Whether your child kicks and screams out of sheer frustration, or throws a tantrum every time she doesn’t get her way, most parents will admit that along with sleep deprivation, tantrums are one of the most challenging behavioural issues to navigate through. In fact, according to the Child Mind Institute in the USA, tantrums and meltdowns are hard for parents to understand, hard to prevent, and even harder to respond to effectively when they’re happening.
What is a tantrum and why do kids have them?
While some experts argue that tantrums should be developmentally expected (hello terrible twos!), the consensus is that tantrums happen as a result of children being unable to regulate their emotions in any given situation. Tantrums have much to do with anger and the need to be in control of a situation. A major tantrum trigger is often the word, “No”.
The difference between a meltdown and a tantrum
Researchers at the Child Mind Institute explain that a tantrum is commonly used to describe a minor outburst that’ll more than likely subside in a few minutes. When a child has a tantrum, they still have a level of control over their actions.
However, a meltdown is when a child loses control completely and the child ends up being totally worn out. Meltdowns can last much longer than a tantrum, and the behaviour may only stop when you’re able to calm your child down, or she’s totally worn out.
Developing impulse control
Whether your child is having a tantrum or a meltdown, it’s important to note that children only develop impulse control from the age of 4.
Fran Walfish, a child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent says, “The toddler phase of development, beginning at the age of 18 months and rounding out at age 4, is the period of time when children are practising and learning delayed gratification and impulse control.”
Until our children learn to control their impulses on their own, it is our job to help them process their emotions.
Lecturer, teacher and education expert Simone Tonkin, who is also a mom of twin girls, has the following advice on how to deal with your child’s tantrums, and what not to do when your child is in the throes of one:
Dos and don’ts of managing tantrums
Don’t lose your temper yourself
Even if you’re feeling angry, anxious or upset, it’s important that as the parent, you practise impulse control and remain calm when your child is having a tantrum. It will only worsen if your child sees you losing it, too. Avoid shouting at all costs. It won’t diffuse the situation.
Do remain calm and be consistent with your words and actions
If your child is lashing out physically, keep asserting that, “We don’t hit or kick.” In this way you’re putting up limits and boundaries without escalating the situation.
Don’t respond aggressively when your child is having a tantrum
It’s never a good idea to humiliate or smack your child in public when she’s having a tantrum. This will only make the situation worse and break the bond of trust you may have established with your little one. Also, when your child is in an irrational state and in the throes of an emotional outburst, your aggression will only heighten your child’s emotions.
Do try to diffuse the situation
Some children have tantrums to express frustration, while others simply want more attention even if it’s negative attention. However, you want to show your child that a tantrum is not the best way to get your attention – which is why walking away is an effective strategy for many parents.
In his book, Parenting with Panache, parenting and discipline expert Derek Jackson, explains, “When a child is doing something negative like throwing a tantrum on the floor, pretend you don’t see him.” In other words, read a book, go for a walk, and ignore. As soon as your child calms down, say something like, “What a lovely smile! Come give mom a hug, then let’s go out and play together.”
If you follow this approach, gradually and subconsciously, your child will come to realise that she doesn’t get attention when she’s disruptive – she gets it when she’s happy and positive.
Don’t give in to your child’s tantrum
As much as you might like to give your child what she wants in that moment to stop the embarrassing outburst, it’s critical that you stand your ground and don’t give in. You don’t want your child to think that if she throws a tantrum, she’ll always get her way. This is simply reasserting the negative behaviour and letting your child know she has the upper hand. You also don’t want to perpetuate the desire for instant gratification.
Do allow your child to express her frustration or anger…
Then let her know you understand she’s frustrated but that her tantrum won’t lead to the desired outcome. In this way, you’re showing empathy and understanding about her emotions, but you’re not condoning her emotional outburst. Later, once your child has calmed down and demonstrates an act of kindness or listens to you, you can praise your child and give plenty of positive affirmations.
Don’t break your child’s character down
I’ve heard parents threaten their children in public or say things like, “You look so ridiculous when you cry.” You never want to break your child’s character down, even if you don’t like their behaviour. You want to avoid shaming at all costs and rather demonstrate that you love your child and want to help her. Your approach should always be to build your child’s character and help her learn to deal with her emotions in a more mature way – as she gets older.
A tantrum is a good opportunity to teach. Remember, crying, feeling angry and expressing emotions isn’t a bad thing, as long as your child doesn’t hurt herself or others in the process. Boundaries still need to be in place.
Do let your child have a tantrum in a safe, neutral space
This will allow her to express her emotions, which will then give you a chance to talk to her about her feelings once she’s calmed down.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike. Learn more about Tammy Jacks .