Temper tantrums in toddlers and children are developmentally normal.
These screaming, kicking, crying fits are typical development and allow our children to communicate their unhappiness and frustration about an event or response, typically when they do not get their way or something they want.
Most toddler temper tantrums last for a few to 15 minutes, and for most children, they will recover and move on with their day. In this post, we will help parents understand temper tantrums and when to worry.
Why Do Kids Have Tantrums?
Temper tantrums range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting, and breath-holding. They’re equally common in boys and girls and usually happen between the ages of 1 to 3.
Some kids may have tantrums often, and others have them rarely. Tantrums are a normal part of child development. They’re how young children show that they’re upset or frustrated.
Tantrums may happen when kids are tired, hungry, or uncomfortable.
They can have a meltdown because they can’t get something (like a toy or a parent) to do what they want. Learning to deal with frustration is a skill that children gain over time.
Tantrums are expected during the second year of life when language skills are starting to develop.
Because toddlers can’t yet say what they want, feel, or need, a frustrating experience may cause a tantrum. As language skills improve, tempers tend to decrease.
Toddlers want independence and control over their environment — more than they can handle.
This can lead to power struggles as a child thinks, “I can do it myself” or “I want it, give it to me.”
When kids discover that they can’t do it and can’t have everything they want, they may get tantrums.
Tantrums happen because children’s social and emotional skills are still developing. Children often don’t have the words to express big emotions.
They might be testing out their growing independence. And they’re discovering that they can influence the way other people behave. This means tantrums are very common and normal.
But if your child’s tantrums are severe and make it hard for your family to enjoy life, or if the tantrums are very distressing for you or your child, the approach described in this article might help you.
It’s worth thinking about this approach if you’re worried that you might get angry and hurt your child when he tantrums.
It’s also an excellent idea to talk with a child health professional if you’re finding your child’s tantrums challenging to manage.
Professionals can give you advice about your child’s behaviour and help you put this approach or other strategies into action. You could start by talking to your GP.
The approach described in this article involves looking at:
- what happens before the tantrums – the triggers
- what happens after the tantrums – the consequences, including any ‘rewards’ your child gets from behaving this way
- what you can change – the motivations, rewards or the way you respond.
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What Happens Before Tantrums: Triggers
The first step in this approach is to think about what causes your child’s tantrums.
This involves identifying the situations that make tantrums more likely to happen – for example, tiredness, shopping, mealtimes or rushing.
You also need to identify the triggers for your child’s tantrums. Common triggers include:
- being told ‘no’.
- being asked to do something
- getting frustrated
- feeling overwhelmed by too much noise, too many people and so on.
Beware of thinking that your child is having a tantrum to annoy you. Children don’t have tantrums deliberately.
They’re stuck in a bad habit or don’t have the skills right now to cope with the situation.
What Do I Do When My Child Has a Temper Tantrum?
When dealing with a toddler temper tantrum, the best thing to do is to stay calm and actively ignore the behaviour.
This means turning your eye gaze away from the child, engaging in a different behaviour, and not speaking or interacting with the child.
This can be incredibly difficult, but our attention to our children is the most vital tool we have for behaviour management.
We want to use our attention to reinforce positive behaviours and remove our attention from harmful behaviours, such as temper tantrums.
As soon as the child stops tantrums, we want to give specific praise for controlling the behaviour by saying something like, “Thank you so much for sitting quietly.”
And then, a parent can either redirect the situation or, if the child is developmentally able, discuss what the antecedent was that initiated the event.
Labelling an emotion afterwards and expressing understanding of the child’s anger or frustration can also be helpful, such as saying, “I can tell you are frustrated and angry right now.” We can also move to other ways to manage the frustration as a child gets older.
If temper tantrums start to get aggressive, either to the child, someone else or property, we have to intervene.
This may mean moving to a timeout or discussing with your doctor or psychologist other behaviour management options.
Giving in to their tantrum by talking to them or giving attention to the temper before it ends can make things worse.
If you give them attention mid-tantrum, we have only taught them how loud they have to scream and how much they have to kick and flail to get your attention, which means future tantrums are likely to go this far or even further!
If you start actively ignoring, you have to skip to the end of the behaviour.
