Tantrums 101: How To Deal With Challenging Behaviour
Tantrums 101: How To Deal With Challenging Behaviour

Tantrums 101: How To Deal With Challenging Behaviour

Tantrums are inevitable part of parenting. According to the experts, the phrase ‘terrible twos’ refers to a stage in a young child’s development where their brain is developing so fast, it’s hard for their emotional maturity to keep up. To find out what parents can do to navigate these tricky years and make them as constructive as possible, we asked a range of parenting experts to answer our questions.

How would you define a tantrum?

“Tantrums are generally considered to be prolonged (over five minutes and lasting possibly 30) expressions of distress or anger. Tantrums are considered entirely developmentally normal and occur in the majority of pre-school children, peaking between the ages of two and three. They can often appear unprovoked and even irrational to adults, but they are simply a child’s way of dealing with the feelings they have and the lack of capacity to verbalise them or control them.” – child psychologist Dr Alison McClymont 

“The word ‘tantrum’ is not negative in itself, but it is important that if you are using the word, you understand that the behaviour displayed by the child in that moment is not naughty, purposeful or manipulative. Often referred to as the ‘terrible twos’, toddler tantrums are infamous. They can be epic in proportion, seemingly trivial in reason and can happen at the drop of a hat. But understanding the theory behind these meltdowns gives you an insight into how the busy toddler brain can actually make parenting life easier and less stressful too.” – Munchkin early years expert Sophie Pickles

What kind of behaviour falls under the bracket of a ‘tantrum’?

“Children or older babies struggling to communicate or regulate their emotions will often cry or scream; refuse to move; lie on the floor; stamp their feet or bang their fists. Occasionally, some children will try to hurt themselves by pulling their hair, hitting themselves or banging their head against a surface. This is not typical behaviour and can be a sign that your child is struggling more than usual with managing their emotions and sensory input. If this is the case for your child, seek advice from your Health Visitor or GP.” – Sophie 

Does ‘tantrum’ behaviour differ between girls and boys?

“Rather than differing between gender, my view is that tantrums differ from child to child. Some children find it easier to manage and regulate their emotions, while others may also struggle with sensory processing (e.g. loud sounds, tight clothes, brushing teeth etc.), especially if they fall on the neurodiverse spectrum.” – Sophie 

What triggers a tantrum?

“Tantrums can happen for so many reasons, leading to frustration for all involved. Generally, behaviour such as this will either stem from undeveloped communication and language skills – children cannot communicate their needs or desires effectively or can’t understand what you are saying, or they will kick off because children are struggling to cope with big emotions like sadness, disappointment, anger, excitement or even being overtired. The ability for children to communicate and understand, as well as coping with their feelings will develop as they grow and mature. The important thing to remember is tantrums won’t last forever.” – Sophie 

“Tantrums can be caused by a variety of things and there can be a huge range of triggers varying from sensory overload – too much noise or light – physical symptoms like tiredness or hunger and emotional distress which could cover anything from anger to sadness and even shame. In neurodiverse children there is no set answer for this, which is why in neurotypical children we would not expect to see a marked reduction in tantrum-like behaviour until around six or seven years old.” – Dr Alison

We often hear about the ‘TERRIBLE TWOS’ and to some extent this is true, but for many children, problems with behavioural regulation will extend BEYOND THEIR THIRD BIRTHDAY, often until they reach school age

On that note, at what age are children prone to developing tantrum-like behaviour?

Toddlers around the age of 18 months will often begin to show signs of what we think of as typical tantruming, especially if they have a small vocabulary or struggle with speech (which is very normal at this age). We often hear about the ‘terrible twos’ and to some extent this is true - most children do struggle the most from a few months before their second birthday up until they turn three, but for many children, problems with behavioural regulation will extend beyond their third birthday, often until they reach school age. The reason is that between birth and the age of three, a staggering seven hundred new synapses are formed in the brain every single second. This equates to over one thousand trillion synapses by a child’s third birthday. This can understandably feel very overwhelming and they can have trouble regulating and expressing the feelings and emotions that come alongside all this rapid brain development.” – Sophie 

Can you share some helpful tips for managing a tantrum at home?

“Remember that during a tantrum, your job is just to simply be present. You cannot solve a problem, teach anything or explain why something can’t happen while a child is in a state of emotional turmoil. This is because, while a child is having a tantrum, it is their limbic system – the reptilian brain – that is in control. This part of your brain is responsible for the basic functions needed to survive but cannot process logic, reasoning or understanding. While your child is having a tantrum, stay nearby so they can see you. Calmly remind them that they are safe – get down on their level and make eye contact if you can. Some may want physical touch and hugs but many will not. Now wait, observe and follow their cues. Sometimes distraction may work but often it can just divert the tantrum or prolong it. 

“When your child has calmed down a little, offer a hug (often this deep pressure touch can help to stabilise their nervous system). Talk calmly and gently. Do not try to explain or reason with them at this stage. Often some relaxing and mindful breathing will work well here. I like to ask my child to imagine he is blowing candles out on a birthday cake. We take a deep breath in together and then slowly blow out the ‘candles’, repeating a few times. When your child is calm and relaxed, you can revisit the situation that caused the tantrum in the first instance (if you know what it was) and discuss it calmly together. Try to keep your voice light-hearted and avoid the urge to scold, even if you are talking about something they did wrong.” – Sophie 

And similarly, some tips for when one happens in public?

