Child Tantrums: How and When To Respond
Tantrums are extremely common in preschoolers, and they can leave both the parent and the child overwhelmed. Find out what triggers your child’s tantrums and how you can manage these tantrums.
By Saakshi Kapoor Kumar • 11 min read
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”
- LR Knost, Author and Children’s Rights Advocate
Seema gives her 2½-year-old daughter, Shanaya, an evening snack and asks her to finish it while she’s catching up on work emails. Suddenly, Shanaya begins to scream at the top of her lungs. Hearing her baby’s cries, Seema hurriedly goes to Shanaya and asks her what the problem is. Shanaya is crying so hard, she can’t talk. At this point, Seema starts to yell, “Why are you screaming? Stop it!” Now, Shanaya curls up on the floor. In a muffled voice, she tells her mother that she’s crying because she doesn’t like the crust on her sandwich!
Sounds familiar? Yes, you’re not alone. Ask any parent about their preschooler’s tantrums and they probably have tons of similar stories to share.
Tantrums come in so many shapes and sizes—your child may yell and hit you in the store because you wouldn’t buy him the red toy car he wanted, or he may roll around on the floor at home and scream simply because he was enjoying story time with you and doesn’t want to go to bed! Any situation can trigger a tantrum in your little one. No wonder when your child “throws a tantrum,” you feel confused about the correct way to respond.
So, what causes your child to behave this way? How can you help your child through this emotional drama? Should you ignore the tantrum, or give in? We’ll try to answer these questions as we help you understand more about your child’s tantrums and how you could manage them.
What are tantrums?
Tantrums are outbursts of anger, frustration or other emotions that are acted out when a child’s needs or wants are unmet. They can be explosive moments, characterized by disorganized and impulsive behaviors, such as crying, screaming, defiance, arching of the back, kicking, vomiting, throwing or breaking things, or holding the breath.
Most children between the ages of 1 and 3 have tantrums at one point or the other. These children are still developing their social and emotional skills, and more importantly, they’re still learning to communicate.
It’s a common misconception that all tantrums are “temper” tantrums. However, that is not the case. Children, just like us, have to deal with many feelings. But unlike us, they don’t know how to process their feelings and put them into words. As a result, they “act it out.”
Before learning how to respond effectively to a child’s tantrum, let’s first understand the possible reasons behind a tantrum.
What causes your child to throw a tantrum?
Each child is unique, which is why their tantrums are also different. However, one common aspect is that most tantrums feel like they came out of nowhere, and come across as being rather unreasonable. Here’s a simple classification to help you understand your child’s tantrums:
Children can feel a spectrum of emotions, but they aren’t emotionally equipped to process and express them. This emotional struggle causes a tantrum that the child can’t help. Behind the outburst, there are feelings that the child is unable to articulate. This kind of tantrum is usually a call for help. It may seem unreasonable to you, but for your child the struggle is real. Your child may throw a tantrum to tell you that she is:
- wants your attention
- uncomfortable with a transition
- sad or worried
- angry or frustrated
Tantrums are also common when children are learning something new or developing a new skill. For example, if you just bought your child a shape-sorting toy and she can’t force a square block into a round hole, get ready to hear some cries!
And now, let’s look closely at how you can manage an emotional tantrum. Consider this situation.
Aira and her parents were vacationing at her grandparents’ home for a few days. When she comes back home, her tantrums increase and she even begins to yell and hit her parents when asked to do simple things like brushing her teeth.
Why the tantrum?
Aira is probably missing her grandparents and all the attention she got during vacation. But she’s not able to verbally express how she’s feeling. Instead, she throws tantrums to communicate to her parents that she’s not happy and wants to be with her grandparents.
What to do: With emotional tantrums, logic and limit-setting usually have no impact. This is because the child is grappling with emotions and feelings that even she may not fully understand.
In an emotional tantrum, the first step is to remain calm and try to understand what is causing the tantrum. Then try to take care of the need or want that has triggered the tantrum. For example, if it’s your child’s mealtime or sleep time, chances are high that your child may throw a tantrum. In such cases, it’s a good idea to give your child something to eat as soon as you can if he’s crying due to hunger, or try to soothe him to sleep if he’s tired.
When your child is having an emotional tantrum, try ParentCircle’s P.E.A.C.E process, which will help you tap into her emotions and manage them.
Stay calm and keep your composure. The tantrum won’t go away if you’re angry and frustrated. You can’t monitor and help regulate your child’s feelings when yours are out of control.
Try to understand the emotion behind the tantrum. In Aira’s case, she’s clearly upset because she misses her grandparents and the vacation. She must have enjoyed all the quality time and attention she got while at her grandparents’ place. Coming back to the busy routine may have left her feeling sad and disappointed. It’s important to address these feelings before explaining logic to the child. Aira’s parents could empathize, “I know you’re missing Nana and Nani. We had such a wonderful time together.”
