How to understand tantrums

Is your toddler going through the terrible twos or terrible threes?

If this is the fact you are not the only parent, 75% of toddlers frequently lose it, so don not despair, understanding why toddler tantrums occur and what you can do to deal with them, is the most important thing to stop them in their tracks.

What is a tantrum?

Apart from being a very public display of your skills as a parent, a tantrum is really about your toddler realizing that he or she is a separate person, with their own voice and views who does not want to be told what to do by anyone; not you, not his or her friends, not by relatives or even not by their grandparents. For this reason when your toddler feels he or she is losing control for any reason, they become overwhelmed by their feelings, and feel a flood of emotions, which triggers a tantrum.

What are the signs of a tantrum?

  • Look for signs of fatigue or hunger. When a toddler is very tired or hungry it is more likely that he or she could get overwhelmed and go into a rage, which could cause a toddler tantrum. Don’t forget they don’t always know what their feelings are so they won’t be able to tell you what they need.
  • Look for signals of increasing stress. When you push your child to his limit and want him or her to go faster than he or she can handle, could cause an emotional breakdown. Just in the same way as when we would be pushed to go over our limits. Look for signals of impending anger. A toddler wants most of all to get control over his/her life, so when they constantly get a “no” as an answer this could cause a huge tantrum.  Think carefully before saying “no”, are you saying “no” to help your toddler? Or are you saying “no” to help yourself?
  • Looks for signals of growing frustration. Frustration will always induce a tantrum. Your child gets frustrated because he or she is too young to understand why he/she can’t do everything he/she wants,  like for instance climbing onto a table or having a candy.
  • Look for signals of distress. Anxiety could also cause a fury especially when you are leaving without them, or when another child infringes their space. You could prevent this by preparing your child for what is going to happen, or distract their attention from who is distressing them.

crying kid

How to deal with tantrums?

  • The most efficient way to control tantrums is to give your child the feeling that he or she is in control. “Offer a choice within a choice”, is the advice of health visitor Emma Leigh. For example you could say:”Would you like to hold my hand or hold your fathers hand when we crossover?” or “Would you like to wear your boots or your sneakers to school?” This gives a child the feeling that he/she is making the decisions and that they have got some control over the situation.
  • Do not take the tantrums personally. Keep reminding yourself that a tantrum has nothing to do with you it’s about your kid being overwhelmed. So try to talk with a calm voice and keep a relax body language. Try not to pick up your child when they are having a tantrum, only when they are in danger, and reassure your child with a low voice that everything will be ok. “Naming the emotion can also help here”, says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. You could say something like: “I understand you are angry now because … has happened, but everything is ok, we will figure it out. I’m here for you.” and then they will probably calm down.
  • When trying to solve a tantrum don’t try reasoning. “Trying to approach a child’s rage logically won’t work”, says Emma Leigh. “Toddlers are not logical and they don’t want to talk when they are in a mid-tantrum. The best you could do is try to distract them away from whatever is upsetting them, give them a hug or something so they get distracted. Toddlers have a very short attention span so they can be distracted easily.”

Some children have huge tantrums and even though these are very tiring, they aren’t a big problem, unless:

  • They try to hurt themselves when in a rage. When breath holding, and hitting themselves are common, consult your GP for advice if you’re worried.
  • Try to hurt you when they are in a mid tantrum. When this happens it’s best to talk to your health visitor about it because they could also hurt siblings or other children.

you shouldn’t do?

  • Do not get angry too, it will only make the situation worse.
  • Do not punish your child of having a tantrums – it won’t solve anything. It is important to find out and understand what has caused the rage and deal with that.
  • Do not think that it is wrong to cuddle your child after he/she had a tantrum because you are afraid that he/she might think that you approve. A raging toddler is upset and overwhelmed and needs comforting by you.
  • Do not worry about other people and what they might be thinking, especially in public. They do not know anything about you or your kid.
  • Do not bribe your kid out of a tantrum it won’t solve or teach them anything.

2 thoughts on “How to understand tantrums

  1. Anon

    It can be difficult to ignore other people around you when your child is having a tantrum in public because everyone has advice on how to handle it. I’m more will to listen to another parent or grandparent (especially those that have a child with them) vs. a person without any children. They have a better idea of how to handle it based on their own experiences. Those with children can end up helping even more because children can sometimes get distracted by other children. It doesn’t always work, and can sometimes make things worse, but in my own experience as a mother I’ve noticed it has helped. My younger son likes to pinch or hit when upset if he is unable to hit his head on the floor. His dr. isn’t concerned at this time, but has given me advice on how to help him through his frustration. He’s under 2 and his dr. thinks he’ll grow out of it with time, patients, and guidance. My other son, 4, has just started pre-school and has had a few meltdowns in and out of school. I hope as he gets used to his new routines he is better able to deal with his stress. His teacher and I are working together to help him. It’s nice when a teacher is on-board and willing to help. You hear all too often of children getting ignored when they should be listened to and when they act out just to get attention, they get in trouble. It’s so sad. I’m glad that there are people, like the person in charge of this site, that are willing to help others with good advice.

    1. Alex

      Hi Anon. I do realize that your posting is almost 10 months old, but I only heard about this website recently, and trying to cope with my son’s tantrums is also a new activity in my life. My son is 20 months old and he has the same “action items” on his agenda everytime he’s frustrated: trying to hit me or his dad if he is unable to hit his head on the floor. Fortunatley his tantrums do not happen very often, and outside these moments he’s a very sweet little thing, simply adorable. We’ll see his doctor next month, but I was just wondering: was your youngest one outgrowing these episodes, or can you share some remedies (if any)?


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