Tantrums happen because children’s social and emotional skills are still developing. Children often don’t have the words to express big emotions. They might be testing out their growing independence. And they’re discovering that they can influence the way other people behave.
This means tantrums are very common and normal.
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 happens after the tantrums – the consequences, including any ‘rewards’ your child gets from behaving this way
- what you can change – the triggers, rewards or the way you respond.
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 tantrums: triggers
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, 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
- feeling overwhelmed by too much noise, too many people and so on.
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.
You can start working out what’s causing the tantrums by keeping 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 happens after tantrums: consequences or ‘rewards’
What happens after a tantrum can make tantrums more or less likely in the future. So 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 him a lolly but then you buy the lolly, this rewards the tantrum. Shouting or pleading with your child when he tantrums can also be a reward, because it gives your child attention.
Children are more likely to repeat behaviour that earns praise. This means you can use praise to change behaviour. When your child behaves the way you like, immediately get your child’s attention and tell her exactly what you liked – for example, ‘It’s great how you used words to ask for that toy’.
What you can change: tantrum triggers
One way to make tantrums less likely is to avoid your child’s tantrum triggers.
If particular situations are triggers, you might be able to avoid these situations or make them less stressful. For example, if your child often has a tantrum when you go shopping, you could try:
- shopping when someone else is caring for your child
- shopping when you know your child won’t be tired or hungry.
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 he’s being asked to do.
- Let your child know in advance when you have to do something or she has to make a transition from one activity to another.
- 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 he finds frustrating.
- Encourage your child to ask for help when she needs it.
- Help your child use words to express frustration – for example, ‘I can see you’re having trouble solving that puzzle and you’re feeling really cross. Do you need help?’
If feeling overwhelmed is the trigger, you could try the following:
- Tell your child in advance about where you’re going and what’s likely to happen.
- Talk with your child about how he can let you know that he’s starting to feel overwhelmed.
- Give your child a break from the overwhelming situation if possible – for example, by finding a quiet, private spot where she can look at a favourite book.
- Be realistic about what you expect of your child. For example, an hour-long playdate might be enough for two preschoolers.
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 you can change: tantrum rewards
Another way to make tantrums less likely is 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 she 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 or special activities with you.
You can also help your child learn and practise coping skills in situations where he’d normally have a tantrum. For example, ‘Michael, 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’. Then you can reward your child for behaving the way you like.
What you can change: your responses to tantrums
Children learn by watching what you do. What might you be able to do differently?
You might be able to use tantrums as opportunities to help your child understand her emotions and develop self-regulation. It’s best to do this when your child is calm. For example, ‘You were really angry when Trevyn took your ball this morning. Would it have been better to ask for a grown-up’s help instead of biting her?’ This can reduce the intensity and frequency of tantrums.
You could also try getting in early to prevent situations escalating. For example, ‘Taylor, you’re hitting the keyboard really hard. How are you feeling about that game right now?’
You can also model ways to regulate feelings, thoughts and behaviour in everyday situations. For example, ‘I’m getting really frustrated trying to open this jar. I wonder if I have something in the drawer that can help open it’.
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.