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Dealing With Tantrums

Jul 28, 20216 minutes read time
Reviewed by: Professor Mark Dadds and Dr Lucy Tully

Key points:

  • Most young children have tantrums, and they aren’t an indication that your parenting skills are lacking.
  • Tantrums are most common in toddlers and preschoolers, however older children may have meltdowns too.
  • You can try to prevent tantrums by identifying triggers, observing your child’s emotions, and reducing their stress.
  • Effective parent discipline responses, such as time-out, may be needed to reduce frequent and/or aggressive tantrums.

Your child is sprawled on the floor of the supermarket, arms and legs flailing wildly. You tell them to stop screaming. They don’t. Shocked customers are throwing you worried looks. What sparked this horror scene? You dared suggest chicken casserole for dinner.

Kids’ tantrums are often triggered by things that seem trivial and ridiculous. As a parent, they can make you feel shocked, mortified, and completely powerless. But when they happen (and they will happen), remember that you’re not alone. Every parent tackles the tantrum phase. It’s not at all a sign that you’re doing something wrong. In fact, responding effectively to a tantrum automatically promotes you to Super Parent status. So let’s dive into the kicking, screaming world of tantrums.

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Why do children have tantrums?

Sometimes tantrums are brought on by specific triggers, like if a child doesn’t get a toy they want or if they’re upset that screen time is over. Sometimes they seem to happen for no reason at all. Understanding why they happen at different stages in your child's development may help you put it all into perspective and keep your cool when you’re in the thick of it.

Tantrums for 2 to 3 year olds

While your toddler having a meltdown over the audacity of you putting their socks on may seem ridiculous (and yes, it is), tantrums are a normal part of their development. Your child’s cortex (the reasoning part of the brain) doesn’t develop fully until they’re around school age. This, paired with the fact that toddlers often don’t have the words to articulate themselves, commonly results in explosions of frustration.

Tantrums for 4 to 5 year olds

By preschool age, most children are able to regulate their emotions better and think more rationally. However, tantrums can still occur. They might be brought on by sibling conflicts, not wanting what’s for dinner, or being bored at the grocery store.

At this age, children are still learning to associate feelings and emotions with words, so they may struggle to identify and communicate their needs. However, tantrums could start to become an intentional way to get your attention, so you may introduce some consequences such as time-out.

Tantrums for 6+ year olds

Usually tantrums occur less frequently once your child has reached school. By this stage, children will usually have developed more advanced social skills to help them communicate well and get along with others.

The occasional meltdown at this age isn’t generally a problem, however if they’re frequent or become violent, you may need to get support. Speak to your doctor about potential causes and solutions.

Young girl having a tantrum

How to prevent tantrums

Tantrums can sometimes catch you by surprise, but they’re often brought on by something predictable. The best way to avoid them is to identify these potential triggers, where you can, and remove them.

Here are some ideas for how to prevent tantrums with your child.

Reduce their stress

When kids are tired, over or under stimulated, or hungry, they’re more likely to act out. Support them to get enough sleep, give them a task to focus on, or offer a snack to stop meltdown mode from activating.

Observe and address your child’s feelings

If your child’s mood suggests that a tantrum is imminent, ask them about what they’re feeling and what’s going on with them. You could help them work through and understand these emotions, or distract them from their feelings — maybe try making some jokes. Just be sure not to laugh at their emotions or suggest that they’re silly. For your child, these are very real reasons to be upset.

Something else to remember is that trying to distract children during a tantrum (by suggesting a fun activity or a treat) can actually become a reward. That’s why experts say distraction is best used BEFORE the tantrum starts and not to be used amidst the chaos.

Work around potential triggers

You’ll probably notice trends in what leads to tantrums for your child. It might be when other kids don’t share their toys, or when they’re bored at a shopping center . You probably can’t avoid shopping (or other kids for that matter) but you could find some engaging activities to prevent tantrums from occurring. Perhaps give your child and their playmate the same toy so they won’t argue over a specific one. Or, offer your child a special task or activity, like finding the eggs at the shopping center so they can feel in control of something.