When you empathize, it helps your child identify her feelings, and she learns to name them. In the process, your child will soon begin to calm down, because she knows that you understand how she’s feeling.
A child needs comfort to calm down. Think about yourself: When you’re experiencing intense emotions or anger, what do you need? Judgment, or just someone to say, “Hey, relax! I am here for you, let’s talk!” Give your child a hug or hold her hand, sit down with her and wait for her to calm down.
Once your child has calmed down, communicate with her. Talk about what you observed, how you felt and ask her to tell you her side of the story. She needs to be heard and you need to listen (not the other way around).
In the above situation, if Aira admits to feeling low or upset, her parents could say, “We are also feeling a little sad about coming back from our vacation and getting back to routine.”
Note the feeling word “sad” in the above statement. As a parent, you need to equip your child with feeling words—such as happy, sad, angry, disappointed and confused—so that she can express her emotions in a clear manner.
Now is a good time to discuss what your child can do to feel better and avoid tantrums. In the above situation, Aira’s parents could say, “Maybe we can call your grandparents and talk to them? I’m sure they miss us too! What do you think? What else can we do to make you feel better?”
Also, they could just spend an extra 10 minutes with their daughter in the morning and at bedtime to help her cope with her feelings. Or they could video call her grandparents regularly, especially during the first few days after getting back from vacation. After all, she’s too young to manage her emotions all by herself.
Children sometimes throw a tantrum to get their way. Here, the child thinks that by throwing a tantrum, he can get what he wants. He’s using it as a simple tactic to manipulate you, to make you give in to his demands. He is using his “thinking’ brain” in such situations.
Here’s a situation to help you understand intentional tantrums.
Aarav, a 3-year-old, throws a massive tantrum at mealtime because he wants to watch TV while eating his meal. He refuses to eat without a screen and every time he needs to eat, he knows that crying will get him to watch TV.
Why the tantrum?
Aarav knows that if he throws a tantrum, his parents will give in to his demands, just to appease him and keep him from crying. Every time his parents give in, they’re sending a message to Aarav that he can get his way by just crying and screaming. Aarav quickly learns how to get his way. This leads to more tantrums, and soon he may become what you would call a “spoiled kid.”
What to do:
1. Use P.E.A.C.E
No matter the type of tantrum, you can manage it using the P.E.A.C.E process mentioned above. The first step is to manage your own emotions and respond to the tantrum effectively. You may think your child is being unreasonable or that their behavior is uncalled for. However, the P.E.A.C.E process will help you turn a moment of conflict into an opportunity to connect with your child.
2. Be Firm
When your child’s having an intentional tantrum, remember to be firm. In the above situation, Aarav’s parents should not give in to his demand just because he’s crying. They could empathize by saying, “I know you would really like to watch TV while you eat. But in our home, the rule is ‘No TV while eating.’”
The next step is to distract him. They could say, “Look at the colorful vegetables on your plate—the orange carrots, the green peas, the yellow corn. Do you know how they got their colors? Would you like to hear a story about it?”
3. Be Patient
Even if you’re firm, tantrums won’t disappear overnight. Your child is likely to repeat a tantrum, especially if he has gotten his way before. So, try to be patient during such moments. It may take several such incidents before you begin to see a change in your child’s behavior. Be persistent. Remember, both parents need to be on the same page on how they handle tantrums. Otherwise, your child will soon learn to get his way with the more “lenient” parent.
In the above situation, Aarav’s parents must consistently discourage screen usage during mealtimes. They can empathize and comfort him during and after the tantrums, but they must remain firm and not allow the screen to comfort him.
In a nutshell
- Tantrums are usually an expression of an emotion that the child is struggling to communicate. They are a completely natural response.
- You may feel overwhelmed by their tantrums but remember, so do they! Calm them down using gentle hugs and save the logic for later.
- Don’t give in, and steer clear of negotiations in the case of an intentional tantrum.
- When it’s an emotional tantrum, it’s a good idea to connect with your child’s feelings and take care of their needs. Try the P.E.A.C.E process.
- The right time to respond is when the tantrum is building up.
What you can do right away
- Identify the common triggers that lead to tantrums. Make a note of what has triggered a tantrum and how your child reacts at that point.
- Identify the tantrum first (emotional or intentional) and respond accordingly.
- Don’t wait for the outburst to flare up. Regularly talk about feelings, and help your child learn the feeling words (sad, angry, disappointed, etc.). Give examples that show them how to express the difficult emotions they may be feeling like sadness, confusion, fear or frustration.
About the author:
Written by Saakshi Kapoor Kumar on March 16, 2021
Saakshi Kapoor Kumar holds a Master’s degree in Psychology from Ambedkar University, Delhi and is working as a Senior Associate-Special Projects (Content Solutions Zone) at ParentCircle.
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on March 16, 2021.
Dr Singhal is a Clinical Psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bengaluru) and holds a postdoctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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