Being a parent is hard. Tantrums make it even harder. When swept up in a hurricane of tears, pouts, punches, and general meanness, it can be hard to know how to approach our children’s outbursts.
Children often suffer tantrums when they don’t get their own way, when we don’t pay them the attention that they’re asking for, or when they’re feeling tired or overwhelmed with intense emotions. Each of these situations requires a different response from you as the parent, and that’s what we’re going to discuss in this article.
We’ve spoken with an experienced child psychotherapist to provide you with some of the best steps to take when faced with a tantrum.
You’ve got this! And we’re here to help.
What is a tantrum?
Tantrums usually take place in situations where a child has a very strong need or desire that cannot be fulfilled for some reason - this could be because it’s inconvenient at that particular moment or because a parent has simply said “no”.
Either way, the child is not happy with a response and won’t hesitate to show us - welcome to full-blown tantrums in all manner of public places!
The period in which tantrums are at their peak point is between the ages of 2-3 - their appearance essentially represents a cumulation of three things that happen simultaneously:
- The presence of very intense emotion - usually irritation, frustration, or anger.
- An unreasonable behavior from the child - usually verbal of physical aggression (either towards others or themselves).
- Lots of tears - more common in children around 2 years of age who have not yet learned how to verbalize their frustrations.
- Episodes like this can last anywhere from a few minutes up to 30-40 minutes.
These three things together make up one very unpleasant, noisy, and full-blown tantrum, leading to you feeling like a ‘bad mom’ - sound familiar?
What dictates the length of a tantrum?
This is where you come in.
The duration of a tantrum largely depends on the attitude of the parents - if we don’t know how to calm our children effectively, it’s more than likely that all we’re doing is activating and prolonging this behavior.
Tantrums that last for an extended time (anywhere up to 40 minutes) mean that your child is dealing with a series of mini meltdowns, between which he/she is unable to calm down.
These meltdowns can be prolonged by seemingly harmless things, such as:
- Using the wrong or too many words when trying to calm your child.
- Approaching your child at the wrong time.
- An action that triggers the child.
Children are, by nature, very sensitive - meaning that really, almost anything can trigger a child and make the tantrum last for longer.
The silver lining of child tantrums…
The one good thing about tantrums is that they cause children to consume lots of energy, so you can rest easy knowing that this unbearable outburst will be followed by a state of calm.
Children will usually be very tired and relaxed after a tantrum, meaning that you can have much easier and stress-free communication with them in the hours that follow the episode.
A tantrum can be seen as a kind of release that makes children more flexible and cooperative in the rest of the daily routine.
How common are these tantrums at different ages?
It’s worth understanding and coming to terms with the fact that the height of the tantrum period is between 2-3 years of age, and that during this time, there’s a good chance that we’ll witness several tantrums every day.
After the age of 5, tantrums will usually slow down to once per day or as little as once per week. Though this may still feel like a lot - after all, you’re the parent having to deal with these tantrums - a reduction to one tantrum per week is great progress.
Something that aids this natural reduction in tantrums is the development of language. We’ll discuss this next.
The relationship between language development and tantrums
Language development plays an important role in reducing these tantrums - when a child can verbalize their needs and desires, it can help them to behave more rationally.
A child who has no words to describe what they want or how they feel cannot easily express what it is that they want or need - just imagine how frustrating that must be!
Their needs and desires will double in intensity when we, as their parents, are unable to understand what they want, leaving their wish unfulfilled and them feeling even more desperate to have it.
When children are able to recognize and label their emotions and feelings, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed and confused by them. All of our animated storybooks teach lessons in emotional intelligence by introducing emotional vocabulary and ways to deal with emotions.
What about tantrums when language is already developed?
The relevance of language development in reducing the likelihood of tantrums is not to say that tantrums stop when language starts - much to our disappointment.
