Why your child has temper tantrums
A temper tantrum is the emotional equivalent of a summer storm — sudden and sometimes fierce. One minute you and your child are in a cafe enjoying your lunch, the next minute he’s whimpering, whining and then screaming at the top of his lungs because his straw is bent. Children between the ages of one and three are especially prone to these episodes.
Though you may worry that you’re raising a tyrant, take heart — at this age it’s unlikely that your child is throwing a fit simply to upset you. More probably, he’s having a meltdown because he’s frustrated. Your toddler is beginning to understand a lot more of the words he hears, but his ability to use language is still limited. And when your child can’t express how he feels or what he wants, frustration mounts.
How to handle a tantrum
1. Don’t lose your cool
A tantrum is not a pretty sight. As well as kicking, screaming or pounding the floor, your toddler’s repertoire may include throwing things, hitting and even holding his breath until he turns blue. When your child is swept up in a tantrum, he’s unlikely to listen to reason, though he will respond — usually negatively — to shouting or threatening.
Just sitting and being with your child during a tantrum can be a good idea. The storm of emotion he’s going through can be frightening to him and he may feel safer knowing you’re near. Some experts recommend picking up your child and holding him if possible, saying he’ll find your embrace comforting. Others say it’s better to ignore the tantrum until your child calms down, rather than rewarding negative behaviour. Through trial and error, you’ll learn which approach is right for your child.
Don’t feel you have to stay with your child if it’s difficult for you, though. Sometimes, when your little one is completely inconsolable, it can be hard to manage your own emotions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, and your child is in a safe place, feel free to leave the room for a few minutes while you calm down. This will also teach your child that having a tantrum isn’t a good way to get your attention.
2. Remember that you’re the adult
No matter how long the tantrum continues, don’t give in to unreasonable demands or negotiate with your screaming toddler. It’s especially tempting in public to cave in as a way of ending the episode. Try not to worry about what others think — anyone who’s a parent has been there before.
By giving in, you’ll only be teaching your child that throwing a tantrum is a good way to get what he wants. Besides, your child is already frightened by being out of control. The last thing he needs is to feel that you’re not in control either.
If your child’s outburst escalates to the point where he’s hitting people or pets, throwing things or screaming non-stop, pick him up and carry him to a safe place, such as his bedroom. Tell him why he’s there (“because you hit Aunty Sue”), and let him know that you’ll stay with him until his tantrum stops. If you’re in a public place — a common breeding ground for tantrums — be prepared to leave with your child until he calms down.
3. Talk it over afterwards
When the storm subsides, hold your child close and talk about what happened. Acknowledge his frustration and help him put his feelings into words, saying something like, “You were very angry because your food wasn’t the way you wanted it.” Let him see that, once he expresses himself in words, he’ll get better results. Say with a smile, “I didn’t understand what you were trying to tell me. Now you’re not screaming, I can find out what you want.”
4. Try to head off tantrum-inducing situations
Try to work out which situations push your child’s buttons and plan accordingly. If your 15 month old falls apart when he’s hungry, carry snacks with you. If your 20 month old has trouble making a transition from one activity to the next, give him a gentle warning before a change. Alerting him to the fact that you’re about to leave the playground or sit down to dinner (“We’re going to eat when you and Daddy have finished your story”) gives him a chance to adjust.
Your toddler is grappling with independence, so offer him choices whenever possible. No one likes being told what to do all the time. Saying, “Would you like sweetcorn or carrots?” rather than “Eat your sweetcorn!” will give him a sense of control.
Monitor how often you’re saying “no”. If you find you’re saying it routinely, you’re probably putting unnecessary stress on both of you. Try to ease up and choose your battles. Would it really ruin your day to spend an extra five minutes at the playground? And does anybody really care if your little one wears mismatched socks?
5. Watch for signs of stress
Although daily tantrums are a perfectly normal part of the toddler years, it’s worth keeping an eye out for anything that could make your toddler more stressed than usual. Has there been upheaval in the family? An extremely busy period? Tension between you and your partner? All of these can provoke tantrums.
If, after the age of 30 months, your child is still having major tantrums every day, talk to your health visitor or GP. If your child is younger than 30 months, has three or four tantrums a day, and isn’t cooperating with any routines, such as getting dressed or picking up toys, you may also want to seek help. Your health visitor or doctor can make sure your child has no serious physical or psychological problems, and suggest ways to deal with the outbursts.
In the meantime, try to remind yourself that regular tantrums are just a natural part of toddler behaviour. As your little one grows and his emotional maturity develops, tantrums should naturally become fewer and further between.
More on toddler behaviour
- Toddler tantrums getting you down? Share your experiences and swap tips with other mums and dads in our community group for parents of toddlers.
- Learn what to do if your toddler holds his breath when he’s upset.
- Are time outs a good strategy? Our expert has the answer.
- Get tips on dealing with hitting and bitting.