited, because she loves dinosaurs, and she's heard that there's a terrific prehistoric exhibit with dinosaurs that really move.
The night before the visit, Kate's so excited that she has a hard time falling asleep. But she finally does, and the day of her visit to Epcot arrives. She and her family ride the monorail and have a great time.
But by late afternoon, Kate's no longer having such a good time. She and her family have been out in the sun all day, and they're sweaty and tired. Inside, Kate is wishing that they could go home and take a swim and relax. But when her mother asks if she's ready to go back to the hotel, something happens. Suddenly Kate starts feeling really mad. She starts yelling at her family. She stamps her foot and gets red in the face. She plops herself down on a bench, throws her souvenirs on the ground and refuses to take another step. "I hate this place," Kate says. Then she starts crying.
"Wait a minute -- I thought you wanted to go to Epcot," Kate's mother says. "You've been talking about it for months."
What happened here? Can you imagine yourself in a situation like Kate's?
You probably can. Kate lost her temper -- as people sometimes do. You've probably lost yours, too. When you think back on it, you may feel a little embarrassed about losing your temper. It may help to remember that all of us have the experience.
When you were little, you probably lost your temper more often than you do now. Worn-out parents sometimes call this age group the "terrible twos."
Two-year-olds aren't really terrible, of course. They're in the middle of learning how to do things, and how to get along with other people. Learning to walk can be frustrating. So can learning how to get your older brother to pay attention to you. Two-year-olds aren't very good at sitting down and having a quiet discussion about how to solve problems. Instead, they may lie down on the floor and scream as they try to get their own way. As they get older, they learn better ways to communicate.
When Kate got mad that afternoon at Epcot, she was feeling a little bit like a 2-year-old. She had spent the day looking at new things. She had walked much farther than she usually walks in a day. Although she was doing something she had been looking forward to for a long time, she was getting hungry and tired. She was also feeling a little sad that her day at Epcot was almost over. All of those feelings got kind of overwhelming -- but Kate wasn't too sure how to express them. When Kate's mother asked if she was ready to go home, her tiredness, hunger and confusion suddenly burst out.
When Kate lost her temper, her parents were a little surprised. Her mother tried giving her a hug -- but Kate pulled away. Kate's father got a little mad at her -- which just made her feel worse. Her sister tried to joke her out of her bad temper -- which made Kate feel even more furious. Then Kate's brother came up with a good idea. "Let's look at the dinosaurs again," he said. "Then let's go home. I'm tired." Kate stopped crying, and they went off for a quick look. By the time the family got back to the hotel, they all felt good again.
People in families develop different ways to cope with their feelings. Some parents might know that their kids get tired and cranky after a long day in the sun. They might set a limit to the day by deciding in advance what time the outing would end. Then Kate would have known that her Epcot visit would be over at 3 o'clock -- and she might not have kept going until she was so tired that her feelings overwhelmed her. Of course, there's no guarantee that leaving at 3 would solve the problem. But it might help. Other kinds of solutions might help, too.
Kate didn't really hate Epcot. She loved it and had a wonderful time. After her vacation, she told her friends about it -- although she left out her temper tantrum. Actually, Kate hardly remembered it. Although she lost her temper, it didn't ruin her day. Tips for Parents
All parents work out ways to cope with their kids' temperamental outbursts -- but the parents of highly temperamental kids may need some help. In "The Difficult Child" by Stanley Turecki, MD, and Leslie Tonner (Bantam; $15.95), a child psychiatrist outlines ways to recognize and cope with hard-to-raise children. Turecki differentiates between the manipulative tantrum or outburst and the temperamental one. The former involves conscious manipulation of the parent; the second occurs, Turecki says, "when the child's temperament has been violated." Such an outburst might happen when a child who doesn't cope well with rapid transition from one activity to another gets in a situation in which he or she must do so -- as Kate did.
How can you tell the difference? One good marker is to examine your own feelings. You'll probably feel sorrier for the child having a temperamental tantrum, saying, "She can't help it," instead of "She's trying to get her way."
Unlike manipulative tantrums, temperamental ones shouldn't be ignored, Turecki says. When one occurs, "You need to be much more with your child. Be physically present, and reassuring," he says. "Let the child know that she's not bad."
Catherine O'Neill is an editor of National Geographic World, a magazine for children 8 and up.