Calming strategies can be a good way to deal with temper tantrums in public. Talking to your child in a calm voice and staying close while the ‘storm’ passes can de-escalate the situation. This is not always possible, however. If you are in the cinema or a quiet space where your child is disrupting others' enjoyment and isn’t calming, try to find a somewhere less crowded where they can sit, such as a bench or a park. Wait for them to calm down before talking to them Notice when a tantrum is developing. The most important thing is to tune in to your child and if you see signs of a tantrum just about to start, then address it right away. For example, gently move your child to a calmer quieter space if they’re overwhelmed by noise or overtired. Giving your child the words to describe how they’re feeling before the tantrum escalates can really help. Stay as calm as possible and remain nearby, your presence can be enough to reduce their anger or distress. 

“Also, give clear instructions. If your child is older, a positive approach is to ask them to stop what they are doing and find a quiet space with you to work out what’s wrong. For example, if they are upset and shouting, you can ask them to take some deep breaths and try to tell you what’s upset them, so you can get to the bottom of the issue. If they do as you ask, be sure to praise them straight away. This also can be helpful with younger children, if they are not responding to you calmly waiting it out. If calming strategies don’t work, it can be helpful to give children the chance to move away from the situation. This gives your child the opportunity to settle and can really help them calm down. Somewhere nearby where you can see them can work well and check back after a minute or two with some praise and give them a chance to say what they need without getting upset.” – Triple P child psychologist Dr Claire Halsey

Is there a way to decrease the likelihood of tantrums in public?

“There are a few things you can practise day to day to prevent tantrums happening in public. First, try and keep your child's usual routine for meals and sleep times. If you can avoid going out over these key times, your child will be less likely to throw a tantrum as being overtired or hungry can make your child irritable. When you do go out, let your child know what to expect. If you are going to the supermarket and then to the post office, let them know so they do not get upset when they realise you have further chores to do. If you are doing chores, set up some activities or have them help you to keep them busy and avoid boredom. This could be chatting to them, or giving them a colouring book or a toy to play with. It is important to make sure you give your attention and praise when they are behaving well.” – Dr Claire

Talking to your child in a CALM VOICE and staying close while the ‘storm’ passes can DE-ESCALATE THE SITUATION.

What sort of language should you use to diffuse tantrums?

“Always try to use calm and respectful language with your children at all times. They learn from you, so staying calm and choosing your words carefully, even when you’re stressed or frustrated, will mean that they will learn to model your language and behaviour as a way of coping with their feelings and emotions. Toddlers are complex. They act irrationally, with impulsivity and often seemingly without remorse. When your child tips their drink all over the floor, refuses to put on their shoes or even hurts a sibling, it can be hard to remember that what they need most in that moment is love. Giving your love doesn’t have to mean letting them repeat unwanted behaviour or not letting them know that what they did is wrong. What matters most is the way in which we go about it. Try saying, in a calm and steady voice: 

“When you push your brother, it hurts him. That makes us both feel sad. I can see that you need to burn off energy, why don’t we run outside?”

“Spilling your drink on the floor is not okay. I would like you to clean it up. If you want to spill water, let’s go and play in the bath.”

“We put on shoes so that our feet don’t get cold, wet and dirty outside. You don’t have to put on your shoes but we can’t leave until you do.”

You may have heard the phrase, ‘Never go to bed on an argument’ and it can be easily applied to life with a toddler. Aim to start and end the day with love, whether it’s a cuddle in bed, playing a game or having a chat. These are the times that your toddler will remember the most and will have the biggest overall impact on their day.” – Sophie

Does punishment really work?

“Punishment may make us feel like we’re teaching children a lesson, as they will be visibly upset but it rarely if ever works in the long term. Instead, any form of teaching opportunity must be both relevant and timely. If your child throws their tea on the floor for example, then taking away their TV or sending them to sit on the stairs won’t make any sense to them. In this particular situation, after the tantrum has gone, asking your child to clean the floor will help them to understand that what they have done has a consequence. Try also to understand why they have taken that action (in this case throwing the food) and discuss this afterwards: “I understand that you wanted the blue plate. It’s hard when we don’t always get our way. That made you feel angry and it’s okay to be angry. It is not okay though, to throw your food on the floor. Now you will need to clean it up.”” – Sophie 

Is there anything you think is unhelpful when it comes to managing tantrums?

“Yes, several things. Losing your temper. Telling your child to stop having a tantrum (because they physically and mentally cannot). Saying “Don’t cry” or “Don’t be sad” - this tells your child that their feelings in that moment aren’t valid. Using punishments like the naughty step, time out or taking away privileges like the TV or treats. Parents thinking that if a child has a lot of tantrums, it is reflective of poor parenting (it isn’t). Parents feeling guilty that they don’t always handle tantrums in the way they would like. Remember that we are human too and we sometimes have trouble regulating our own feelings, especially if we weren’t raised with good coping strategies.” – Sophie 

“The one trap parents can fall into is accidentally rewarding hurtful or uncooperative behaviour in the interest of peace and quiet. This could involve giving your child a treat or toy they’ve been pestering for just so the tantrum will stop. This can be tempting as a quick fix. But, can teach your child that raising their voice or hitting out is effective in getting what they want rather than asking nicely or accepting sometimes treats are not available.” – Dr Claire

Finally, how can you help children express their feelings in a more constructive way?

“Teaching our children to recognise and manage their emotions is one of the most important skills we can give them. In fact, the better children are at noticing how they feel, the more likely they will be to calm themselves down or adjust their behaviour. Giving our children these strategies will also have lifelong benefits with studies showing that they will be more likely to manage difficulties and setbacks. Talking about and naming feelings is a vital part of teaching our children about their emotions. When you recognise that your child is feeling a certain way, name it. “I can see you are feeling…” When you are feeling a certain way, name that too. We shouldn’t feel that we need to conceal or mask our emotions from our children, even if they are negative. The more you talk about emotions with your child, the more they will begin to acknowledge them too. Even children as young as two have been able to actively express how they are feeling.” – Sophie 

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