There are several explanations for tantrums in the presence of a good vocabulary, let's have a look at some of them:
The key emotions in tantrums are anger, frustration, helplessness, and fear. These emotions are sheltered in what we call the ‘emotional brain’ - a very important part of the brain, well developed since the earliest days of our lives, even in young children. The part of the brain where reasoning is found - namely in the cortex - is very underdeveloped at the age of 2-3 years old. Moreover, there is no collaboration between the parts of the brain that deal with emotions and reasoning.
Big emotions + inability to be reasonable = (you guessed it) tantrums.
When we say ‘no’ to our children we activate their emotions of frustration and anger, and you can count on them very quickly letting us know that “it’s not right, I want it NOW”. Children live very much in the present, this is another aspect of tantrums that we will explore in the following section.
The part of the brain that helps us with emotional regulation, namely the rational brain, has the longest period of development - starting at 2-3 years of age, and ending at 23-24 years of age. This example alone demonstrates to us the complexity of brain development.
Existing in the present
Practices like meditation and mindfulness teach us, as adults, the importance of living in the present - so why can this be a bad thing for children?
The fact that young children live in the present is a wonderful thing - they feel no guilt, they don’t experience regret, and they don’t stress about events that haven’t happened yet.
However, this also means that they are unable to understand the concept of the future. We can tell our children until our faces turn blue that we’ll give them a snack when we’ve finished hanging the laundry out, and they’ll still have a tantrum. This is due to having no concept of having to “wait” for something. In fact, until the age of 6-7 years old, most children are only able to relate to the present.
A child can understand the concept of the future only if we can tie it to activities that they are familiar with. For example:
“Tomorrow comes after one more night sleep”.
Children understand what it means to sleep, so we’re giving them a familiar concrete activity to help them understand the concept of the future. If we simply tell our children that “...something... is going to happen tomorrow”, their brains will understand that this thing will never happen - it’s not happening right now, and the future doesn’t exist in their minds.
That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t introduce the concept of the future and the need to wait, stimulating the ability to wait is extremely important for developing emotional maturity. Our “Patience Story” can introduce the concept of waiting until a future time and help your child begin to understand that they can’t always have what they want when they want it.
Low impulse control
In small children, impulse self-control is highly immature; moreover, between 2-3 years old, most self-control resources are focusing on sphincter control (or control of the bowels). Though this might seem like a minor thing to control, it consumes many of the neuronal resources allocated to self-control at any given moment and leaves children with very few resources for anything else - including control over the rest of their body.
This underdeveloped ability to control impulses is what can make tantrums so aggressive - behaviors such as hitting others or themselves. Our “Balance Story” can be helpful in teaching your child about avoiding risky behaviors and striking a balance between pain avoidance and pleasure-seeking.
We might notice that tantrums mostly take place when our children feel tired or low on energy. This is because, when fatigued, they become increasingly sensitive to physiological fluctuations and hormonal imbalances - two things that lead to emotional disorganization.
We can also see tantrums following a period of exemplary self-control. For example, after spending the day at kindergarten and behaving according to expectations. This kind of extended self-control in complying with rules and getting involved in activities can exhaust our child’s resources and leave them feeling physically and emotionally tired. Once home and in the presence of a parent, the relief at knowing you’re there to calm them and that you love them no matter what can manifest in the form of tantrums.
This type of tantrum is referred to as “the broken cookie syndrome”, whereby nothing major needs to happen for a tantrum to take place - the feelings of anger and frustration can be triggered for absolutely no reason.
When collected from kindergarten it’s important to expect that your child might have a 20-minute tantrum, fall asleep, or continue the day in a state of calm and collaboration - any of these outcomes are possible!
Differences between parents
Children can also demonstrate different emotional behaviors depending on the character of their parent(s).
With a harsh and severe parent, a child may put a lot of effort into displaying “good” behavior, not because they understand the value in that, but because he/she is afraid of the consequences of ‘bad behavior’. With a calmer parent, a child may have more outbursts because he/she learns that the limits the parent presents to them are often extremely flexible and inconsistent.
This doesn’t mean that the child with the authoritarian parent is more emotionally balanced, it only demonstrates a fear of parent’s anger or punitive behaviors which leads to more inhibition of their needs and actions.
How do parents normally treat tantrums, and what are the consequences?
