About temper tantrums
Almost all children have temper tantrums every once in a while. Tantrums can be frustrating and challenging to manage, but the occasional tantrum is normal. Tantrums can involve behaviours ranging from whining and crying, to screaming, kicking, hitting, falling down and breath-holding.
Children experience feelings of frustration in the same way as adults do. Because of a young child’s limited vocabulary it is possible that they feel frustrated and 'unheard' more often than adults do. Children's problem solving skills are also still developing, so when they are faced with a challenging situation they may not be able to cope with the situation effectively, for example when they don't get their own way. Also, children do not have the same inhibitions as adults do, so when they feel like screaming, they go for it! The result is a classic temper tantrum.
Things to think about
Children do not have tantrums to intentionally annoy you. However, it is important that they learn and develop more effective and appropriate behaviours, so temper tantrums should be addressed if they occur.
Temper tantrums can occur for many reasons, such as the child feeling stressed, frustrated, hungry, tired, or over-excited. Tantrums may also occur when the child is in a situation they feel they cannot cope with, or when they feel they are not getting enough attention.
Think about your response
Children having temper tantrums can often evoke strong feelings of frustration, anger and embarrassment in you. Being aware of your emotional response to the situation can help you to stay calm. Temper tantrums are often difficult to manage and the outcome is not always satisfactory, which can lead to feelings of doubt and failure. However, if you remain consistent in your approach, this can help lead to a positive change in the child's behaviour.
What you can do
During a tantrum
- Remain calm. Shouting at the child or getting agitated yourself is unlikely to help. Remaining calm yourself can help calm the child down, and it also sets a positive example.
- For very young children, distraction can work very well. Try to get their attention focussed on something else.
- For older children, ignoring them is often a very effective way to end a tantrum, even though this can be very difficult or embarrassing when in a public place. If you don't give the child attention during a tantrum, they will realise there is no point in having a tantrum. This will also help prevent the behaviour in the future.
- Do not give in to the tantrum. For example, if the child is screaming in the supermarket because they want sweets, do not buy the sweets. If you give in, the child will learn that they get what they want by having a tantrum.
- Reasoning with the child during a tantrum generally doesn’t help - it just means you are giving them the attention they want. Instead, talk to them after they have calmed down, and try to teach them how to express their feelings in words rather than by having a tantrum.
- Physically hold or restrain a child who may cause harm to themselves or others. Tell them calmly that you can see that they are very angry and that you are going to hold them until they calm down. Holding the child can also be comforting and reassuring to them.
When they are calm
- After a tantrum, make sure the child knows you do not approve of the behaviour, but reassure them that you still love them.
- Once they have calmed down, reassure them that they are ok as tantrums can scare children and they do not like to feel out of control.
- Make sure you spend enough time with the child, so they don't have a tantrum just to get your attention. A tantrum is a way of getting your attention, even if it's negative, for example shouting at them. Spending time with your child can help prevent tantrums.
- Encourage the child to talk about their feelings, and teach them words that will help them do this. If they can express their feelings in words, then their needs or frustrations are less likely to be expressed as a tantrum.
- If a child copes effectively with a frustrating situation, praise them for the positive behaviour. This will make it more likely that they will do this again in the future.
- Stick to a regular routine, e.g. meals and bedtime, to avoid unexpected situations that may be overwhelming or stressful to the child.
- Give the child prior warning of things they may not want to do, for example telling them 5 minutes before bedtime, or letting them know a few minutes before you’re going to leave the park. This will allow the child to get ready for the change.
- Children need to be confronted with challenges in order to develop effective coping mechanisms, but if the situation is too challenging or overwhelming it can result in a tantrum. Try to limit situations where the child might get frustrated quickly.
This video gives tips to help with tantrums: