It starts with that face: narrowed eyes and wobbling bottom lip. It ends with tiny clenched fists pummeling the floor, ear-splitting screams and a parent questioning exactly why they thought any of this was a good idea.
Tantrums are probably the thing that parents dread the most. Which is unfortunate because no parent escapes the toddler stage without facing at least one.
Depending on where they are held, these outbursts can be embarrassing, annoying and occasionally even alarming. They’re certainly to be avoided whenever possible!
In this post, we’re going to try and take the sting out of tantrums by explaining why tantrums occur, what they involve and how to deal with them. This way, if you have to tackle one, at least you can be somewhat prepared!
What Are Tantrums?
The question of what do tantrums look like is a pretty hard one to answer. Every child will have their own warning signs, progressions and patterns to their eruptions.
One thing to note is that not every physical display of anger is really a tantrum. A single stamped foot, screamed word or deep scowl don’t really count. The world is a scary, intimidating and frustrating place when you’re small.
Expressing that in a short, controlled burst is to be expected. Just try to soothe this anger instead of stamping it out and a full-on temper tantrum will be averted.
Because what temper tantrums mean in reality is a full-blown meltdown. A kid who seems out of control, noisy, aggressive: a fountain fizzing with anger that they just can’t keep in.
When you think of it that way, maybe you can also feel a bit more sympathy for the littlest person in your life when they start to wreak havoc. Remember that what tantrums mean is volcanic: an uncontrollable eruption of noise, movement and emotion.
What Causes Tantrums?
To a frazzled parent, it might feel like EVERYTHING causes tantrums. The prospect of eating healthy food, sharing a new toy, hearing the word no... days ending with the letter Y…
Actually, though the specific trigger for a tantrum could be a variety of insignificant things, what causes tantrums in toddlers is almost universal. Frustration.
Life is a busy, bustling, overwhelming thing. From having to eat something yucky, to abandoning your most beloved stuffed friend or being refused the treat you so clearly deserve, life has a lot going on that a young mind simply can’t quite accept. Can’t even process.
Afterall even adults will experience severe frustration when the world keeps unfairly denying them! Imagine running up to a bus stop as the bus sits idling. Your feet slipping on a rain-slick pavement, your breath raging in your lungs and your bag slipping off your shoulder. You’re almost there, almost, almost…and the bus pulls away.
The feeling that the whole world hates you and the flood of frustration that follows is exactly how your tantrum-throwing child feels. You are able to rationalise that feeling. To tell yourself that it’s just bad luck. Another bus will be along in ten minutes and you won’t actually freeze to ice in that time.
But a toddler can’t rationalise this frustration and this is why tantrums happen. All that anger and injustice floods their system and has nothing to calm it. So, they lose it. This is the only option they have. To let the emotion out and work through it physically.
Believe it or not, this actually makes an argument for why tantrums are good for your child! It’s better to burn that excessive emotion out than let it build up inside them, however much it doesn’t feel like it when they’re sobbing and screaming on the floor.
Tantrums: What’s Normal?
‘Normal’ is a complicated idea when it comes to tantrums. Like so many aspects of child development, there is no hard and fast rules about the ages when tantrums start, when tantrums stop or how long tantrums will last.
The good news is that full blown, floor-thumping tantrums are usually confined to the toddler years. More specifically, between two and five. But this is only a general rule. Kids as young nine-months can struggle with tantrums, and there is no set age when tantrums will stop.
The severity and frequency of tantrums can also vary between children. Most will lash out occasionally or go on for a long time or struggle to calm themselves. But if you notice your kid consistently injures themself or others during tantrums, or has to be bribed or removed before they will calm down every time they start, this could be sign of a deeper behavioural problem.
For the most part though, tantrums are completely understandable and completely normal.
How to Deal with Tantrums
So, we all know there is no perfect tantrum cure. No single step will help every parent cut off each tantrum. That is part of the reason they are so dreaded.
And the news gets even worse because so far in this post, we’ve talked about meltdown tantrums. An almost uncontrollable outpouring of rage that is purely instinctual. More common in younger kids, these are complicated and there is not a lot you can do about them except ride them out.
If you can stay calm yourself, it’s best to stay with them. Your composed presence will help ground them. Don’t get too close, and don’t try to pick them up. Those flailing limbs are not being checked, and they will hurt when they connect. If you can, just stay in the room, stand firm, calm and let them wind themselves down.
If do you feel yourself starting to lose your temper, take a couple of deep breaths. Losing control of your own emotions will just feed theirs.
This advice is all we can offer for uncontrollable tantrums. Time for the happier news: there is another type of tantrum as well.
This one is a learned behaviour. Feeding off experience, when they know that throwing a massive fuss can help them get things they want. It’s all a show, put on for you. And that you can tackle!
A ‘deliberate tantrum’ is easily identifiable because when you ignore the child throwing one, they stop. They’re doing it to get something. If you aren’t giving them attention, they will get bored and wind down soon enough. Of course, ignoring them is definitely easier said than done - particularly when you’re out of the house. But it is really, the only way.
The important thing is not to give in and let them have what they want! This will teach that tantrums are a great way to get stuff, or just their own way and they will throw them a lot more often.
This type tantrums can be further classified as:
- a demand for attention (hugs)
- a demand for a ‘thing’ (food, toys)
- a refusal to do something (eat, get dressed)
When the tantrum is thrown as a demand, you have just got to try and ignore it. Particularly when at home, or in controlled circumstances, just turn the other cheek and let them wear themselves out. They will quickly learn that their ‘demand’ won’t be met. They aren’t getting their toy, attention or treat and they’ll get bored. They’ll also hold off doing it in future, as it didn’t get them anywhere.
This technique doesn’t work with a ‘refusal’ tantrum of course. The important thing here is to make sure the task is completed anyway. From changing clothes, to eating food or handing over a toy: you need to get them to do it. Otherwise, they will just learn this is another way to avoid things they don’t like.
Tantrums are an unfortunate and inevitable trial that every parent has to face. Hopefully after reading this post, you will understand them a little more and dread them a little less.