Firstly, we need to understand that tantrums are completely normal and an expected part of child development. The calmer we are, the faster we can expect the tantrum to subside. But with a child screaming at you, this approach isn’t always the easiest or most natural reaction.
There are a few ways that we deal with tantrums, usually because it’s what our parents did or what we think we should do, that can have negative consequences for our children.
Our children explode in a fit of anger and tears and start throwing toys around the room - for many of us this is a cue to start a ‘time out’, after all, that’s what happened to us when we were children!
In the past, time out’s have been highly recommended in specialized literature as a way to quiet a child by sending them to their room to calm down alone. What we now understand is that tantrums align with a period of huge adjustment and development. And that by sending our children to their rooms during a tantrum, we are giving them the message that they do not deserve our attention at that particular time - an action that can generate what is called the “abandonment wound”.
This, in turn, causes our children to fear that when they have a tantrum, which is a state of intense suffering for children, we will abandon or punish them instead of helping them to feel safe again and get through that situation.
Long term, this “abandonment wound” can be a direct path to what we deem to be a spoiled child - sometimes consumed with guilt, some parents may think that pampering a child with toys or other gifts and privileges means proving their love, something that is simply not true. We need to give children our time and attention in order to show love, even when or especially when they are having a hard time and they’re throwing tantrums and it feels hard to react with kindness.
This lack of consistency in the parent’s behavior is what is helping many children become “spoiled”; when parents find themselves in the situation of struggling with healthy limits all children need, it’s important to ask themselves where this difficult attitude comes from.
We’ll discuss the importance of limits and how to stick to them further on in the article.
Responding with anger
When we respond to tantrums with force or anger we will never be able to calm a small child - as a result, the child will remain in that area of feeling very emotionally triggered and more than often, feeling unsafe around his parent.
Approaching a child with typical signs of anger - such as an unfriendly face, high tone of voice, threatening words, and, in the worst case, aggressive behaviors - will only prolong the tantrum. It will also send the message that not only will their wish not be fulfilled, but that they will be punished when they have needs or desires.
Aggression is often met with aggression - which is why it can be so hard to stay calm during a physically aggressive tantrum. Though, as we discussed previously, young children are unable to control aggressive actions during a tantrum, we can still begin to teach them about the importance of non-violence.
We can do this by demonstrating non-aggressive behaviour (as discussed above) as well as using educational tools. Each of our animated storybooks highlights the principles of nonviolent communication, and work as an aid to help you start introducing your child to ways that they can react positively.
Fulfilling the child’s desire
It’s easy to want to give in to tantrums and desires. We quickly decide, upon our child throwing themselves on the floor screaming, that what they are asking for is not that unreasonable and not worth the tantrum.
Usually, tantrums in public places are met with fear and shame from us as parents. We worry that people judge us, that they think we don’t know how to handle our children, or that we’re being mean by not buying them the toy they’re asking for - so we give in and buy them the toy. After all, this is the easiest way to get out of the tantrum!
When we do this, children will quickly correlate that it may be helpful to create a scene in order for us to give in to their demands - in the future, they will reach this heightened state of tantrum much faster than the previous time in an attempt to get what they want.
So although we might think that it’s easier to give our children what they want, we’re only making future tantrums more likely and even harder to handle. Moreover, we will not provide the child with the healthy opportunity of learning to, step by step, handle their difficult and overwhelming emotions.
Effective ways to handle tantrums
Get familiar with the following techniques and feel better prepared with what to do the next time your toddler throws a lego brick at your head. It’s normal to want to feel like you’re someone who knows how to parent - and we hope to help you reach that!
All children need to, and will eventually, learn that they can’t always get what they want at the exact moment that they ask for it. If you’re dealing with constant toddler tantrums, our “Adaptability Story” can be a great way to start exploring the concept of not getting lost in the emotional storm of undesired outcomes and situations.
We briefly covered the need to set limits in order to provide a child with consistency. Let’s dig a little deeper.
