Tantrum Basics

One in five two-year olds have tantrums every day. These tantrum spells usually begin in about the 18th month and when appropriately handled, each tantrum spell can be expected to last a maximum of about 4 minutes.

More prone to tantrums are kids who don’t adapt well to change and those who are intense, hyperactive and/or moody. However, the good news is that by the time most of these children turn 4, their tantrums should have reduced considerably because they would have learnt healthy ways of handling the strong emotions which lead to tantrums.


Types of Tantrums

Children have either manipulative or frustration tantrums.

Manipulative tantrums are emotional outbursts aimed at manipulating you to give in to your toddler’s demands while frustration tantrums are triggered by real, genuine problems which your toddler is facing. Both manipulative and frustration tantrums require firm handling. However for the frustration type, in addition to firmness, empathy is also needed.


Causes of tantrums

Manipulative tantrums are caused by a child’s hope or certainty that his outbursts will be rewarded with him having his way. For example a child asked to share a toy may throw a tantrum with the hope that you will shrink from insisting he actually shares.

On the other hand, frustration tantrums are triggered by a child’s inability to adequately express himself in moments of discomfort like hunger, thirst, tiredness, etc. Also, if a child is blocked from gaining independence, figuring a task out or learning certain skills such buttoning his shirt, etc., his frustration threshold could also get exceeded and the tantrums could then set in.

Once a child can adequately express himself, frustration tantrums are likely to reduce considerably.


Preventing Tantrums

Though tantrums are not 100% preventable, still, they can be duly prevented from escalating to worrisome heights

  • Engage your child in and offer him only age appropriate tasks and toys which he can successfully handle and play with.
  • Give him some level of control every day. For example ask him if he will prefer orange juice to apple juice.
  • Choose your battles. Battles involving matters like safety, cleanliness and manners are non-negotiable. However when it comes to smaller issues such as whether he should wear the blue shirt or the green shirt, there is no harm in occasionally letting him win.
  • As much as is possible, avoid the drama by keeping objects which are off limits, out of sight and out of reach.
  • Keep a tantrum diary and from your discovery, keep him away (where possible) from situations which trigger tantrums. For example if your child is likely to scream for toys or sweets, stay off such shelves in the shops.
  • Know his limits and as much as is possible, try to keep him within them. For example if more than 4 hours without food makes your toddler hungry and cranky, ensure that no matter where you go, provision is made for a meal.
  • Set up and stick to daily routines which your toddler can learn to expect and accept as part of everyday life.
  • Plan ahead when running errands and prevent long trips which give way to restlessness and hunger.
  • Don’t let your toddler get over tired. Put him in bed when due.
  • Get into the habit of catching him doing something good (e.g. sharing a toy or following instructions) and praising him for it.
  • Children understand more than they can express. So encourage him to express himself better by using words like ‘more’, ‘drink’, ‘I want’, ‘tired’ etc


Handling Tantrums

The Don’ts

  • Never lose your calm. He is already out of control. There’s no point you joining him.
  • To avoid screaming matches which have no winners, avoid hitting or screaming back.
  • Never give in to any manipulation.
  • Don’t go back on your words, give in to his demands or offer bribes for his silence because doing any of these has no long term benefits.
  • Don’t bother with explanations in the middle of a tantrum because his fairly simple reasoning skills is likely to absorb nothing at such a time.

The Do’s

  • When you see frustration brewing, take advantage of his short attention span by creating distractions, like change of location, suggestion of a new activity, directing him to a more manageable part of the task, etc.
  • Find out the cause of the tantrum and where possible, deal with the problem from the root. For example if it is hunger or inability to tie his shoe lace, get him some food or patiently demonstrate to him how the lace is tied
  • If he is more of upset than angry (for example upset that your attention is divided between him and a new sibling), attempt holding him firmly until he calms down.
  • Depending on the situation, reasoning ability and age of your child, you can either ignore him until he calms down or sit him down at eye level and tell him to tell you what he wants or insist he sits still until he calms down. Alternatively, you can reward his tantrums with consequencies. For example, you can send him to his room until he calms down or for every tantrum he throws, withhold his favorite toy from him.


The Aftermath

When the tantrum subsides, point out the obvious difference in serenity and calmly tell him that mommy was not happy with his behaviour. Also emphasize that tantrums won’t get your attention and encourage and teach him to next time use body language and words in expressing himself. In all this, don’t forget to deliberately acknowledge the fact that he was eventually able to do a good thing by taking control of his emotions. Let him know that this self-control is what actually gets mommy’s attention. Note that in communicating all of these to your toddler, you must use as few words as possible so he gets the essence of your message without getting distracted.

In delicate situations such as jealousy due to the arrival of a new sibling or feelings of abandonement due to the long hours you have been working, be sure to make your toddler feel loved through your words and actions.

Also, note that your success at handling tantrums lies greatly in your consistency. If your child realizes that his tantrums always have unpleasant consequencies (such as an enforced, lonely time-outs in his room) and that no matter how much he screams or when or where he screams, you won’t give in to his unreasonable demands, he will then sooner or later get your message and quickly learn to communicate in a manner that produces results.


Public Tantrums

The tendency is to feel embarrassed and lash out when tantrums happen away from home, right under the public eye. However, understand that tantrums are not necessarily a reflection of your parenting skills. What’s important is how you handle them.

So, when tantrums occur out there in the open, don’t forget the dos and don’ts previously outlined. The only difference in this scenario is that there will be a need to immediately carry your kicking and screaming toddler away from the prying eyes of the public, into a private place where he can calm down.


When accompanied with biting, hitting, kicking and fighting…

The fact that your toddler’s tantrums are accompanied with biting, hitting, kicking and fighting does not necessarily mean your child will grow up to be aggressive. He just may not understand how any of those actions hurt.

So, when any of the highlighted aggressive behaviours occur, first and foremost be sure not to hit or scream back in order to avoid him believing that these are acceptable behaviour patterns. Then, be quick to firmly remove him from the situation and give him a time-out (for e.g. leave him alone in his room) for a set time limit. However, first ensure there are no dangerous objects lying around in his room and keep checking on him through closed doors to be sure he is alright.

When the calm finally comes, express your disapproval to him and also explain the wrongness of his action. Be sure that he knows that the reason for the enforced time out were his actions and also let him know that the other kid got hurt because of him. In all of this make sure he knows you love him, even though you disapprove of his actions. Also, try to find out if there are underlying reasons behind his actions.

When to seek professional help…

There are rare occasions where underlying physical and mental conditions (such as chronic illnesses, language delays and learning disabilities) are behind the tantrums. So seek help if any of the listed conditions is suspected or if…

  • You have questions about how you’re handling the situation.
  • You feel out of control.
  • You always give in to your toddler.
  • The tantrums keep getting worse, longer and more regular.
  • Your child gets destructive and hurtful to both himself and others.

(Source: Mayoclinic, kids helath web md, nhs, ask dr sears)