Dealing with Toddler Tantrums

Children throw tantrums as a way of expressing anger and frustration. Parents need to understand the needs and deficiencies of the child to help them deal with their emotions

ChildYou have seen this scene often enough. You’re in a shopping mall. You suddenly hear a loud crying sound. You see a two or three year old crying inconsolably, lying on the floor and thrashing about, while the mother tries in vain, to pacify the child. The child refuses to listen to reason, and the mother, who is extremely embarrassed and frustrated, seems to achieve no result. This is what is classically called the temper tantrum of a toddler.

Why do tantrums occur?

Tantrums are common in children in the age group of one to four. Almost 80 per cent of children between the ages of two and four are known to throw tantrums, while the figures are less below and above these ages. After this age, children and parents can communicate with each other, understand each other, and the need for a physical display is less. Tantrums are usually due to two main reasons, or of two types:

  • The frustration tantrum
  • The attention seeking tantrum.

Frustration tantrum

The frustration tantrum occurs because the child cannot understand adults and their behaviour. Adults too, contribute by not being aware of the child’s state of mind, and his requirements. A child is often lost in this world of adults, and cannot comprehend the rules and regulations laid down by adults. He or she is also not well versed with skills of communications, and is poor in physical skills. Small things — like an inability to wear clothes, or helplessness in tying shoe laces — make the child angry and frustrated, often leading to a tantrum. Also, children at this age cannot understand why they can’t do certain things, like climb on top of the table, or possess the toy that looks so alluring in the store. This leads to a build up of tensions and anger in them, resulting in a tantrum. A frustration temper tantrum is most often due to a need to release all the pent up anger and helplessness.

Attention-seeking tantrum

The attention seeking tantrum, as the name implies, is a method which toddlers employ, to get their parents attention. Some toddlers are more attention seeking and more insecure, than others. They want much more of their parent’s attention, and get very restless when their parents are busy with their work, or talking to someone. Initially they try and distract their parents by making noises, or by pulling at their clothes or their hand. When this doesn’t produce results, they react by throwing a tantrum, because nothing gets their parents’ attention as quickly and as effectively, as crying loudly.

Tantrum triggers

Though a tantrum occurs due to the above reasons, almost all tantrums have a trigger, which sets them off. The most common triggers are fatigue, hunger, lack of sleep, too much crowd, inability to do a physical task, over stimulation, denial of a toy by the parent, and sickness. Also, if the parents are stressed out or agitated, the toddler gets unsettled, and can throw a tantrum.

Preventing a tantrum

A parent who is well tuned to the child will soon learn to recognise situations where the child is likely to get agitated or frustrated. Mothers should watch out for potential situations or triggers that can precipitate a tantrum, like a wedding in the family, a visit to a shopping mall, when the child is sick or not fed, and take preventive action. Making and enforcing basic ground rules, and having a system of reward and punishment, whenever the child behaves well or badly, will make the child soon realise that there are certain limits that he or she cannot cross. As with all other problems, here too, prevention is better than cure.

Also, as soon as the mother senses that a child is about to throw a tantrum, she should firstly remain calm. Calmness and firmness are the two key elements in tantrum control.

Managing a tantrum

There are many ways of managing a tantrum:

  • By ignoring: Many times, ignoring a tantrum can make the child realise the futility of it, and he or she may move on to something else
  • By distracting: Very early in the tantrum, many children can be effectively distracted, by picking them up and taking them outside, or by giving them some toy or candy, or by engaging them in talk or play
  • Supporting the child: Calmly supporting the child and reassuring him in a calm tone of voice, hugging and holding him often works to stop the tantrum. It also prevents children from hurting themselves or damaging things
  • Giving time: Many mothers tell the child that he or she has three or five minutes to cry and then to stop. Somehow, the child seems to understand and stops after a period of time, feeling happy that the mother has given them some time to recover, instead of screaming or spanking him
  • Using time out as a technique: Whenever the child is unmanageable, and resorts to kicking, biting, throwing things around and damaging things, mothers should use a time out, where the child is told to sit in a corner or go to his room for a period of 10-15 minutes. During this period, the mother can keep a watch on the child, but should refuse to interact or talk to him. This form of disciplining, without turning to spanking or shouting, often works wonders.

In a nutshell

Since almost 80 per cent of toddlers are known to throw tantrums, parents should not feel bad about it, or take it as a sign or bad parenting. If children continue to have tantrums beyond the age of five, these need to be evaluated by a child psychologist.

P V Vaidyanathan
Dr P V Vaidyanathan, MD, DCH, is a Mumbai-based paediatrician in private practice, hobbyist writer, and author of a book on childhood stress management.