Children have tantrums when they are unable to control, manage or communicate their emotions. The toddler years are sometimes described as the “terrible twos” because this is the age at which children’s tantrums tend to peak.
Children with speech delay, communication difficulties or other developmental delays may also have more tantrums because they have increased difficulty communicating their feelings and needs.
Although tantrums are considered a common part of childhood, it can be useful to identify the factors that may reduce your child’s ability to cope with their everyday activities. Once you are aware of the factors that can trigger potential tantrums you can take steps to avoid them when possible.
Possible triggers are:
None of us are at our best when we are not feeling good. If your child is already feeling physically uncomfortable it might not take much to send them “over the edge”. Some parents find it easier to plan outings in the mornings when children are less tired. If you are on the go through your child’s usual nap times you might also consider bringing one of your child’s favourite comfort items with you. This may help your child to feel more relaxed, even if they cannot sleep.
To avoid hunger pangs at inconvenient moments bring snacks and drinks with you. Providing snacks can also help to reduce some of those requests to buy treats while you are out.
A frustration tantrum is usually easy to identify. For example, this might be when your child has trouble getting something to work or is not allowed to do something. Sometimes you can lessen your child’s sense of frustration by distracting them with another activity or reframing their situation. For example “Would you like to play with this toy instead?” or “That brick tower made such a great noise when it fell down.” Children who are given the freedom to make decisions when it is appropriate for them to do so may also feel less frustrated. For example, you could ask them “Do you want to wear your blue or red sunhat?”
Is there too much excitement or activity going on? Sometimes children have had too much stimulation and they need some quiet time to process all their activities. Many children also cope better with transitions in their day when they know what to expect. Sometimes this can be as simple as preparing children in advance by giving them a warning that things are about to change, for example, “In five minutes we are going home.” If possible, factoring in extra time for completing activities at a slower pace may also help lessen the potential for your child to be overwhelmed.
Children can also throw tantrums if they are bored or want to attract your attention. There are of course times when you can’t give your undivided attention to your child. Sometimes a little attention, while you are on the go, can go a long way to alleviate a potential tantrum trigger. Making a funny face, a quick hug or a few special words may be enough to help give your child enough of an emotional boost to go the distance with you. Of course, it’s always useful to provide alternative distractions such as bringing a special toy or portable activity with you. Sometimes it might be enough of a distraction to give your child a special job to do, such as finding the cornflakes in the supermarket aisle.
Unfortunately, there is no magic emergency button to press that will definitely stop a tantrum every time. So here are some tips to help you respond when your child does lose control.
It’s definitely easier said than done when you feel you have a crowd of witnesses, but the best thing you can do when your child is having a public tantrum is to keep calm (or pretend you are calm).
You are not able to reason with a child when they are in the middle of an emotional outburst, as they are not able to think rationally. So often being calm involves not reacting to your child’s behaviour and speaking to them in a low, calm voice.
If you appear in control, others will assume you have the situation in hand. This means you will attract less attention from onlookers. Children learn behaviours by watching others. So by using a calm but firm voice you are also helping to teach your child to manage their own emotions.
When your child has a tantrum in public your first priority is to ensure everyone’s safety. Sometimes you might need to carry your child somewhere that it is safe for them to be until they can be calm again. You might also need to remove objects if your child is hitting them or throwing them.
It’s important to remember that if your child is in the midst of kicking and screaming they will not be rational enough to hear or understand you. So try to keep your talking to a minimum and avoid trying to reason with your child. Instead use short, calming phrases. You can try something like “I’ll stay with you until you feel better.”
Showing empathy does not mean you agree with your child’s behaviour, you are simply acknowledging that you understand their feelings. For example: “I know you wanted to play that game.” Validating your child’s feelings helps your child to understand and identify their feelings. Over the long term, this will help your child to manage and regulate their emotions, helping them to stop tantrums. Part of showing empathy is to take the time to listen to what your child is saying. When they are calmer, you can also try restating what they say back for example, “Yes, I can see you are really angry that you can’t go to the park.”
When your child is in a calm and receptive mood you can talk, chat and role play about dealing with their feelings and frustrations. Perhaps when they are feeling upset they may choose to release energy in a more productive way, such as jumping on the trampoline or blowing into a musical instrument. You can also talk about boundaries, and describe what is acceptable and unacceptable (hitting, kicking etc) behaviours.
Remember, children need to learn to cope with “no”! Using a consistent approach to your child’s tantrums will help teach your child your expectations for their behaviour. Although it’s tempting to give in to your child’s demands and avoid a public confrontation, the pitfall is that your child may learn to throw tantrums in order to get what they want.
Tantrums are relatively common in children from around 12 months to three years old. Just because many children have them, it does not mean they are easy to deal with. Talk to a professional if you have the following concerns: