Understanding temper tantrums and how to intervene

Understanding temper tantrums and how to intervene
How can you help your child control their temper?


Tantrums: A normal stage of development

Tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development. They’re especially common from the age of 18 months, when children are beginning to develop autonomy. Some tantrums are over in minutes, while others can last for more than an hour.

Some children are more prone to having tantrums than others. This may be because they have a more assertive temperament or a lower tolerance for frustration. It has also been observed that tantrums are more frequent in children who are less comfortable expressing their dissatisfaction verbally. Their anger thus manifests itself through shouting and aggressive behaviour.

During a tantrum, a child may do the following:

  • Shout
  • Cry
  • Kick, punch, or headbutt
  • Bite
  • Roll around on the floor or make sudden movements
  • Throw objects
  • Refuse to be picked up
  • Hold their breath (don’t worry, they’ll start breathing normally again on their own)

Why do kids throw tantrums?

For a child, tantrums are often a way of reacting when they feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings or needs and are unable to express them. Even for a child with good verbal skills, putting emotions and feelings into words is difficult and takes practice and encouragement.

There are several common causes of tantrums:

  • The child can’t do what they want (they’re faced with a constraint)
  • They have to do something they don’t want to do
Managing emotions is difficult for young children, which is why even those with good language skills can throw tantrums.
  • They’re overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, anxiety, or even fear
  • They’re tired, hungry, excited, or not feeling well
  • They’ve failed at something they wanted to accomplish on their own
  • They lack the words to express themself
  • They’ve learned from experience that throwing a tantrum gets them what they want
  • They want attention, perhaps because they feel left out, ignored, or alone; they might also be used to being the centre of attention

How should you deal with tantrums?

Whatever it is that’s causing your child’s tantrums, here are some guidelines that can help you deal with them:

  • Start by trying to soothe and calm your child by naming what they’re feeling: “I can see you’re really mad!” If this isn’t working, however, back off. Trying to reason with your child may just make the tantrum last longer. Your little one likely isn’t in the best state to listen to you.
  • If your child isn’t listening to you, keep an eye on them from a distance. Let the tantrum run its course without intervening, except to ensure your child’s safety. For example, you should step in if they hit you or someone else, hit themself, or start throwing objects. You can keep your child away from objects and other people during their tantrum. Wait until it has passed to discuss it with them.
  • Stay calm during the tantrum, as getting angry at your child will only make things worse. If you raise your voice, not only will they yell louder, but you might frighten them, too. If you’re upset and another adult is present to ensure your child is safe, step away for a few minutes to compose yourself. If you’re alone with your child, take a few deep breaths to regain control of your emotions.
  • Remember that it’s important not to give in when your child throws a tantrum. Despite how tempting it can be to give them what they want, especially if they’re hitting you and screaming in public, giving in—even if you only do it once or twice—teaches your child that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want.
  • If you’re out in public, don’t worry about what the people around you might think. For every critic, there’s always someone who is understanding and genuinely sympathetic. Focus on how best to handle the situation and remember that there is no such thing as a perfect parent.
  • When the tantrum is over, hold your child to soothe and reassure them. Your child’s angry outbursts affect them, too, as they have difficulty controlling them. Help them talk about what happened, how they felt, and what made them angry. If they haven’t learned to talk yet, you can do it for them. For example, say: “You wanted to make a nice tower with your blocks, but it kept falling down when you put the blue one on top. That made you angry and you started yelling.”
  • Suggest one or two things your child can do instead of throwing a tantrum. This way, they’ll learn that there are other ways to express their displeasure besides shouting and hitting. For example, when they feel themself getting angry, have them stop and take a deep breath in while opening their arms out like a butterfly’s wings, then exhale while closing their “wings” over their heart. Your child can also express their anger in words or draw a picture of their anger.
  • Don’t put your child in a time-out when they throw a tantrum, as this may make them anxious. Stay within their field of vision; they’re probably as upset as you are about how they’re reacting.

How can you prevent tantrums?

Even though tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, you can help your little one have them less often. Just remember that no parent can prevent all of their child’s outbursts. Here are some tips for reducing the frequency of your child’s tantrums.

Meet their basic needs

  • Stick to a consistent routine for meals, snacks, and sleep.
  • Don’t let your child get too tired or too hungry. When you go out, remember to pack a snack.
  • If your child starts to become restless, try to figure out if they’re tired or hungry, if they need more space to play, etc.
  • If you know you’re going somewhere they’ll find boring, bring things that’ll keep them occupied.

Act before the first signs of anger

To prevent a tantrum occurring in public, clearly explain your rules before leaving. See what Nisrine, a mother of three, has to say (video in French).
nisrine1_thumb
  • Make sure your child is playing with toys that are appropriate for their age. They’ll be less likely to get frustrated.
  • Keep any objects your child isn’t allowed to touch out of sight and out of reach. Removing the temptation will help prevent tantrums.
  • When you sense that your child is getting angry, distract them or take them to another room.
  • Find strategies to prevent your little one’s usual frustrations. For example, if they often get upset when their little sister starts to take apart the puzzle they’re working on, ask if they want to sit at the kitchen table instead of on the floor.
  • When you go out together, let them know what to expect. For example, if you’re going grocery shopping, tell your child in advance that you won’t be buying them a treat, but that they can choose the cereal. You can also give them a small task to complete. Ask them to put the oranges in a bag, to point out things that are red or yellow, etc. When your child’s brain is focused on a task, they’re less likely to throw a tantrum.

Encourage alternative ways of expressing frustration

  • Help your child put their feelings into words and tell you how they feel. By encouraging them to talk about their feelings, you can help them better control their emotions and not be overwhelmed by them.
  • Be patient and try to set a good example. If you make an effort to control your anger and frustration, your child will tend to do the same. On the other hand, it’s hard to insist that they learn to stay calm if you yourself go off the rails at the slightest provocation. When you’re not happy about something, say out loud what you’ll do to feel better: “I’m disappointed that Martine won’t be coming to dinner, but I’ll watch a good movie instead!”
  • Praise your child when they’re able to express their needs and negative emotions in words rather than through tantrums.

When should you consult a professional?

Tantrums typically become less intense and less frequent around age 3 or 4. At this time, your child is developing better control of their impulses and can also express themself better in words. However, if your child continues to have several tantrums a week and their intensity does not decrease (e.g., your child has difficulty calming down or hurts themself or others), you should make an appointment with their doctor or at your local CLSC. Their tantrums may be concealing another problem; specialists can help you identify it and work with you to find solutions.

 

Things to keep in mind

  • Temper tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development and usually occur between 18 and 36 months.
  • When your child throws a tantrum, try to stay calm. Getting angry will only make things worse.
  • You can’t prevent all of your child’s tantrums, but you can help reduce their frequency and intensity.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2017

 

Photo: iStock.com/PeopleImages

 

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Bourcier, Sylvie. L’agressivité chez l’enfant de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2008, 224 pp.
  • Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Aggression.” www.child-encyclopedia.com
  • Government of Manitoba. “Temper Tantrums.” www.gov.mb.ca
  • LigneParents. www.ligneparents.com or 1-800-361-5085 (French only)

Books for kids

  • Desputeaux, Hélène. Mella : Une mauvaise journée. Beloeil, desputeaux + aubin, 2008, 12 pp.
  • Latulippe, Martine, and Nathalie Parent. La colère de Fabien. Mammouth rose, June 2020, 32 pp.
  • Moses, Brian. I Feel Angry. Turtleback, 1999, 32 pp.

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