What All Parents Must Know About Tantrums

Tantrums are a Universal Experience: 

In the early years, tantrums tend to be one of parenting’s biggest challenges. Meltdowns are miserable for all involved - they are difficult to decode, to know how to effectively handle and how to prevent. However, if we have a better understanding of what tantrums are all about, we will have a better chance at reducing their frequency and intensity

Before we dive precisely into what tantrums are about, it is important to remember the following: regardless of the severity of tantrums, they signal that your child is struggling to regulate their emotions. On average, toddlers don’t have the linguistic capabilities to express their upset through words, so they naturally melt down as a means of developmentally appropriate expression. Although still taxing to navigate, keeping this context in mind as they scream through the grocery store has the potential to be a little bit helpful. 

Developmental Context: 

Ray Levy, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist explains that meltdowns that occur between the ages of 1-2 typically stem from an attempt to communicate a need; more food, a diaper change, a toy. For “mid range” toddlers, temper tantrums typically represent more of a power struggle. While toddlers grow into more autonomous beings, tantrums are guaranteed to be a part of the journey there. Once your child reaches preschool age, they tend to have increased capabilities to express their needs through words - but that doesn’t mean the tantrums stop there. Your child is continuing to learn how to regulate their emotions, so little incidents can spur large blowups. Older children melting down typically involves frustration trying a challenging task and the painful reality of being unsuccessful. 

One must remember that tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting; rather, they're an essential developmental stage that all families encounter. Linda Rubinowitz, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern stresses, "tantrums help kids learn to deal with their negative emotions." Although deeply unpleasant to be caught in the middle of, they are actually a healthy developmental stage that our kids must wrestle through.

Let’s Game plan: Prevention

While there is no universal, one-size-fits-all “cure” to tantrums, most experts are in alignment on what doesn’t work (yelling, hitting, bribing, giving in). There is no denying that for most parents, it is extremely difficult to keep our cools in the midst of our children melting down. However, when parents react calmly & consistently, and when kids effectively learn “no means no”, everybody feels a bit more in control. Murray Strauss, a professor of sociology and co-director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Lab explains, “when disciplining, it's important to focus on behavior.” He continues, “People say, 'that's unrealistic.' But it's not unrealistic to refrain from yelling at coworkers. We have to treat our children at least as well as we treat our colleagues.” 

Check out the following tips we endorse when preventing tantrums: 

  1. Establish routine & be consistent: It is important for your toddler to know what to expect. A child’s temper can become short when they don’t have enough sleep or when there are too many changes occurring. Consistency and routine help minimize the frequency at which our children are blindsided by change or meltdown from lack of sleep.
  2. Try to understand what typically triggers your child: A close look at your child’s tantrum patterns may be enlightening to you as a parent, and help you better understand the greater context. Clinical psychologist Dr Lopes articulates, “Anticipating those triggers, and modifying really important”.
  3. Help them better understand the source of their anger: Try to guess what emotion is behind your child’s anger and articulate it to them in a concrete way. For example: "I understand it that you are disappointed that we can't go out as planned," or "I can see that you're jealous that your brother has a friend over and you don’t”. It is important for you and for your child to better understand the source of the anger in order to most effectively address it. The great news is that we have a great game addressing these exact skills for kids of reading age and oldery: it is called "Behind the Anger". It is an engaging and playful card game that teaches kids about the range of emotions that often hide behind anger, and the different coping strategies available to them.

Let’s Game plan: Response

  1. Model calm behavior: Parents need time outs too - and this is an excellent example for your little ones to witness on how to effectively remove yourself from a situation when it becomes too much to handle, not as punishment but as a source of strength and self awareness. 
  2. Help them label their feelings: “Boy, you are really frustrated that you can't stay longer", or "I can see that you're stressed about winning”
  3. Redirect them: “I can’t let you hit your brother; but you can hit this drum/pillow.”
  4. Get down to their level: “You sound frustrated. Can you show me what about?”
  5. Speak to them firmly but compassionately so they understand their behavior is not acceptable, but your love and care are unconditional and that you want to help them as long as they don’t become destructive.
  6. Give your child some space: If a toddler wants to get their anger out in a non-destructive way, it’s fine to let them engage with the anger. By doing so, they are able to express their anger, pull themselves together and regain self-control without getting involved in a never ending, destructive duel.  

Moving Forward

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does contain some of our top tantrum pointers. At the end of the day, we must be compassionate with ourselves, as navigating tantrums calmly as parents is no easy feat. Lastly, we urge you to reinforce positive behavior with praise and encouragement. The New York Times reminds us, “young children are hard-wired to seek parental attention of any kind, so try to reserve your most intense reactions for behavior you’d like to see repeated”.