Toddler throwing a tantrum

How to cope with tantrums

Okay. Red alert, red alert. A tantrum is in full effect. What now?

Take a moment to acknowledge that tantrums are really tough for parents. It’s okay to feel exhausted, frustrated and embarrassed about your child’s behavior. You’re not a bad parent because you couldn’t prevent the tantrum and can’t make it stop. If you need a moment to cool off, take some deep breaths or step out of the room if it’s safe to do so.

Here are some strategies to help you cope during your child’s tantrum.

  1. Stay calm and be consistent – Even if you’re not feeling it, give your best Oscar-winning performance of a calm parent. This will show your child how they should be behaving. By consistently reacting to tantrums in a quiet, collected, business-like manner, you’ll be sending the message that tantrums don’t get a rise from you. Discuss your tantrum management plan with any other carer or co-parent to ensure your child always receives the same response – consistency is key.
  2. Draw attention to your child’s feelings – Put words to what they’re feeling and help them understand what is happening. For example, if they want a snack but you’ve said no, you could say, “I know it’s frustrating that you want a snack, but I’ve said no because we’re going to have dinner in 15 minutes”. This allows them to associate the word ‘frustrating’ to the feeling so they can understand it and respond rationally in future.
  3. Wait – Once the tantrum has begun, you probably want to do everything in your power to make your kid stop. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with feeling emotions. Your child needs to ride it out. Stay close to them so they know you’re there to offer support and if you’re in a public location you could go somewhere quiet to help them calm down. The important message is not to give children too much attention for tantrums, otherwise they’ll learn to throw a tantrum to get you to respond. Using time-out can work well here.
  4. Don’t cave in – After 15 minutes of screaming, you may be tempted to give in and start bargaining or giving your child what they want. This will teach them that by persisting with a tantrum, they’ll eventually get their way. It’s tempting to cave, but try to stand your ground and wait till the emotions have passed. Stay strong.
  5. Talk about it later – Once your child has calmed down and the situation has moved on, take a moment to talk to them about what they experienced. Tantrums can be frightening for children when they don’t understand it. Explain to them the name of the emotion they were feeling and how it made them behave. Then ask them how they could respond differently when they feel that emotion in future.

What to do if your child gets aggressive during tantrums

Young children may get aggressive when they don’t have the words to express themselves. Violence isn’t an appropriate way to respond to situations, and you can drive this home by explaining how their actions affected you. For example, “When you hit me, that hurt me and made me feel sad.”

Children should receive consequences for aggressive behavior. Experts agree that aggressive behaviour is the only time that it’s reasonable to put your child into time-out without first giving them instructions to stop the behavior. Make sure your kid knows that this could happen if they get aggressive.

If you’re worried about your child’s tantrums, speak to your child’s health professional for advice.

Using time-out for tantrums

It may seem like your child throws tantrums just to push your buttons, but they happen because kids don’t yet have the skills to process their feelings in a good way. It’s therefore important to respond in ways that will help your child learn to regulate their emotions.

A discipline technique like time-out can be a good way to respond to frequent tantrums and helps children learn to regulate their emotions and behaviors. This isn’t a form of punishment, but a way to support them in calming down. They will come to learn that big displays of emotion are less effective than calmly using their words to communicate their feelings. Remember that time-out is also a way of helping you to stay calm as well!

While tantrums, especially in public, can be extremely stressful for you as a parent, remember that they will eventually come to an end. As your child develops and understands themselves better, they will slowly move past the tantrum phase. Try to stay calm during tantrums and discuss them with your child once the emotion has passed. The key is to not let tantrums become a habit that results in your kids getting what they want from you.

And hey, next time you spot another parent wrestling a tantruming child in the supermarket, why not offer them a nod of solidarity? We’re in this thing together.

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