If there’s one simple word that strikes fear into the heart of both parents and carers, it has to be the word “tantrum”. After all, they are almost impossible to avoid, difficult to understand, and in the heat of the moment, can be hard to handle.
Here Tanith Carey, author of “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parent”, with clinical child psychologist Dr. Angharad Rudkin, shares research from the book.
Are tantrums normal? How common are they?
Yes, they are a normal and necessary part of a child’s development.
In that moment, the child is handling the situation the only way they know how, which is using their bodies and crying.
Tantrums are usually caused by feelings of overwhelm, powerlessness, or frustration.
All these feelings are common for a small child, who doesn’t yet have the words to express how they feel and gets told what to do all day by adults at a time when they want to explore the world and become more independent.
Are tantrums a sign of bad parenting or childcare?
No, tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting.
But parents can sometimes react - with the best intentions – in ways that make them more serious and last longer!
For one thing, I think the shame that parents often feel when other people see their child having a tantrum can make things worse.
This is because the parent’s brain also goes into fight-or-flight mode – or they try to ‘showboat’ firm parenting in a bid to show ‘who’s in charge.’
This often makes it harder to respond in a more calm way, which is what your child needs now.
So I’d say to any parents, be kinder to yourself and reframe how you think of tantrums.
Avoid seeing them as a sign of defiance, or naughtiness, designed to make your life harder.
Toddler tantrums and the terrible twos – when do they start? Why are children at this age particularly prone to throwing tantrums, is there any science behind this?
You are likely to start seeing tantrums between the age of 18 months and two years.
At this age, they are also starting to master control of their bodies and becoming more independent. However, the fast pace of this physical development is racing ahead of their emotional development – hence the fireworks.
Throughout our lives, our reasoning and emotions are governed by the frontal lobes, which also put the brakes on emotional, impulsive behaviour. But at this age, this part of the brain is only just getting wired up. So toddlers can’t slow themselves down, without help.
What exactly causes tantrums? Are they caused by the child’s brain/external factors?
Children at this age want to be the boss but they’re also learning that the world is a place where not everyone does their bidding and that’s why tantrums start to happen now.
At two, they also understand far more than they can say at this age, which adds to their frustration. At the start of this year, they usually have a bank of between 50 to 200 words.
As their vocabulary lags behind what they want to express, this leads to irritation - they are not being understood, which can manifest as tantrums.
Are some children just ‘better behaved’ than others?
Some children are more reactive or more ‘wired’ to react and some find it more difficult to communicate than others. These children need more help from grownups to notice their triggers and work out what to do to handle them.
So it’s not really about being ‘badly behaved.’
Is there anything you can do, as an adult, to avoid tantrums?
As a parent, you can reduce the number of tantrums and how long they last by staying calm, providing reassurance, and helping a child to feel heard.
Look for flashpoints like transition times – when they are switching from one activity to another – like going from playing with their toys to having to have a bath.
These can be difficult - and feel like a real wrench to a toddler engrossed in a play - so give them lots of warnings. Say you understand they are sad to have to do something new, so they won’t feel the need to protest as much. Also, give them some time to finish what they are doing and prepare them for the next step by giving gentle and firm warnings like: “One more turn making a Lego tower and then it’s bath-time.”
As a child gets older, get them to notice the signs they are about to blow.
Help them imagine their anger as a volcano or something outside themselves so they find it easier to talk about.
Give them some words to express themselves. Suggest when they feel like they are going to get angry, that again he tells you first: ‘I’m tired, ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I need some quiet time’ or ‘I want you to listen’.
What are some of the most effective ways to handle a tantrum?
First, make sure the child won’t get hurt. In public, try to gently take them to a quiet place where others are not watching and where you can deal with it more calmly – out of the public gaze.
Stay close and be calm. Remain nearby but don’t try and reason with the child initially.
When the worst has passed, and the child starts to settle, get down on their level, use a soft voice and a gentle touch to soothe and encourage them to respond more calmly.
How can I head off a tantrum before it happens?
You will never be able to avoid tantrums completely, but you can reduce how often they happen and how long they last.
To head off tantrums, also give a child more ‘safe’ power so they feel less of the need to exercise their will via a tantrum.
For example, if a child is refusing to wear their coat to go outside tell them: “I can see this is hard for you today. I can help you decide what to wear outside if you like”.
By allowing them to say what they want, they are more likely to relax. Or offer them the choice of two coats so they feel they have some input. After a tantrum, don’t shame or tell a child they have been naughty.
Chat to your child about what you both could have done differently – and let them try to express, even if only in basic words, how they felt then and how they feel now.
What are some phrases to avoid and use during a tantrum?
Don’t tell a child to “Stop this now” and “You’re OK. Say things instead like’ I’m here”.
Use short simple sentences “Big breaths” – to remind them to breathe deeply and calm themselves - and offer a cuddle when they are starting to calm down.
Is it ever okay to ‘give in’ to a tantrum?
I don’t think ‘give in’ is a helpful way of looking at it. It frames the tantrum as a battle of wills between parent and adult. Hold onto reasonable limits and manage the situation and use distraction instead which still works well at this age.
At what point are toddler tantrums a worry?
Seek some professional help if the tantrums are becoming regularly very numerous.
So five to ten tantrums are a sign of a bad day. But if these bad days are the norm, then it might be time to seek some outside help.
Researchers have found the average tantrum lasts about 11 minutes though it probably seems longer than that. But when a child’s typical tantrums last more than 25 minutes – and they are regularly deliberately hurting themselves, then it’s wise to get the situation looked at.
Is there any advice for keeping calmer yourself when a child has a tantrum?
It will be a lot easier to remain calm if you see tantrums as a necessary phase of development - a sign that a child’s physical development has raced ahead of their emotional development.
It’s not a sign of ‘naughtiness’ or ‘bad behaviour’. It’s a sign a child is becoming more independent and learning through, trial and error, how to manage their emotions.
Understand instead that at this age their higher brains just aren’t developed enough yet to deal with the powerful feelings they are experiencing. While it’s happening, take some deep breaths and view it as like a cloud flying overhead. It will soon pass. Remember that a child doesn’t enjoy having a tantrum. What they want most is to feel safe and back in control.
With your help and time, these outbursts will get less and less. See it is a necessary phase that a toddler will pass through.
About the author:
Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”.
An award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on parenting for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, in which she also serialises and promotes her books. She is also a regular presence on TV and radio programmes, including the NBC Today Show in the US and Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours.
Her full bio can be found on her website at www.cliomedia.co.uk and you can follow her on social media channels @tanithcarey.