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Tantrums: prevention, management and tips

A mum and dad carry their upset children on their shoulders to cheer them up

They're a child’s way of communicating needs and desires

A mum and dad carry their upset children on their shoulders to cheer them up

Ah, toddler tantrums – parents know just how stressful these can be to navigate! Tantrums are incredibly common, especially in kids aged one to three, and a normal part of growing up. After all, these little people have a lot of feelings, but no idea how to express or handle them yet. Dealing with toddler tantrums can be tough, but with a bit of patience and some expert strategies, you can survive these situations.

Generally, toddler tantrums are a child’s way of communicating needs and desires because they have not yet developed vocabulary skills, explains psychologist Leanne Hall.

“Their brains are still in the early stages of development – it’s not fully developed until about 25,” she says. “This means that they have extreme difficulty regulating their emotions and often require the help of a calm parent or adult. This is why, when kids tantrum, they display heightened emotions and have trouble calming down.”

What causes tantrums?

As kids’ brains develop and their vocabulary skills improve, says Leanne, tantrums can change, so tantrums in five-year-olds will likely look quite different to a one-year-old tantrum, a three-year-old tantrum or a four-year-old tantrum.

“Older children, four to five years and up, will use words more, while younger children will rely more on body language – for example, throwing themselves on the floor,” explains Leanne.

They may also have different triggers, though there are a few key causes for all age groups: stress, hunger, tiredness, overstimulation and frustration (especially when they’re not being understood), as well as feeling upset, worried, afraid, ashamed or angry. These emotions can all ignite “big feelings”, and end up with kids crying, screaming, kicking, flailing on the floor, running away or even vomiting, showing aggression or breath-holding.

How to deal with and manage tantrums

Learning how to manage toddler tantrums is important, and your reaction is key.
“When a child is in the midst of a tantrum they are not thinking logically. Don’t try to use rational words and expect them to calm down,” Leanne suggests. “If you interpret a tantrum as a form of communication, it will empower you to respond to them rather than react to your own frustration or anger.”

Kids need you to be calm to help them settle, so it’s important not to lose your temper.

“You will need to fake being calm,” advises Leanne. “Don’t expect it to come naturally.”

She adds, “Have a thought that you can anchor to during times of frustration or anger – something that helps you feel calm. For example, an image of the ocean, or a memory where you felt happy and calm.”

A father comforts his upset child

If your temper is at tipping point, you may need to distract yourself. Leave the room and do something to shift your attention, such as reading or listening to music.

“If your child is not at risk of hurting themselves or anyone else, you can walk away, as long as you tell them what you are doing and that you will be back,” suggests Leanne.

However, Leanne does issue a word of warning: “Walking away and ignoring may increase your child’s distress, especially in younger children, as they may feel you are abandoning them,” she advises. Assess the situation and do what feels right for you and your child.

For toddler tantrums in younger kids, distraction works wonders thanks to their short attention spans. They also often need to feel physically contained, Leanne shares.

“Give them a firm hug – something that helps them feel physically contained and nurtured. You must be calm doing this though, so that they feel safe and not threatened.”

For older children, staying calm and consistent is vital.

“Your words can say ‘no’ while your calmness conveys reassurance and tolerance,” she advises.

When the tantrum’s over, “reward your child (and yourself). Do something fun together and, for older children, talk to them about the tantrum, helping them understand themselves better.”

Preventing toddler tantrums

As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Try to learn your child’s triggers and signs they are about to lose control – they may be particularly clingy or whiney, very demanding or even overly active. If you know that your child tantrums at a certain time of day, try distracting them, taking them to a quiet place to talk softly with them and encouraging them to use words to express how they’re feeling.

Your words can say ‘no’ while your calmness conveys reassurance and tolerance.

Other preventative toddler tantrum tips include rewarding children when they communicate their needs without having a tantrum, spending time doing fun things together when they’re calm and praising them when they’re behaving well.

Make sure your child gets enough sleep and has regular healthy meals, snacks and drinks. Talk and read to your child often to help develop their speech and communication skills and give them a sense of control in their lives by offering them small choices (such as which type of fruit to have as a snack). All of these things can help reduce tantrums.

Toddler tantrums: when to worry

While tantrums will usually subside on their own – eventually! – there can be situations that are cause for concern.

“One is when the duration of the tantrum persists and the child cannot regulate their emotions or calm down, even when supported by an adult, and remains highly aroused for a long period of time, or if they harm themselves or others,” Leanne explains.

“Another cause for concern would be if the frequency of tantrums increases to the point where it becomes exhausting for caregivers or concerns are raised by others, such as the child’s preschool or school. This could suggest that the tantrums are impeding learning or negatively impacting the child’s relationships with others.”

Looking after yourself as a parent or carer

Your health and wellbeing needs some TLC during this trying stage of your child’s life too.

“Keeping calm and healthy can be extremely difficult for parents,” says Leanne. “Firstly, know that it’s okay to give in to toddler tantrums sometimes. This does not make you a bad parent. Accept your frustration, it’s totally normal. Remember, tantrums are a very necessary part of development. This is your child demonstrating their independence!”

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall is an integrative psychologist with additional qualifications in health and fitness and an impressive career as a therapist and health coach spanning more than 20 years. She’s the author of Head First Health Fast, The Smart Approach To Outwitting Body Issues and Sustaining Achievable Health and is currently completing her PhD in Ultra Running. Leanne is passionate about debunking the myth of 'balance' and keeps it real in everything she does. Something not many people know is that Leanne can mimic bird noises very well...

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