A tantrum is a strong emotional and physical outburst that often seems out of proportion to whatever triggered it. Tantrums happen because a young child doesn’t yet have the self-control, words, or skills to cope with their feelings. They’re usually triggered by frustration, tiredness, hunger, boredom or over-stimulation, or if your child is feeling jealous, frightened or unhappy.
Tantrums often start when children are around 18 months and are mostly over by age four.
Look out for tantrum triggers and head them off before they happen:
- are they getting tired/hungry/bored?
- do certain kids, places, or situations bring them on? If so, try to avoid those things. If you can’t, be alert and remove them from the situation before they lose the plot
- try to figure out what they’re trying to say with their behaviour and the feeling that comes just before the tantrum. If you can do this and you’re quick, you may be able to stop a tantrum in its tracks by going to your child, bending down to their level and quietly naming their feeling, then suggesting an alternative behaviour to calm or distract. For example, you could say “I can see you feel angry that Katie has the bike you want. Let’s see if there’s another bike you can ride”.
Other ways to help your toddler manage their feelings and prevent tantrums include:
- thinking ahead. Take plenty of snacks when you go out, don’t plan things close to nap times, give them big quiet cuddles when they’re tired, or go out for a walk if you’ve been stuck inside
- involving your toddler in your activities as much as possible. If they feel needed and important, they’re much less likely to be demanding
- taking small, regular breaks to play with your child if you’re busy. It makes them happy
- letting your toddler rest or sleep so they don’t get tired
- giving them limited choices – like ‘would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?’
- slowing things down
- letting your child know what’s happening next
- warning them when it’s time to go soon
- trying not to rush your toddler if you’re busy, stressed, or tired. They can sense your stress and tend to join in!
- telling them what to do, rather than what not to do – rather than saying ‘don’t throw the book’, say ‘can you give me the book please?’
- avoiding saying an outright no, but instead saying ‘once you’ve had your lunch’ or ‘when we get home, we can…’
- telling your toddler how their behaviour affects others – it’ll help them to learn to get on with others.
It’s a good idea to get into the habit of gently naming their feelings with them. By doing this your child will connect their feeling with a word, and this word then helps them develop knowledge and skills about what to do next so that feeling doesn’t get out of control. Hungry, thirsty and tired are often easy ones to recognise first, then the big emotions like anger or sadness. As they get older, more complex feelings like embarassment or shame will develop, and you can support your child to recognise and respond to these feelings too.
Supporting your child when they have a tantrum
Tantrums are normal, and most children have them. If your toddler’s upset or having a tantrum, knowing what they’re upset about will help you manage it. Sometimes you’ll need to comfort your toddler, other times ignoring the tantrum might work best.
If you sense a tantrum brewing, sometimes distraction will work – ‘hey, look at that puppy over there. Isn’t it cute?’
But it’s very hard to stop a tantrum that’s already happening because the brain of a child in full tantrum mode can’t think or reason. Don’t worry about giving instructions or trying to distract them if they’ve already lost it.
Keeping yourself calm
If your child is having a tantrum, first get and keep calm yourself.
You might be feeling angry, but try not to show it. If you get angry, it’ll make the situation harder for both you and your child. It’s a good idea to take some deep breaths to stay calm.
By staying calm you’re showing your kids how you want them to behave – so breathe, smile, count to ten, sing – whatever you need to do to stay calm.
Sometimes reacting to or paying attention to the tantrum will make it last longer.
There are times when just staying with them and making sure they’re safe until they’ve calmed down is all you can do.
Keep them safe and give them space
If it’s a situation where they’re in immediate danger of hurting or damaging themselves, others, or things around them, or if there’s too much going on, then you need to act calmly and quickly by scooping them up and taking them to a safer or calmer place. If you need to leave a full shopping trolley or the shop, just do it.
If they’re not in danger, just ignore the tantrum until they calm down. Stay with them while they calm down, or leave them to calm down while you stay nearby to make sure they’re safe.
Under New Zealand law, all children have the right to grow up free from violence. Using force to change a child’s behaviour is illegal. Parents can hold or pick up a child to keep them safe, move them, stop them hurting others, or to provide care like changing nappies, but this needs to be reasonable for the situation.
Never shake or hit your toddler, because you could easily hurt them.
Smacking and other kinds of physical punishment shouldn’t be used because:
- a child learns by copying and may think it’s okay to hit or hurt others
- smacking or hitting can make them sad and physically hurt them, especially if they’re hit around the head
- smacking doesn’t show your child how you want them to behave
- they may not know or understand why they’re being smacked
- giving attention by smacking can make children keep behaving badly to get your attention. Any attention is better than no attention from a child’s point of view.
Children copy adults’ behaviour - good and bad - so it helps to think about the future.
What to do when the tantrum is over
Once your toddler has calmed down, give them cuddles and smiles, and praise them for calming down.
Give yourself a pat on the back for staying calm too. Don’t give in to the demands they were making before they had the tantrum, but talk to them about what happened. Gently name their feelings with them to help them recognise and name the feeling next time – “I know you felt angry when Charlie took the toy from you. Next time, you come and get me and I’ll help you get it back or find another toy.”
If you feel like you need to give your child a consequence for their actions, make sure it’s reasonable for their age and related to what they did.
To understand things, toddlers need your reaction to happen right after what they did. They also need to be able to see how your reaction fits their action.
Hitting and biting
Lots of toddlers go through a stage when frustrated or angry they may hit and bite. While these are normal behaviours for small children who are learning how to act with others, it is not an acceptable way to deal with their feelings and they need to quickly learn it’s not okay. If your toddler bites:
- Don’t you hit or bite them back. This will confuse your toddler. They’ll wonder why you can do it but they can’t.
- Try to move your toddler calmly out of the way or the room and then give the person who’s hurt your attention.
- Praise them when they’re playing well.