Toddler Tantrum 101 – How to Understand and Manage Tantrums

Tantrums are entirely normal and very common, all children will tantrum at some point, often regularly. In fact, many adults still tantrum. A tantrum is just simply dysregulated behaviour and difficulty controlling emotions. There is no difference between an adult losing their temper and a toddler struggling with their own emotions for whatever reason, however adults have much more mature brain development and so tantrum far less than children (most of the time!).

 Too many people believe that tantrums are a sign of bad parenting, but the truth is that young children tantrum because the area of their brain responsible for emotion regulation is very immature. It takes many years (in fact, until the late 20s!) for this area of the brain to finish wiring up, until this connection is complete children struggle very much to control their emotions, calm themselves down, resist impulses and understand and embrace societal norms. Tantrums are simply a sign of an underdeveloped brain, they have nothing to do with parenting.

Are Tantrums Unique to ‘The Terrible Twos’?
Firstly, we must look at the phrase “terrible twos”, it’s such a negative way to view things and it predisposes parents to view toddlers and their behaviour negatively and if you expect ‘naughty behaviour’ then you’re much more prone to see and unconsciously encourage it. I much prefer the term “terrific twos”, because such a lot is happening in the brain, with so much learning taking place it’s quite mind blowing. 
Actually children are prone to tantrums at any age, babies have tantrums, 6 year olds have tantrums and teenagers have tantrums. They are not unique to toddlerhood. If you think of tantrums as just difficulty managing big emotions because of underdeveloped brains then you can understand why they can happen at any age. There is plenty of neuroscience showing stages of brain development and how the areas of the brain responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control are underdeveloped until adulthood. Often parents associate tantrums with toddlerhood because babies, particularly non-mobile ones, can be quite placid and easy going, but as soon as they start to move and take more of an interest in the world around them and seek to try to assert some control over their lives the frustration and big feelings mount and tantrum ensue.

So, What is the Cause of Tantrums Then?
Tantrums are ultimately caused by a lack of connection in the neocortex, the sophisticated ‘thinking’ part of the brain, meaning that the child can’t control their impulses, struggle with empathy, don’t understand the repurcussions of their actions and can’t calm themselves down. There is usually a trigger too, ie something that causes this dysregulation and big feelings. This trigger could be as simple as being hungry or tired, feeling frustrated because they can’t complete a task, struggling with the lack of control they have over their lives, feeling disconnected from their main caregiver, anxiety, fear and worry and very often, because they are picking up on our own emotions and tantrums, by this I mean if you are feeling stressed and are very snappy and shouty at your child, it’s very likely they will mirror back your own feelings with a tantrum.

How Can Parents Avoid, or Stop, Tantrums?
You must understand that tantrums are a common and normal stage of development. You can’t stop them, because you can’t change your child’s brain. You can however understand and accept them. In much the same way you wouldn’t blame your child for having a physical disability, you should accept that tantrums happen because of a physical difference in your child’s brain. They can’t help it, in fact they would rather they didn’t tantrum either. No toddler (or any other age) tantrums on purpose, they can’t help it. They probably feel far worse than us when they tantrum. 
You can often avoid common triggers, particularly if you work out what these are for your child (they are different for all), for instance if your child always tantrums in the supermarket, the easiest solution is to avoid shopping with them and go when you can leave them with somebody else, or shop on the internet instead.

What’s the Best Way to Handle a Public Tantrum?
Handling a tantrum is the same wherever you are – at home or in public. It’s all about handling your own emotions and being a great role model. It starts with understanding that they are normal, your child is not being deliberately ‘naughty’ or manipulative, they are struggling with something. Repeat to yourself “my child is having a hard time, not giving me a hard time”. Take a deep breath, pause and empathise with your child. Calm yourself down. Forget the disapproving looks you may be getting from onlookers and focus on your child. First you need to keep them safe (so move them away from anything that could harm them, or they may break), next you need to model the calm you want from your child. They look to you as a role model to know how to behave, if you lose control and start shouting or getting angry at them you won’t help them to calm down and you will very likely make things worse. Get down onto their level, be calm, offer to help them to calm down when they are ready and stand or sit close by. Wait for the ‘fight or flight’ response to pass and your child’s cortisol levels (stress hormones) to drop, when they start to to calm a little offer a hug or calming words. There is no point talking to them during a tantrum, they won’t be able to hear or focus on you when they are flooded with cortisol. When the tantrum passes move on with your day, do something fun and repair the connection. There is no point lecturing them, or dwelling on the tantrum, they are too young for lectures or lengthy explanations.

