Why tantrums happen
Tantrums are common in children aged 1-3 years.
This is because young children are still at an early stage of social, emotional and language development. They cannot always communicate their needs and feelings, including the desire to do things for themselves, so they might get frustrated. And they are learning that how they behave influences others.
Tantrums happen when a child is feeling overwhelmed by an intense emotion that they are not able to process.
A tantrum can be sparked by many different reasons, the underlying issue is that a child is expressing an emotion which is ‘too big’, unknown, unmanageable, and overwhelming. It could be frustration, a desire to be more independent, a scary new experience, jealousy, or anger etc.
Letting it all out by having a tantrum is the way they feel able to express how they feel. So, tantrums are one of the ways that young children express and manage feelings, and try to understand or change what is going on around them.
Some children might also have a tantrum as a way to be ‘seen’, and to get the attention they crave.
It is important to remember that, no matter how trivial the reason for the tantrum may seem to us, it is a real and important feeling to them.
As they get older, children do need to learn other ways that they can express their feelings in a safe way, and they need to learn to manage intense emotions. Children do gradually learn these things as time goes by, but the only way to really work this out, is for them to actually start having the tantrums to begin with.
Older children can have tantrums too. This can be because they have not yet learned safe ways to express or manage feelings.
For both toddlers and older children, there are things that can make tantrums more likely to happen:
- Temperament – these influence how quickly and strongly children react to things like frustrating events or changes in their environment. Children who are more sensitive might be more easily upset by these things.
- Stress, hunger, tiredness and overstimulation – these can make it harder for children to express and manage feelings and stay calm.
- Situations that children just cannot cope with – for example, a toddler might have trouble coping if an older child takes a toy away.
- Strong emotions – worry, fear, shame and anger can be overwhelming for children.
Why is it important for us to step in with support?
When a tantrum happens, it is our role to help a child to moderate and contain the child’s feelings.
It is normal for the child to feel them, it is not pleasant for them to be overwhelmed by them, and it is also not ok for them to act them out in a physically aggressive way. For example, whilst anger may be a completely understandable feeling for a child to have, without help it can be a very scary feeling that could lead to a child withdrawing or becoming aggressive.
Children’s tantrums will reduce around the age of four. But this is not something they necessarily grow out of automatically. How we help toddlers with this behaviour is an important part of their development.
If they do not receive any help from adults, they will not have any resolution for the difficult feelings they had that lead to the tantrums to begin with. They also may not learn the skills they need to regulate themselves.
If they do receive help from adults, eventually the tantrums should decrease, and the feelings will become less overwhelming.
How to make tantrums less likely
These are a few things we can do to make tantrums less likely to happen:
- Help the child understand his/her emotions. We can do this from birth by using words to label feelings like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘cross’, ‘tired’, ‘hungry’ and ‘comfy’.
- Identify tantrum triggers like tiredness, hunger, worries, fears or overstimulation. We might be able to plan for these situations and avoid the triggers – for example, by going shopping after our child has had a nap or something to eat.
- When our child handles a difficult situation without a tantrum, encourage them to tune in to how this feel. For example, ‘I just saw we build that tower again without getting upset when it fell. How did that feel? Did we feel strong and calm?’
- Talk about emotions after a tantrum when our child is calm. For example, ‘Did you throw that toy because you were cross that it wasn’t working? What else could you have done?’
- Model positive reactions to stress. For example, ‘I am worried this traffic is making us late. If I take some deep breaths, it will help me stay calm’.