The theory of management of temper tantrums in young children is straightforward and, when put into practice, always works; it is putting it into practice that is difficult. The principles of management are no different from the management of most other developmental problem behaviours in childhood — reinforce wanted behaviours and ignore unwanted behaviours.
However, most parents, for reasons that are perfectly natural and understandable, have difficulty in applying these principles in a consistent way. The reasons for this are many. Often there is disagreement between the parents as to the best way to manage problematic behaviours. It is usually the father who takes a softer line, generally because he does not perceive the problem to be as severe as the mother. In most families it is the mother who is the primary care-giver, so that the father tends to assume less responsibility for day to day care. He sees that the child seems better behaved for him, having fewer tantrums. When the mother suggests a behaviour modification plan, often the father thinks that she is overreacting. It is vitally important that a management plan for children with frequent temper tantrums, or any other behaviour problems for that matter, be agreed on (and adhered to) by both parents, otherwise it is bound to fail.
Temper tantrums are best ignored. As soon as the child begins to have a tantrum, you should immediately leave the room, or turn your back. It is important that the child be paid no attention whatsoever. That is more easily said than done, of course, yet that is the mainstay of successful management. The details of behaviour modification, which is used in the management of most behaviour problems in childhood, are described elsewhere.
The frequency and duration of temper tantrums are inversely related to how much attention the parents give to the child during the tantrums. If you can accept that they are a normal part of the child’s functioning at a particular developmental phase, and not turn them into a power struggle (which, by the way, the child will always win, one way or the other) then they will simply disappear over time. Unfortunately, many parents, despite their best intentions, get drawn in, virtually guaranteeing that tantrums and often other associated problem behaviours will continue and intensify.