Tantrums – What do they mean?
Written by: Joshua Blazen
If you know a child, you have probably witnessed a tantrum. You’re not alone! Most children aged 18- to 48 months have tantrums. Many toddlers will have at least one tantrum per day.
What do tantrums mean?
During a tantrum, some children will lay on the ground and cry, some children will throw objects and scream, and some children may even hold their breath. While each tantrum looks different, the reason for a tantrum is usually the same. Young children use tantrums to communicate when they don’t have the language skills to express themselves. Here are some of the most common causes for tantrums:
• To get something: Young children may use tantrums to access something they want, like treats, attention, more time with a fun toy, or more time with a fun person or activity.
• To avoid something: Young children quickly learn that they can avoid an unpleasant activity, like bedtime or a time-out, with a tantrum.
• To express feelings: Through a tantrum, your child may be telling you that they are feeling frustrated or disappointed. It can be emotional when an enjoyable experience ends, and your child may use a tantrum to tell you that.
• To express needs: For children who don’t have a lot of spoken or signed words, tantrums are the best way to let adults know that they are tired or hungry.
What can I do about tantrums?
What DO I do?
• Keep a consistent schedule. A predictable routine leads to less surprise disappointments for a child. For example, if clean-up time happens at about the same time every day, your child will be less surprised when it is time to put their toys away for naptime.
• Look for triggers. Pay attention to the times of day and activities that seem to relate to your child’s tantrums. You may be able to avoid some of these triggers, like walking down the toy aisle at the store or driving past the candy store on the way home. Some triggers, like bedtime and brushing teeth, can’t be avoided. Try scheduling triggers that can’t be avoided at the same time every day so the child can predict when they happen. Give your child warnings and consider doing some kind of transition activity (reading a book or singing a song) before these triggers happen.
• Ignore tantrums. When tantrums do happen, stay calm and ignore them as long as your child is safe. Let your child know that you will talk to them once they are calm, and then don’t make eye contact with them or talk to them again. Try to keep occupied – you don’t want to make it seem like you’re sitting around waiting for the tantrum to be over.
• Reward your child when they don’t have a tantrum. Reward your child with attention and praise when they express themselves calmly instead of with a tantrum. Reward them if they make it through a trigger activity without having a tantrum. Teach them how to express themselves with words, and then reward them with praise and attention for using their words. When your child does have a tantrum, reward them with attention once the tantrum is over and they have calmed down.
• Seek support if needed. If your child’s tantrums put them in danger of hurting themselves or others, talk to your pediatrician. If the tantrums seem to be getting worse no matter what strategies you try, talk with your child’s teacher or pediatrician for additional advice.
What DON’T I do?
• Try to reason with a tantruming child. If your child is screaming and crying, they are probably past the point of negotiating. A child in the middle of a tantrum is so upset that they aren’t hearing your words. They just know that their tantrum has gotten your attention!
• Give in. Ignoring tantrums is hard. No one likes to see their child upset, and sometimes it feels like the easiest way to end the tantrum is to just give the child what they want. But stay strong! Giving in can make tantrums worse because it teaches the child that tantrums will get them what they want. When they understand this, they are more likely to escalate – longer and more intense tantrums – and this is not good for anyone. Remember, you’re teaching your child how to express their feelings in a healthy way, which is an important skill to have!