Updated: Sep 11, 2019
As your little one is kicking and screaming, you’re probably starting to wonder where you went wrong. Handling tantrums is one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Every child will throw them at some point, and it can be hard to find the best way to approach them. While tantrums may seem impossible to prevent and manage, this actually isn’t the case!
Tantrums almost always have a specific cause, as well as a way to help reel it back in. When your kiddo loses their cool, having the tools to work with them will make a world of difference.
What Causes Tantrums?
Tantrums are the result of a child being overwhelmed by their emotions. When they begin acting out, this is their way of trying to communicate these emotions.
Children are not cognitively, or emotionally mature enough to have a one-on-one conversation like adults do when presented with conflict. So, they act on impulse as a way to change what is bothering them.
Imagine that something has caused you so much anger or sadness, but you were incapable of wording these feelings to others. You would probably throw a tantrum too! A lack of communication skills will cause the child to scream, cry, or become aggressive as an attempt to communicate.
Tantrums are seen the most from children around 1-3 years old. Although tantrums are seen more often from young children, older children also lose control sometimes. A child’s temperament will also impact their emotional response. Children who are naturally more aggressive or sensitive will throw tantrums more often than children with a milder temperament.
What Specifically Triggers a Tantrum?
What triggers a tantrum varies from child to child. Some children get upset over something as small as dropping a toy, while others will save this response for more dramatic situations, such as losing their favorite stuffed animal. To begin to understand what causes a tantrum for a specific child, their reactions will need to be observed to find a similar trigger in each situation.
Regardless, children often throw tantrums about situations that adults find easy to solve. This is because kids are much more sensitive to what occurs around them. They don’t have the cognitive ability yet to practice problem solving skills or to decide what is worth getting upset over.
Lacking an understanding of how to fix a problem is very upsetting for children, especially when so many different things are seen as problems to them. It also doesn’t help when the child is tired or hungry, which will really heighten the chances of a meltdown happening.
What Can You do to Help Avoid Tantrums?
If you notice your child starting to get worked up, there are ways to stop it from escalating to a full-on tantrum.
Distraction is a pretty simple way to stop a tantrum. Ask for help with a simple task and the child will often redirect their attention to that. Helping with easy things such as sorting toys or helping you carry something to the car will make a child feel capable and confident. It gives them that little boost of positivity that can possibly pull them away from those negative feelings.
Asking questions about a topic, or person of interest can also help redirect attention. Ask about their favorite show, who their favorite character is, what their favorite episode is, etc. Introducing a topic that they enjoy can replace the devastation they may be feeling with excitement.
Learn what mindful exercises your child enjoys the most and re-introduce these when they are starting to unravel. Some popular mindful exercises are…
o Pretend you’re blowing on hot cocoa to cool it down
o Perform a snake hiss by taking a deep breath in and letting it out with a hissing sound through the teeth
o Practice deep breaths while counting as high as possible
o Choose a category and have the child find things specific to it in the room (Ex: pink, round, or wooden)
o Try to draw the emotion that you are feeling
· Healthy physical release of tension
o Squeeze a stress ball
o Hug a teddy bear tightly
What Should You Do Once the Tantrum is Happening?
If your child is already in the midst of a tantrum, sometimes it’s better to just let them blow off steam on their own and avoid overstimulation. Trying to get through to them when they are just seeing red may be doing more harm than good. Let them spend some time alone to think about the situation, and once they have calmed down a bit, try to talk through it with them.
Make sure that you are nearby to make sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else.
Once the tantrum has passed, you can take this opportunity to understand what happened. Acknowledge the feelings you saw and dissect them so you can help the child process what happened as well.
Ex: “I noticed you were angry about washing your hands. Do you know why you don’t like washing your hands?”
They will probably attempt to explain, and if not, they may tell you they don’t know. If they don’t understand, offer some guidance to help them.
Ex: “Do you think washing your hands makes you sad because you want to eat sooner?”
They may have an answer, but they may not. If they’re unsure, calmly explain to them the effect hand-washing will have on their life.
“I understand why you feel that way. If we don’t wash our hands before lunch though, we might get sick. You don’t like being sick, do you?”
They will more than likely respond with “no.” Once they have realized why washing hands is important, try to establish a plan.
“Since you don’t want to get sick, what should we do at hand-washing time?”
If the conflict is still not resolved at this point, continue assisting them with making sense out of the situation. Avoid telling them the answer so they can practice their problem-solving skills by brainstorming a solution. Asking questions that hint at the solution will get them thinking critically.
If they chose to hit, scream, or do something else undesirable, still let them know that it’s okay to feel what they were feeling in that moment. Once you have reinforced the idea that they have a right to their feelings, remind them that the way they chose to react as a result of those emotions was not a good choice.
Offer alternatives to becoming aggressive or screaming by creating a safe space for them to go to when they are starting to boil over. Consider converting a corner of their bedroom by setting up a seating area with access to coloring pads, stress balls, or anything else that will help calm them. This will offer an alternative option to taking their frustrations out on others. Once they have calmed, encourage them to discuss what was bothering them.
The safe space should not be used as a timeout area. This space should be available for them to willingly go to when they are trying to calm themselves.
If children are too young to reason through their feelings or talk, you may need to pay special attention to the triggers for their tantrum. If your little one is an infant, do your best to make sure they are fed and well-rested before being taken to the grocery store. Bring toys you know can distract and calm them if they are starting to get a little bit antsy.
It’s important to note that this advice is not suggesting that you should give in to a tantrum. While it’s important to validate the child’s emotions, they must still understand that you are in charge of them. If they’re given an object or choice that they are throwing a fit over, they will learn that tantrums earn them the things they want.
You don’t want to reward naughty behavior.
Maintaining Composure During a Tantrum
While it’s human nature to get angry and feel an urge to yell at your little one when they are throwing a fit, how you react is very important. Children pick up on energy, so adding more negative energy to the equation will not help anyone. Even if you’re shaking on the inside, try to keep your composure in front of your child.
Also, the more that you let that instinct win, the more you will lean on that when handling your child’s emotions. Talking with them about issues, as well as disciplining only in a way that is constructive (if you feel discipline is warranted) will help their development tremendously. This will also strengthen your relationship as they grow older, as they will see you as a loving and safe source for conflict resolution.
Your child will model what you do, not say. If you tell them to keep calm and not throw tantrums, but you are throwing a tantrum back when they upset you, they will model your actions instead.
It’s important that you don’t let your family, friends, or strangers in public make you feel like a bad parent when your child throws tantrums. If somebody has never had children, they might give you strange looks if your kiddo has a meltdown in public. Don’t let judgement convince you that you need to give in when you’re in public. The embarrassment you may be feeling in that moment will pay off as the child grows older!
Tantrums are definitely not easy to deal with, but they can become manageable. Always try to remember that your child is trying to make sense of their world, and they need your help to do that. Take control of tantrums instead of letting them take control of you!