If at the age of 5-6-years-old, a child is still experiencing lots of intense tantrums - either long in duration or very frequent - we can assume that the parents were either inconsistent with limits or that they used punishment/ignoring the child as a way to deal with outbursts.
Limits are important because they facilitate self-control - here’s what that means:
A child doesn’t get what he wants and immediately goes full-blown Hulk. The parent decides not to punish, but instead to calm the child down - sending the important message that whenever their child feels big emotions or things are difficult, they will be there for them.
After repeating this process for every tantrum (and remember, not giving in!), it will eventually be enough to kindly deny the child’s wishes but soothe them at the same time. The child will start to adapt to this limit more and more easily - until eventually, maybe “no” will be all that the parent needs to say for their child to accept the response and find something else to do.
Limits are an easy way to quickly teach children that tantrums don’t achieve anything. This can be great in saving you time in your busy life as a parent - fewer tantrums means more time to spend enjoying your children!
It’s hard to stay calm in the midst of a tantrum, but it gets easier every time you practice it.
Young children do not have the capacity for emotional self-regulation, which is why they need us to do it for them. As parents, we have the power to help our children calm down and reduce the intensity of their emotions through warm words, hugs, and eye contact.
Maybe you’ve tried to hug your screaming child during a tantrum and been met with a lot of aggression - this is common for children who get lost in their outbursts.
So what to do when your child is not approachable?
In this situation, you’ll want to stay calm and maintain eye contact with your child - from a distance - until they begin to give you a sign that you can get closer. Signs might include:
- Reduced crying
- Decreased intensity of movements
- Slowly and subtly moving towards you
You can introduce your child to the concept of staying calm simply by demonstrating this behavior! A great tool that you can use alongside this is our “Calm Story” - an animated storybook that shows your child, as the main character, remaining calm in difficult situations.
Responding to “the broken cookie syndrome”
Previously, we spoke about “the broken cookie syndrome”, whereby children can become irrationally upset over what, to us, seems like nothing. As discussed earlier in the article, this is common for children who have spent the day exercising perfect behavior and involvement at kindergarten. We, as parents, are the safety blanket under which they know they can let their emotions out and still be loved.
When responding to children crying over their “broken cookie”, it’s important that we reassure our children and remember that this response is only accumulated fatigue and reflects a need to release.
Remember that needs are never unreasonable
There’s a big difference between needs and desires - we can, and should, limit desires whilst meeting needs.
What a child needs is never unreasonable - whether in the form of needing attention, affection, or emotional comfort, we must make ourselves available.
As parents, we can get far too caught up in the worry that we will indulge our children by holding and loving them whenever they ask. But by not meeting their needs, we’re sending the message that the love we have for them has a limit, something that can have a traumatic impact.
We are equally concerned that we will traumatize our children if we don’t fulfill their every request. If the request comes from a desire as opposed to a need - meaning something that is not necessary for emotional balance - we can set limits without harming the wellbeing of our child.
When might we want to see a specialist?
Though tantrums are a normal part of childhood, there are a few red flags that signify it might be time to seek help and advice:
- If tantrums are increasing in frequency and intensity after the age of 4 - in this situation, you might want to speak with your child’s teacher or seek the advice of a specialist.
- If tantrums interfere with aspects of the child’s health - for example, children that cry until they vomit or children with neurological disorders (such as epilepsy). In these situations, you’ll need to take care that your child doesn’t reach this heightened state of emotion as well as seeking the advice of a specialist.
Our children need their emotional needs to be met, always, but requests related to desires should have a consistent limit. It’s never a bad thing to shower our children with love, but what we shouldn’t do is give in to tantrums, say “yes” to their every request, and pamper them with objects.
Equip yourself with some of these calm and actionable steps, feel comfort in knowing that you know how to parent, and work towards a calmer state of being for both you and your child. After all, we all want to be able to focus our energy on caring for our children instead of dealing with their outbursts!
Responding with care and love whilst using our animated stories to teach our children about handling emotions can have a huge impact on your family life - after all, if the “me” in the story can stay calm, be patient, and adapt to difficult situations, why can’t the “me” in real life do it?