What Happens After Tantrums: Consequences or ‘rewards’.
What happens after a tantrum can make tantrums more or less likely in the future. So it’s essential to identify the consequences of the temper.
Can you see ways tantrums are being accidentally awarded by what you do when or after they happen?
For example, if your child has a tantrum because you say no to buying him a lolly, you accept the lolly, which rewards the tantrum.
Shouting or pleading with your child when he tantrums can also be a reward because it gives your child attention.
Children are more likely to repeat behaviour that earns praise. This means you can use credit to change behaviour. When your child behaves the way you like, immediately get your child’s attention and tell her exactly what you wanted – for example, ‘It’s incredible how you used words to ask for that toy.
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What You Can Change: Tantrum Triggers
One way to make tantrums less likely is to avoid your child’s tantrum triggers.
If particular situations are triggers, you might be able to avoid these situations or make them less stressful. For example, if your child often has a tantrum when you go shopping, you could try:
- shopping when someone else is caring for your child
- shopping when you know your child won’t be tired or hungry.
If being told no is a trigger, you could try the following:
- Put attractive but fragile items out of reach, or have older children put their favourite toys out of reach.
- Say ‘yes’ whenever it’s reasonable.
- Offer choices – for example, ‘You can’t have a lolly. Do you want a banana or some grapes?’
- Distract your child with another activity.
If being asked or told to do something is a trigger, you could try the following:
- Give fewer instructions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling children what to do all the time.
- Check that your instructions are reasonable. Tantrums are more likely if your child can’t do what he’s being asked to do.
- Let your child know in advance when you have to do something, or she has to make a transition from one activity to another.
- Offer choices where possible.
If frustration is the trigger, you could try the following:
- Provide help before the tantrum.
- Put frustrating toys or activities out of reach.
- Please spend some time teaching your child how to use or do the thing he finds frustrating.
- Please encourage your child to ask for help when she needs it.
- Help your child use words to express frustration – for example, ‘I can see you’re having trouble solving that puzzle, and you’re feeling cross. Do you need help?’
If feeling overwhelmed is the trigger, you could try the following:
- Tell your child in advance about where you’re going and what’s likely to happen.
- Please talk with your child about how he can let you know that he’s starting to feel overwhelmed.
- Give your child a break from the overwhelming situation if possible – for example, by finding a quiet, private spot where she can look at a favourite book.
- Be realistic about what you expect of your child. For example, an hour-long playdate might be enough for two preschoolers.
What Do I Do When Dealing With a Temper Tantrum in Public?
Staying calm is very important during this time, as this can be embarrassing. I know – it just happened to me at the airport!
Get your child to a safe place where they can’t hurt themselves, and you can keep an eye on them. If you can, let them have the tantrum, keep an eye on them, and actively ignore the best you can.
Try to manage the glances and stares from others the best you can, reminding yourself that you are doing the right thing until the behaviour has ended.
Then, you have to muster all of your energy and give specific praise!
What Can I Do to Prevent Temper Tantrums?
A temper tantrum is a response to something that happened in the environment. If there is a consistent trigger that upsets a child, then this “antecedent” is something to take note of and address as you are able.
If temper tantrums occur with a change in routine or when a child is finishing the play, it is essential to give a five-minute transitional warning.
This may help prepare them for the change and avoid a tantrum.
As part of active ignoring, it is also essential to provide regular, specific and labelled praise to a child.
Ensure they are getting two to three labelled praises for every corrective or negative statement made.
Providing options whenever possible, between two shirts or two food options, etc., can also be helpful.
Try to prevent tantrums from happening in the first place, whenever possible. Here are some ideas that may help:
- Give plenty of positive attention. Get in the habit of catching your child being good. Reward your little one with praise and attention for positive behaviour.
- Try to give toddlers some control over little things. Offer little choices such as “Do you want orange juice or apple juice?” or “Do you want to brush your teeth before or after taking a bath?” This way, you aren’t asking, “Do you want to brush your teeth now?” — which inevitably will be answered “no.”
- Keep off-limits objects out of sight and out of reach. This makes struggles less likely. This isn’t always possible, especially outside of the home, where the environment can’t be controlled.
