Throwing tantrums is a completely normal part of every young child’s development. As their brains grow and their limbic system (the emotional centre) starts firing on all cylinders, children’s view of the world changes and they start reacting to everyday situations through an emotional lens.
Despite it being a natural growth stage, that doesn’t make it any easier for parents. Whether it’s stress, hunger, overstimulation, tiredness or a range of other contributing factors, when your child throws a tantrum it can be difficult to cope – especially if it happens in public!
The good news is there are ways to help minimise their frequency and intensity. These strategies can also explain the reasons behind your child’s tantrums so you can help them learn and grow from their outbursts.
RECOGNISE WHAT'S NORMAL
Any parent will tell you that tantrums can manifest in the most inexplicable ways – from general crying and screaming right through to full-body meltdowns that include hitting, kicking, flailing limbs and even holding their breath.
It can be mortifying to see your child express their emotions in such extreme ways, and even a little scary if they appear to be hurting themselves in the process. That’s why it’s important to understand what is a normal tantrum and what may need further investigation.
Research shows that about 7% of children have multiple tantrums every day that last at least 15 minutes each time. Around half of these children will have underlying behavioural or developmental problems.
These figures are only to paint a picture that it’s a very small proportion of children who act out for reasons other than natural childhood development.
TAKE A NUANCED APPROACH
That being said, tantrums shouldn’t be ignored and doing so may actually escalate stress in your home – that’s why it’s critical that you as their parent and every other member of the family household has a ‘tantrum system’ to cope with these outbursts.
One of the best strategies to deploy is to offer your child choices. Handing them the decision-making reins gives them exactly what they are craving but can’t yet articulate: independence. It also allows you to control the choices they are given – so long as you keep them narrow. For example, rather than asking your child “What are you hungry for?” instead ask “Would you like a banana or a rice cracker?”
As your toddler grows into pre-school age, this type of encouragement for decision-making will help them to express their feelings and emotions in words – rather than in physical or non-verbal outbursts.
QUICK AND EASY TANTRUM HACKS
Need a quick trick in your time of need? Try these eight simple tantrum hacks:
Prevention is better than cure: You can reduce the chances of your child having a tantrum by ensuring they are well-rested, well-fed and not unduly stressed.
Save ‘no’ for only important issues: It’s easy to over-monitor your child, but they need the freedom to play and learn on their own. If they are making a mess or having lots of loud fun, maybe save the negative ‘no’ or ‘stop doing that’ for a time when the issue truly calls for it.
Stay calm: As the parent, it’s up to you to control your emotions even in the face of a nasty tantrum. After all, your child can read your reactions and will look to you for support and direction.
Distractions: Making a quick change of environment or distracting them with something interesting can help stop a tantrum in its tracks – well before it reaches full-throttle.
Undo frustrations: Is your child having a tantrum because he or she can’t do up their own shoelaces? Use this as a time to help them master a new skill so they don’t have to be continually frustrated with themselves.
Timeout: So long as your child is old enough to understand what ‘timeout’ means, child specialists recommend giving them one minute for every year old they are – so five minutes of timeout for a five-year-old.
Pick your battles: Yes, consistency is key. However, that doesn’t mean compromising your child’s safety or making an issue bigger than it needs to be. Sometimes, researchers say, a showdown may not be worth it in the long run.
Reconcile after a tantrum: No matter how long, how loud or how embarrassing your child’s tantrum is, it’s important to ‘make up’ after their emotions have levelled out. You might be surprised just how many children want to finish their tantrums with a loving hug from their parent, signalling the end of their outburst and a return to normalcy – at least for a while!
Tantrums are a normal part of life for nearly 90% of children aged between one and four, so don’t take it as reflective on you as a parent when your child has loud and cranky outbursts. Instead, take a breath and implement a few of these strategies to minimise the impact of the tantrum. And most importantly, use the time following the tantrum as a learning moment – for both of you.