So, Telling Your Toddler Off, or Shouting At Them Doesn’t Work Then?
Shouting at children is not only counterproductive, it’s incredibly damaging and may actually cause far worse behaviour from your child in the future. Also, it’s likely to create a wedge in the connection with your child and you’ll find as they grow they won’t come to you when they’re struggling with their emotions. It’s no coincidence that so many have such a fraught relationship with their teenagers as children grow.

What Should Parents Say When Their Toddler is Having a Tantrum?
Never, ever try to start a conversation when your child is mid tantrum. You will likely make things worse, whatever you say. Imagine the last time you lose your temper and had your own tantrum, if your partner or friend told you to calm down it would make you worse! That’s what happens when we try to speak to toddlers and other ages during a tantrum. You should also avoid telling them to ‘be quiet’, ‘be good’ or the like, because you send a message that you only want to be around them when they are not struggling with their emotions. In time, as the child grows this will cause them to not come to you with their problems, because they learn that you don’t want to be near them when they’re struggling. When they have calmed down, it’s good to name the feelings they may have experienced. For instance “you were angry that that little boy took the ball away from you”. “you were sad it was time to leave the park” and so on. This helps to validate their emotions and let them know that you see them and will support them, whatever they are feeling. It also helps them to learn names of emotions so that in future they can come to you and say “I’m feeling really angry today”.

Is it Bad to Give in To Your Toddler’s Tantrum?
You must change your terminology. Too many refer to comforting a child and showing nurturance and empathy through a tantrum as “giving in”. This phrase comes from believing that tantrums are somehow manipulative and planned by children – something they can control. They can’t. By responding to your child with compassion when they tantrum you are showing them that you love them unconditionally, that you will always be there to support them and that they can trust you to help them. That’s not giving in, it’s great parenting! If your child has a tantrum because they want something that for whatever reason they can’t have, then you simply empathise with them and support them through the tantrum. You don’t have to give them the item because of the tantrum. You should still have boundaries too! Being responsive doesn’t mean being permissive.

What if Your Toddler is Hitting, Biting, or Acting Violently During a Tantrum?
Always focus on safety first. If your child is hurting themself, hurting you, or hurting another child then you need to stop the violent behaviour. In the case of hitting, hold the child’s hands/arms down and say “stop, I won’t let you hit” and then stay close by and support through the tantrum. Remember to stay calm, remind yourself they are not being deliberately naughty or nasty, they’re just a little child with a little child’s brain. They will learn that violence is inappropriate in time, but that time is not yet! You should also never, ever hit or bite back – this doesn’t teach them anything other than you, as an adult, think it’s an appropriate behaviour and a good way to handle problems. It’s incredibly poor role modelling.

How Can Parents Stay Calm During a Tantrum?
A lot of adults struggle with their child’s tantrums because of their own upbringing. If you were raised by authoritarian parents (those who would tell you off, punish you or send you away to your room, time out or the like when you struggled with your emotions), it’s very likely you will struggle with your child’s tantrums, because they will trigger you. You will have a subconscious response that is basically you reliving what your parents did to you, you may find yourself saying words your parents or carers said and you may feel irrationally angry too. Noticing this response is a huge step, because when you understand it you can improve it. This is all about being mindful of your own emotions and learning to control them, because you can’t raise a calm emotionally literate child if you’re still throwing your own temper tantrums! 
Deep breaths, mindfulness exercises, journalling, inner child therapy work and the like are all really helpful. Also, take some time for self- care. You need to find something that helps you to offload your own big feelings to make space to ‘hold’ your child’s feelings. If you’re full up with the stresses of everyday life, then your child’s tantrum will be the final nail in the coffin and you’ll add to their exploding emotions with your own dysregulated ones. So, whatever helps you to feel calm and offload will be a huge help. Also, do keep reminding yourself over and over again that your child is not doing this on purpose, they feel bad too, they’re just struggling with immature brain development. Be the adult!

If this article has piqued your interest in gentle discipline, check out my gentle discipline book.  It is released under the title ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ in the UK and under the title ‘Gentle Discipline‘ in the USA and Canada. The book covers common tricky behaviours from babyhood right the way through to the teen years and how to cope with them in a gentle and effective way


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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