All children tantrum. Some children are better at it than others. Some are very dramatic throwing every ounce of energy they have into the tantrum. Some are excellent at finding the most inconvenient time or most embarrassing place to let lose. Many children are excellent at drawing their parents into the drama, making them feel responsible for the upset and uncertain about how to respond.
All parents respond to tantrumming. Some responses are more useful than others. Some responses tend to reinforce the tantrums, keeping them going longer than necessary and setting the stage for the next one. Other responses are neutral. The best responses help the child understand and learn to manage emotional upset. They may not stop the tantrum in the moment but can they help lead the child toward calmer solutions in the future.
Before I go any farther, I want to state that you cannot judge a parent by a child’s tantrums. Some children are more tightly wound than others; some family situations are more difficult to manage. All families have bad days. So Judge not, not even yourself, based on how loudly, how often, or how publicly a child tantrums.
Why They Do It
Children tantrum for three basic reasons: To communicate, to gain control, and to release emotional energy.
First of all, tantrumming is a way to communicate. Children were infants not all that long ago. How do infants communicate? Through pure emotional response. They cry, they smile, they scream, they giggle. Through these reactions a parent learns how the child is feeling, what she needs, what she likes and dislikes. As they develop into toddlers, children learn gestures and then words to enhance their communication skills. They learn to get across the finer points, “I want my milk in a green cup.” But when stressed, children regress. They lose track of their language skills and fall back into pure emotional expression to let you know how they feel and what they want and need.
The second reason children tantrum is to gain control, to get what they want. This is the best understood reason for tantrumming, and many people assume it is the only reason for children tantrum. Gaining control is a powerful reason for tantrumming and when it works, Wow, what a tool! I can get mom or dad to back down and do things my way just by letting lose.
The third reason children tantrum is to discharge emotional energy. Emotions are physical reactions in the body. We call them feelings because we feel them. We experience a tensing or relaxing of muscles, a sensation of lightness or heaviness. The nervous system readies for action, ready to respond to perceived threat or opportunity. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the need for physical release. Laughing, crying, and tantrumming are all physical releases of emotional energy. Some children tantrum more because they feel things more intensely or they have less control over the magnitude and direction of the physical response.
How to Get Through It
Tantrums are difficult to manage because they play into our own stuff. They make us feel out of control. They trigger all our insecurities as parents (If I were a better parent I would know what to do, my child wouldn’t tantrum). For this reason, parents (I am no exception) sometimes become angry and punitive during tantrums. While this is understandable, it is not usually helpful and often prolongs the tantrum.
The message you want to give your child during a tantrum is this: I am here, I will not desert you. Neither will I be drawn into this drama or allow it to influence my decision-making.
So what to do during a tantrum? Address all three needs. First let the child know s/he has communicated with you. This is not the time to try to get him to use his words. Just let the child know that you see how she or he is feeling and that you know (if you do) what it is s/he wants. Simple statements like this are helpful:
“You’re really sad. You don’t want mommy to go out. You want mommy to stay right here.”
“You are so mad. You want a cookie right now.”
When the main reason for the tantrum is to communicate, a little empathy can go a long way.
Second, let the child know you will not change your mind because of the tantrum. When a child looks headed for a trantrum and it’s his will against yours, you need to make a quick decision. Is this worth going to the mat for? Take a mental survey of all relevant information. What is the child trying to communicate? Does he have a point? Is there room for compromise? If so it’s fine to back peddle, admit your mistake, see if you can work out a solution. Your statement to your child will be something like this:
“You’re right, I did say you could have the green cup next time. I’ll get it for you.”
“I said no chips but I forgot It’s already past your lunch time and we won’t be home for half an hour. I can see you are too hungry to wait.”
There are times when you need to stick to ‘no’ and the child needs to learn that tantrumming will not change the outcome. Do not negotiate, do not explain, do not be drawn into endless rounds of, “Why can’t I?” Just set the limit and hold it. At the same time accept and name the emotion being expressed. Statements like this one are useful:
“You can be as mad as you need to be but the answer is still No.”
“I see how sad you are that we can’t stay longer but we are leaving now.”
Third, accept the need for physical release. Children tantrum because they are having a bad day, or a bad moment in an otherwise fine day, not because you are a bad parent. Reminding yourself of this can help you stay calm and weather the storm. You can go about your business as much as possible in spite of the screaming or you can stop and focus on the child, turning your whole attention to her while she goes through the tantrum. Either way your ability to stay calm can be reassuring to the child and help shorten the duration.
It is sometimes necessary to set limits so the tantrum does not create safety hazards or interfere with other people unduly.
“I see that you are mad but you may not yell at the table. It makes it hard for everyone to eat. You will need to leave the table until you calm down.”
“I know you are mad but there is no screaming in the car. If you can’t calm down I will have to pull over until you stop.”
If you are in a restaurant or movie theater take the child out. There are times and places it is simply not acceptable to carry on.
For some children a time out in another room is helpful to complete the tantrum and return to a calm state. This is especially true if the child is over stimulated. For other children separation during a tantrum causes heightened anxiety and serves to escalate the tantrum. I don’t like to give children the message that they are only acceptable when happy or calm. But if a time out is a useful tool for managing the overwhelm that comes with a tantrum, by all means use it.
Be available for reunion when the tantrum dies down. Depending on the source and the meaning of the tantrum the child may recover quickly and move on or need some reassurance and assistance. Some children like to be wrapped tightly in a blanket and held while they recover. Others just may want a few minutes of quiet, a brief hug or words of comfort.
When the tantrumming becomes chronic
Some tantrumming is inevitable but when it becomes chronic it can take over family life and make everyone miserable. When that happens ask yourself the following questions. Understanding the reason for the tantrums can lead to the solution.
Is my child getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation makes everything harder. Pain is felt more acutely. Focus is hard to maintain. Even minor problem loom large. If your child is not getting the recommended amount of sleep (12-14 hours for toddlers, 11-13 hours for preschoolers, 10-11 hours for school age children) try adjusting your day and evening routines to lengthen the amount of sleep everyone is getting. That may go a long way toward solving the problem.
Is my child under stress? Starting or changing schools, moving, parental divorce, new siblings, and travel are all very stressful for children. While many of these stressors cannot be avoided, try to avoid piling them on top of one another. Expect some regression. Keep daily routines as routine as possible. Offer extra comfort. Remove the stressors that can be removed. With patience and understanding this too will pass.
Is it time to ask for help? If the tantrumming is more than you can manage, if it goes on for a long time, if you child is able to communicate unhappiness but not much more, or if the tantrumming interferes with your child’s ability to make friends or get along with family, it might be time to seek out professional help. Look for a therapist in your area who specializes in work with young children and families. A competent therapist can help you and your child communicate better and help child and family develop healthier coping strategies.