Temper tantrums can be one of the most challenging behaviours to face as a parent. It is easy to feel frustrated and overwhelmed when your child is crying, screaming and lashing out for what feels like no reason at all. However, despite the distress (and often public embarrassment) that tantrums cause, these meltdowns are a common and necessary developmental milestone for children as they learn to cope with and express strong feelings such as stress, anger and frustration.
Why Do Children Have Tantrums?
Just like adults, young children are emotional beings who experience a variety of emotions day-to-day. However, unlike adults, they do not have the mental capacity to deal with these emotions in a calm and rational way. This is because their cortex (the logical part of the brain) is not yet developed, and they rely mainly on the limbic system (the emotional centre of the brain) to make sense of their world. Tantrums peak during the ‘terrible twos’ as children start developing a stronger sense of individual and social awareness, but lack the words to express their thoughts and emotions to others.
Triggers for Tantrums
Although tantrums are a normal part of child development, certain conditions can make them more likely to happen. These include the following:
- Strong emotions (e.g. shame, disappointment, worry, fear or anger)
- An overstimulating environment
- The child’s temperament
How to Reduce Tantrums
Below are some suggestions for how to reduce the likelihood of a tantrum:
- Make sure your child has a consistent eating and sleeping routine.
- Ensure your child is eating a healthy balanced diet that is low in sugar and processed foods.
- Pay attention to the conditions and environments that had caused tantrums previously. You can plan around them or adjust them to avoid future upset.
- Explore ways of communicating emotions with your child. This could include encouraging them to use words to name their feelings, or to point to what is causing distress.
- Make sure to praise your child when they communicate their emotions. It is important to convey the idea to your child that all emotions are normal and okay, but particular behaviours are not (e.g., hitting, throwing things).
- Allow your child simple control over their environment, for example, choosing what game to play or what fruit they would like to eat. This increases their feelings of control over their environment.
- Be consistent with your parenting. Your child should know what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour.
- Use much more praise and rewards than consequences or reprimands. If it seems like your child is misbehaving all the time and that this isn’t possible, look extra carefully for opportunities to catch them behaving well and praise them quickly.
- Spend quality one-on-one time with your child. It’s quality here that matters. It may only need to be 5 or 10 minutes one-one-one time per day that your child has your undivided attention to play with them.
How to Deal with Tantrums
It is important to remember that temper tantrums during a child’s early years is not a deliberate attempt by the child to hurt or embarrass you as a parent. Instead, your child is feeling upsetting emotions that they do not know how to cope with and need your help in calming themselves down. Tantrums need to be responded to in a calm, rational and loving way as this provides a model for their behaviour and reassures them that their emotions will pass.
Below are some ideas that can help you to develop a clear strategy for dealing with tantrums:
- Acknowledge and name your child’s feelings. This can help your child learn to recognise their emotions and the circumstances that caused it.
- Don’t give in to your child’s demands. Instead, explain your reasons while avoiding negative words such as “no”.
- Wait for the tantrum to end. Depending on what has worked in the past, your child may need space and time on their own, or they may want you close by to make sure they are safe.
- Console your child once the tantrum has subsided and reassure them that you love them.
- Remember that you can’t control your child’s emotions, but can guide their behaviour through calm and consistent parenting. This may take time and requires consistency and patience.
When Tantrums Become a Behavioural Problem
If a child has long-lasting (15 minutes or more) tantrums, multiple times a day and after preschool age that they may be experiencing an underlying behavioural or developmental issue, for example, ADHD or This could be ADHD or DMDD (disruptive mood dysregulation disorder).
Whether there is an underlying behavioural problem or not, learning some strategies from a child psychologist can be helpful and effective, and help to reduce the stress at home.
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for tantrums in preschoolers or children, behaviour problems or parenting skills, or to book an appointment with one of our child clinical psychologists who provides treatment for these issues, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.