Tantrums are extremely common in toddlers and pre-schoolers. They’re how young children deal with difficult feelings. It helps to tune in to your child’s emotions, and to avoid situations that trigger your child’s tantrums.
What are tantrums?
Tantrums come in all shapes and sizes.
They can involve spectacular explosions of anger, frustration and disorganised behaviour – when your child ‘loses it’.
You might see crying, screaming, stiffening limbs, an arched back, kicking, falling down, flailing about or running away. In some cases, children hold their breath, vomit, break things or get aggressive as part of a tantrum.
Why tantrums happen
Tantrums are very common in children aged 1-3 years.
This is because children’s social and emotional skills are only just starting to develop at this age. Children often don’t have the words to express big emotions. They want more independence but fear being separated from you. And they’re discovering that they can change the way the world works.
So tantrums are one of the ways that young children express and manage feelings, and try to understand or change what’s going on around them.
Older children can have tantrums too. This can be because they haven’t learned more appropriate ways to express or manage feelings. Or some older children might be slower than others to develop self-regulation.
For both toddlers and older children, there are things that can make tantrums more likely to happen:
- Temperament – this influences how quickly and strongly children react to things like frustrating events. Children who get upset easily might be more likely to have tantrums.
- Stress, hunger, tiredness and overstimulation – these can make it harder for children to express and manage feelings and behaviour.
- Situations that children just can’t cope with – for example, a toddler might have trouble coping if an older child takes a toy away.
- Strong emotions – worry, fear, shame and anger can be overwhelming for children.
Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage behaviour and reactions. Children start developing it from around 12 months. As your child gets older, she’ll be more able to regulate her reactions and calm down when something upsetting happens. You’ll see fewer tantrums as a result.
What to do about tantrums
There are things you can do to make tantrums less likely to happen:
- Reduce stress. Tired, hungry and overstimulated children are more likely to experience tantrums.
- Tune in to your child’s feelings. If you’re aware of your child’s feelings, you might be able to sense when big feelings are on the way. You can talk about what’s going on and help your child manage difficult feelings. You might also be able to distract your child.
- Identify tantrum triggers. For example, your child might have tantrums when you’re shopping. You might be able to plan ahead or change the environment to avoid tantrums. For example, it might help to go shopping after your child has had a nap and a snack.
- Talk about emotions with your child. When your child struggles with a difficult feeling, encourage him to name the feeling and what caused it. For example, ‘Did you throw your toy because you were upset that it wasn’t working? What else could you have done?’.
Sometimes tantrums happen, no matter what you do to avoid them. Here are some ideas to handle tantrums when they happen:
- Stay calm (or pretend to!). Take a moment for yourself if you need to. If you get angry, it’ll make the situation harder for both you and your child. If you need to speak at all, keep your voice calm and level, and act deliberately and slowly.
- Acknowledge your child’s difficult feelings. For example, ‘It’s very upsetting when your ice-cream falls out of the cone, isn’t it?’. This can help prevent behaviour getting more out of control and gives your child a chance to reset emotions.
- Wait out the tantrum. Stay close to your child so she knows you’re there. But don’t try to reason with her or distract her. It’s too late once a tantrum has started.
- Take charge when you need to. If the tantrum happens because your child wants something, don’t give him what he wants. If your child doesn’t want to do something, use your judgment. For example, if your child doesn’t want to get out of the bath, it might be safer to pull out the plug than to lift him out.
- Be consistent and calm in your approach. If you sometimes give your child what she wants when she has tantrums and you sometimes don’t, the problem could get worse.
When your child behaves well, reward him with lots of enthusiastic praise – for example, when he names a difficult emotion like ‘upset’, or he calms down before a tantrum starts.
Tantrums in pre-schoolers and early school-age children
You can use all of the tips above to help with tantrums in pre-schoolers and early school-age children.
At this age, children are also better able to understand that their actions have effects or consequences. This means that you can sometimes use consequences to manage your child’s behaviour.
It’s important to make sure you don’t accidentally reward tantrums. For example, if your child has a tantrum because you say no to buying her a lolly but then you buy the lolly, this rewards the tantrum. Shouting or pleading with your child when she has tantrums can also be a reward, because it gives your child attention.
If your child has additional needs like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), she might have frequent or severe tantrums. See our article on challenging behaviour in children with ASD or ask for advice from the professionals who work with your child.
Coping with tantrums
Dealing with tantrums can be very draining and stressful. You might feel you need to step in to end a tantrum straight away. But if it’s safe, it can help to take a breather while you decide how to respond.
Here are some more ideas for staying calm and keeping things in perspective:
- Develop a strategy for tantrums. Have a clear plan for how you’ll handle a tantrum in whatever situation you’re in. Concentrate on putting your plan into action when the tantrum happens.
- Accept that you can’t control your child’s emotions or behaviour directly. You can only keep your child safe and guide your child’s behaviour so tantrums are less likely to happen in the future.
- Accept that it takes time for change to happen. Your child has a lot of growing up to do before tantrums are gone forever. Developing and practising self-regulation skills is a life-long task.
- Beware of thinking that your child is doing it on purpose or is trying to get you. Children don’t have tantrums deliberately – they’re stuck in a bad habit or just don’t have the skills right now to cope with the situation.
- Keep your sense of humour. But don’t laugh at the tantrum – if you do, it might reward your child with attention. It might also upset him even more if he thinks you’re laughing at him.
- If other people give you dirty looks, ignore them. They’ve either never had children or it’s been so long since they had a young child that they’ve forgotten what it’s like.
Don’t judge yourself as a parent based on how many tantrums your child has. Remember that all children have tantrums. Instead, focus on how you respond to the tantrums. And remember that you’re only human and part of parenting is learning from mistakes.