8 ways to manage toddler tantrums according to a psychologist

by Mother & Baby |

These clever tricks will help to minimise the emotion, says psychologist Rebecca Shrag Hershberg…

If in the past day or two, you’ve stood in front of a shrieking, stomping little human, you’ll know firsthand that you can feel so many other emotions when your child explodes at being served the wrong type of banana – frustration, shame, powerlessness, anger, regret, guilt, rage, sadness, hopelessness… I get it. I am a parent of two little boys aged 21 months apart, and when I get together with my mum friends, at least one usually wants to vent about her child’s latest breaking-all-the-records tantrum. And yet, even though we all use the same word, ‘tantrum’, we don’t always mean the same thing by it.

In this article we will explore:

  • What is a tantrum?

  • What causes tantrums?

  • Main contributors

  • How to manage a tantrum

What is a tantrum?

Picture a little boy screaming on the supermarket floor – he’s having a tantrum, right? But what about the little girl whose disappointed tears over her scoop of ice cream falling off its cone morph into inconsolable wailing? We might call this a tantrum if we only saw the behaviour in question, but then perhaps backtrack once we discovered the origins.

My point is, the behaviour we call a ‘tantrum’ doesn’t happen in isolation – we need to consider the conditions and events that lead up to the tantrum; the problem your toddler may have been attempting to solve; your response; and all of the emotions involved for both you and your tot. More often than not, your child may feel frustrated, disappointed, sad, afraid, and/or overwhelmed. So, my definition of a tantrum is that it’s a behavioural response to not knowing how to manage or express an overwhelming emotional experience. And in young children, that’s completely normal and natural.

What causes them?

I’ve had parents ask me, sincerely, if I am absolutely certain that their toddler is not a psychopath. They’re concerned there really is something wrong. But young brains are wired in such a way that tantrums make perfect sense, and are actually a sign of healthy development. Brains are built from the bottom up, with simpler pathways – hearing and vision, for example – developing first, followed by those of increasing complexity. The ability to have a tantrum necessitates neural circuitry that is quite complex, for children to be able to perceive the world around them, regulate their emotions, communicate and use language, problem-solve, exercise judgment and make decisions. And these abilities exist in several areas of the brain that undergo a period of rapid development in the first few years of life.

Our expectations for toddlers’ capacity for self-control are typically far too high: a study found 42 per cent of parents believe that children can regulate their emotions by age two. In reality, this capacity only begins to develop when children are between three and a half and four years old, and it takes several more years for to master it. We often don’t recognize that our toddlers are working so hard, in an ongoing and nearly constant way, to have a tantrum, and that this task alone takes an extraordinary level of energy, effort, and skill. Which is one reason that tantrums increase, in both frequency and severity, when toddlers are tired or hungry. In those moments – they just don’t have the reserves required to expend energy on keeping it together.

What’s contributing?

Think of your child’s most recent tantrum and then consider the following points. They’ll help you realise that there might have been more going on than you first thought.

  • How was my child feeling before the tantrum? (Tired, hungry, sick, already frustrated, sad?)

  • How did he sleep last night?

  • Have there been any big changes in his world in recent days or weeks?

  • How did the day go overall? (Smoothly, with lots of little hassles, or nothing went right?)

  • How were my mood and stress level today?

  • How were my toddler and I getting along today?

  • Were we interacting with anyone else prior to the tantrum? How might this person (or persons) have contributed somehow?

  • How was I feeling right before the tantrum?

  • Did I have any expectations about how I wanted my child to behave that may have been unrealistic?

  • What happened right before the tantrum?

Once you can start to spot all the links in the chain that might be leading to a tantrum, you can then take action before you get to the crunch point! Each link in the chain offers an opportunity to head off or intervene in a tantrum, and now you have lots of ways to do that!

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1) Be silly!

Tantrum simmering? When toddlers are building to the exploding point, surprise can be your friend – so be prepared to try something you’ve never done before!
Toddlers love silly, especially when it comes from Mum bursting into off-key song in the middle of the supermarket, or challenging them to a jumping race out of the playground when it’s time to leave. You might not feel comfortable at first but, trust me, this tantrum de-escalation strategy is worth looking silly for!

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