Children and tantrums
Tantrums happen when a child is overwhelmed by strong feelings and lose control of their behaviour.
They are not able to calm themselves down or think about what is happening.
It’s very scary for the child and it can be scary for parents too.
Tantrums mostly happen in toddlers and are a normal part of their development.
Not all strong feelings are tantrums. Children can be defiant or angry at times, but it doesn’t mean they are losing control and having a tantrum.
What causes tantrums
Some people use the term ‘temper tantrum’ - but the anger and frustration of a tantrum is always mixed with other feelings.
Your toddler may be:
- discouraged by only hearing ‘no’ or ‘stop that’
- hungry or thirsty
- needing attention
- affected by other stresses like child care, a new baby, parents fighting or feeling stressed.
A tantrum is a sign your child is overwhelmed by their feelings.
They are not being naughty or trying to control you. It is a call for your help.
No matter what you do, some tantrums are bound to happen. There are things you can do to help keep them to a minimum.
Learn the triggers
In the build-up to a tantrum, your child will show they are becoming overloaded with emotion. They might be:
- very demanding or persistent
- acting silly
- overly active.
Notice what is going on when tantrums happen
Take note of the time of day, what you are doing and what your child is doing.
If there is a pattern, try to work out what you can do to prevent the tantrum.
For example, if it always happens around dinner time, try giving them dinner earlier, bathing them before dinner, letting them help you prepare the meal, or having some special time with them at this time of day.
Try to work out what is bothering them
It might seem small to you, but can be huge for your child.
If it comes on top of other stresses or frustration it can tip them ‘over the edge’.
Other tips for reducing tantrums
Some of the following tips may help reduce tantrums:
- spend regular, one-on-one time with your child
- give your child lots of room to move and explore
- play with them and follow their lead - it’s a good way to learn how they see the world
- notice and tell them all the good things you like about them and what they do
- say what you want in positive ways - eg: ‘Let’s see how quickly you can put your toys in the box‘ instead of ‘Put your toys away’
- think about stress in your child’s life and try to find ways to reduce it.
Planning ahead can help keep tantrums from happening too often. It can help to:
- go on outings after sleeps and meals and not when your child is hungry or tired
- distract them - ‘Look what I’ve got here’
- put things out of sight if they can’t have them
- have predictable routines where possible - they help children to feel secure and in control.
It’s important to be flexible if your child is finding it hard to cope.
If you can see it’s going to be ‘one of those days’, leave what you had planned and do something relaxing with your child - a small amount of time at the start of the day can save a lot of time and stress at the end of the day.
If it has felt like a tough day, make time to relax and connect with your child. You could:
- walk in the park or around the block
- sit and watch a quiet DVD together
- sing or dance
- tell stories or read a book.
Help your child feel in control
Toddlers are learning to do things for themselves as they become more independent.
Let them feel in control as they practice new skills. You can avoid a power struggle and a tantrum.
It can be helpful to:
- stay calm and be patient when they want to do things their way
- tell them you know how they feel if they start to get upset
- let them know when a change is coming - eg: when leaving the playground say, ‘We need to leave soon. What do you want to play on for this last five minutes?’
- let your toddler feel in charge even when there isn’t a choice - eg: say ‘We need to turn the TV off when this program is finished. Do you want to turn it off yourself, or would you like me to do it?’
The more your toddler feels in control and able to do things, the calmer they will be.
What to do during a tantrum
When your child is out of control they need you to stay with them, keep calm and help them to manage their feelings.
This is called ‘time in’. Read more about time in and guiding your child's behaviour.
Staying with your child helps them to:
- feel secure
- learn that big feelings can be managed
- build trust - they learn that no matter how bad things are, you will not abandon them.
- tell them you understand how they feel - eg: ‘I can see you are upset because you really want that toy’
- be kind with your words and touch - if they won’t let you hold them, stay close so they feel secure and can connect with you again when they are ready
- say ‘It’s OK to be upset but I won’t let you hurt yourself/hit/kick/bite’ if they are hurting themselves or hitting, kicking or biting others
- reassure them this upset will pass and they will soon feel calm again.
If your own feelings are getting out of control, tell your child you are going to another room for a while so you can feel better.
Tell them you will be back soon to look after them.
Make sure they are safe and get someone else to stay with them if you can. Come back when you said you would.
What doesn’t help
It is not helpful to:
- try to reason with your child - they can’t ‘hear’ you when their feelings are so big
- punish a child during a tantrum - they are not being naughty, but they are not able to control themselves when feeling overwhelmed
- ignore a tantrum - this can frighten your child because they don’t know what to do without your help
- threaten to walk off and leave them, or laugh at them - this can make them feel even more upset.
What to do after a tantrum
When you and your child are calm, remind them that you love them before you help them to learn from what happened.
Help your child deal with feelings
It’s important to help your child understand and name any underlying feeling that is causing them to be upset.
For example, if your child is upset you might say:
- you seem very angry - can you tell me what’s wrong?
- you really wanted that toy - you must be disappointed
- I think you must be sad inside - tell me if you need a hug.
If your child is sad, they might want you to hold them until they finish crying.
It’s important to not ignore your child’s big feelings - they can get pushed down and may show up in other ways that can be hard to deal with later.
For example, your child may:
- become withdrawn, whiny, anxious or rebellious
- develop habits like nailbiting, jiggling legs or hair-twirling to try to contain their pent-up feelings
- learn to be afraid of emotions
- find it harder to know their true feelings as they get older.
Respond to the cause of the tantrum
Try to look at things through your child’s eyes to understand what caused the upset.
This does not mean giving in to what your child wants.
It means helping them learn to solve problems and to deal with change, disappointment and frustration.
Tantrums at the shops
Many tantrums happen at the shops, which can be very stressful. Parents can feel embarrassed and worry about what others think.
If you take your child shopping:
- try to be quick - take a list of what you need
- make sure children are not tired and have been to the toilet
- bring a snack for them to eat
- don’t chat too long with other adults
- let your child help by getting things off the lower shelves for you
- have a treat afterwards such as a drink or spending some time in the park.
If your child is building to a tantrum, you need to be strong enough to leave the shopping basket where it is and take them out to the car or somewhere quiet until they calm down.
When your child copes well, let them know how proud you are that they managed so well.
Tantrums and older children
If your child is still having tantrums when they are school age it could be that something is going wrong for them. It could be:
- stress, like not coping with schoolwork or friends
- family problems, like parents fighting or family break-up
- a health problem.
If you can see your child’s feelings building up, encourage them to take some quiet time until they feel calm.
You could stay with them, or not, whichever they find most helpful.
When you are both calm, talk about what gets them upset and look at ways they might deal with this.
If your child has a lot of tantrums and you can’t find the cause, talk to a health professional or counsellor.
Dealing with tantrums can be very stressful. Look after yourself so that you can stay stronger, wiser and kind when tantrums happen.
Find out more, including where you can get support to understand and deal with tantrums, on the following pages:
This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.
Last updated: 03 February 2020