- Distract your child. Please take advantage of your little one’s short attention span by offering something else in place of what they can’t have. Start a new activity to replace the frustrating or forbidden one. Or change the environment. Take your toddler outside or inside, or move to a different room.
- Help kids learn new skills and succeed. Help kids learn to do things. Praise them for helping them feel proud of what they can do. Also, start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
- Consider the request carefully when your child wants something. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn’t. Choose your battles.
- Know your child’s limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it’s not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand.
What Should I Do During a Tantrum?
Keep your cool when responding to a tantrum. Don’t complicate the problem with your frustration or anger.
Remind yourself that your job is helping your child learn to calm down. So it would help if you were calm too.
Tantrums should be handled differently depending on why your child is upset. Sometimes, you may need to provide comfort.
If your child is tired or hungry, it’s time for a nap or a snack. Other times, it’s best to ignore an outburst or distract your child with a new activity.
If a tantrum is happening to get attention from parents, one of the best ways to reduce this behaviour is to ignore it.
If a tantrum happens after your child is refused something, stay calm and don’t give many explanations for why your child can’t have what he wants. Move on to another activity with your child.
If a tantrum happens after your child is told to do something she does not want to do, it’s best to ignore the tantrum.
But be sure that you follow through on having your child complete the task after she is calm.
Kids who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet, safe place to calm down. This also applies to tantrums in public places.
If a safety issue is involved and a toddler repeats the criminal behaviour after being told to stop, use a timeout or hold the child firmly for several minutes. Be consistent. Don’t give in on safety issues.
Preschoolers and older kids are more likely to use tantrums to get their way if they’ve learned that this behaviour works.
For school-age kids, it’s appropriate to send them to their rooms to cool off while paying little attention to the behaviour.
Rather than setting a specific time limit, tell your child to stay in the room until they regain control.
This is empowering — kids can affect the outcome by their actions and thus gain a sense of control that was lost during the tantrum.
But if the timeout is for a tantrum plus negative behaviour (such as hitting), set a time limit.
Do not reward your child’s tantrum by giving in. This will only prove to your little one that the temper was practical.
When Should I Worry About Temper Tantrums and Get Additional Help?
Suppose temper tantrums are more severe, lasting more extended periods, occurring multiple times per day and occurring in a child older than five regularly. In that case, it may be time to talk to your pediatrician or get a psychologist involved to help support the family.
In addition, if your child is injuring himself or others, destroying property, holding their breath, or having headaches, stomachaches or anxiety, definitely reach out to your pediatrician.
Parenting is no easy task, and if you are becoming concerned about your stress level, feeling frustrated, or uncertain about handling the tantrums, it is time to reach out.
Talk to your doctor if:
- You often feel angry or out of control when you respond to tantrums.
- You keep giving in.
- The tantrums cause a lot of bad feelings between you and your child.
- You have questions about what you’re doing or what your child is doing.
- The tantrums become more frequent, intense, or last longer.
- Your child often hurts themself or others.
- Your child seems very disagreeable, argues a lot, and hardly ever cooperates.
Your doctor also can check for any health problems that may add to the tantrums, although this is not common. Sometimes, hearing or vision problems, a chronic illness, language delays, or a learning disability can make kids more likely to have tantrums.
Remember, tantrums usually don’t cause concern and generally stop on their own. As kids mature, they gain self-control.
They learn to cooperate, communicate, and cope with frustration. Less frustration and more control will mean fewer tantrums — and happier parents.
What You Can Change: Your Responses to Tantrums
Children learn by watching what they do. What might you be able to do differently?
You might be able to use tantrums as opportunities to help your child understand her emotions and develop self-regulation. It’s best to do this when your child is calm. F
Or example, ‘You were angry when Trevyn took your ball this morning. Would it have been better to ask for a grown-up’s help instead of biting her?’ This can reduce the intensity and frequency of tantrums.
You could also try getting in early to prevent situations from escalating. For example, ‘Taylor, you’re hitting the keyboard hard. How are you feeling about that game right now?’
You can also model ways to regulate feelings, thoughts and behaviour in everyday situations. For example, ‘I’m getting frustrated trying to open this jar. I wonder if I have something in the drawer that can help open it’.
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