About tantrums

Tantrums happen because children’s social and emotional skills are still developing. Children often don’t have the words to express big emotions. They want more independence but fear being separated from you. And they’re discovering that they can change the way the world works.

This means tantrums are very common and a normal way for children to express and manage challenging emotions.

But if your child’s tantrums are severe and make it hard for your family to enjoy life, or if the tantrums are very distressing for you or your child, the approach described in this article might help you. It’s worth thinking about this approach if you’re worried that you might get angry and hurt your child when he tantrums.

It’s also a very good idea to talk with a child health professional if you’re finding your child’s tantrums difficult to manage. Professionals can give you advice about your child’s behaviour and help you put this approach or other strategies into action. You could start by talking to your GP.

The approach described in this article involves looking at:

  • what happens before the tantrums – the triggers
  • what the tantrum is trying to achieve – its purpose
  • what happens after the tantrums – the consequences, including any ‘rewards’ your child gets from behaving this way
  • what you can change – the triggers or the rewards.
If your child has additional needs like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), her tantrums might be very frequent or severe. See our article on challenging behaviour in children with ASD or ask for advice from the professionals who work with your child.

What happens before the tantrums?

The first step in this approach is to think about what causes your child’s tantrums.

This involves identifying the situations that make tantrums more likely to happen – for example, tiredness, going shopping, mealtimes or rushing.

You also need to identify the triggers for your child’s tantrums. Common triggers include:

  • being told ’no’
  • being asked to do something
  • getting frustrated.

What is the tantrum trying to achieve?

You might also be able to identify the purpose of the tantrum – for example, to express frustration.

Beware of thinking that your child is having a tantrum just to annoy you. Children don’t have tantrums deliberately – they’re stuck in a bad habit or just don’t have the skills right now to cope with the situation.

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage behaviour and reactions. Children start developing it from around 12 months. As your child gets older, he’ll be more able to regulate his reactions and calm down when something upsetting happens. You’ll see fewer tantrums as a result.

What happens after the tantrums?

It’s important to identify the consequences of the tantrum. Can you see ways tantrums are being accidentally rewarded by what you do when or after they happen?

For example, if your child has a tantrum because you say no to buying her a lolly but then you buy the lolly, this rewards the tantrum. Shouting or pleading with your child when she tantrums can also be a reward, because it gives your child attention.

To help you pinpoint what’s causing the tantrums, it’s a good idea to keep a diary of your child’s tantrums for 7-10 days. Draw up a chart with four columns. Record the day of the tantrum, where it happened, what happened just before it, and what happened right afterwards.

What can you change?

The next step is to work out what you can change so the tantrums are less likely to happen.

You might be able to avoid situations that make tantrums more likely to happen or make them less stressful. For example, if your child often has a tantrum when you go shopping, you could plan to shop when someone else is caring for your child, or plan to shop when you know he won’t be tired or hungry.

You might be able to avoid your child’s tantrum triggers.

For example, if being told no is a trigger, you could try the following:

  • Put attractive but fragile items out of reach, or have older children put their favourite toys out of reach.
  • Say ‘yes’ whenever it’s reasonable.
  • Offer choices – for example, ‘You can’t have a lolly. Do you want a banana or some grapes?’.
  • Distract your child with another activity.

If being asked or told to do something is a trigger, you could try the following:

  • Give fewer instructions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling children what to do all the time.
  • Check that your instructions are reasonable. Tantrums are more likely if your child can’t do what she’s being asked to do.
  • Let your child know in advance when you have to do something or he has to make a transition from one activity to another. This way, he knows his activity is about to change.
  • Offer choices where possible.

If frustration is the trigger, you could try the following:

  • Provide help before the tantrum.
  • Put frustrating toys or activities out of reach.
  • Spend some time teaching your child how to use or do the thing she finds frustrating.
  • Encourage your child to ask for help when he needs it.

You might be able to help your child with the purpose of her behaviour, by helping her learn a better way to achieve the same purpose. For example, if expressing frustration is the purpose of the tantrum, you could help her use words to express frustration.

You might be able to change the ‘rewards’ your child gets from the tantrums.

For example, if you realise that your child is being rewarded with your attention when he has tantrums, you could set up a reward system to give your child extra encouragement and attention for staying calm. You could use a star chart, or random rewards of small things your child likes – for example, toy cars.

You can also help your child learn and practise coping skills in situations where she’d normally have a tantrum. For example, ‘Michaela, in five minutes I’m going to ask you to turn off the Xbox. This is a chance for you to show me how calm and grown-up you can be’.

Getting help with tantrums

Persistent and severe tantrums can sometimes be a sign of developmental issues or health problems. It’s a very good idea to get professional help if you’re:

  • finding it hard to keep tantrums in perspective, and they’re becoming more than just an annoyance
  • having trouble controlling your own emotions and are finding yourself getting angry and losing your own temper
  • starting to restrict your own activities and your family’s because of one child’s tantrums.