Temper Tantrums: Why Do They Happen and How Can We Manage Them?


By Kristen Varley, RECE, BPHE
Preschool teacher

The epic temper tantrum. As parents and caregivers, I think we can empathize with each other on this one. At one point or another, we have all experienced our children’s strategically planned outbursts. Whether in the produce section at the grocery store, in front of their teachers during morning drop-off, or at an expensive (typically quiet) restaurant; that ear-shattering, show-stopping, screaming and kicking, exhibiting no signs of stopping paroxysm has happened to all of us at some totally inconvenient point or another. Needless to say, we’ve all been there. But why do children have temper tantrums? Contrary to what we may believe, temper tantrums arise for more reasons than just humiliating us in public. But in order for us to keep our sanity and properly manage these outbursts (without having a tantrum of our own), it is essential to understand our children’s side of the story first.

tantrumWhy do children have temper tantrums?

Temper tantrums are a normal part of child development and typically occur between the ages of 1-3 years old. Some children have them rarely whilst others more habitually, but it is important to recognize (despite the level of frustration) that they are normal and happen for a reason. Children at this stage of development are just starting to get their feet wet with emerging language and emotional skills. However, this does not eliminate their need to communicate with us. Though a temper tantrum may seem like a very dramatic way to go about it, at the end of the day our children are expressing a personal need and/or want, and therefore it is important for us as their caregivers to communicate a response back. This does not mean completely spoiling our children by giving them everything they want when they are having a temper tantrum; rather, we should communicate our reasoning and understanding back to them.

tantrum5A classic example would be when your child passes by a toy that they swear on their teddy bear’s life they must have at that precise moment. As soon as we respond, “NO”-while we plug our ears in preparation of the shrieks to follow-our children, who are incapable of pleading their case using sufficient vocabulary, go to what they know best: crying, screaming, yelping, shrieking…you catch my drift. Developmentally, they have yet to learn how to regulate their emotions to a point where they can calmly express themselves using words in the absence of tears.

In addition to the lack of control and minimal vocabulary, children at this stage of life have an overwhelming yearning for independence and autonomy. Therefore, when they hear the word, “NO”, emotions escalate. So now you’re stuck with escalated feelings in a small body incapable of regulating emotions and comprising minimal communication skills. What’s the end result? I’ll give you three guesses.

How can we manage temper tantrums?

tantrumNow that we have established the inevitable, there are some helpful tactics you as a parent/caregiver can utilize to minimize the dramatic effects.

Stay calm

The most important thing is always the most difficult: you need to keep your cool. Easier said than done, but it plays a crucial role in de-escalating the prevailing tantrum. Staying calm and keeping your voice relaxed may not get an immediate response out of your child, but it will isolate the problem at hand as opposed to creating more stress by screaming back.

Acknowledge the issue at hand

It is also important to not ignore your child. At this stage of autonomy it is essential for them to feel like an important member of a “group” (family member, classroom member, etc.). By ignoring the tantrum completely, a child can interpret that as their needs and/or wants are not important to you or that particular group. Remember, tantrums are a child’s version of communication; therefore it is important that you acknowledge them with even more communication. Using phrases like, “I understand you’re upset” or, “I’m sorry you’re sad”, communicates to your child that their problems are important to you and that you do understand their personal needs. And let’s be honest, not getting your own way is never fun for anyone at any age, so from a literal sense you can kind of understand where your child is coming from.

Give Reasoning

Once you have expressed your empathies and understanding, you need to explain your side of the story. This is imperative to a child’s development with regulating emotions. Children need to hear the “Who, What, Where, Why and How” to successfully process any kind of understanding that deceives their original way of thinking. Explaining to your child, “I am sorry you are upset we have to leave the playground, BUT it is time to go home so we can have snack”, or, “I understand you are upset because I said we can’t buy these green apples, BUT remember we already have green apples at home”, provides your child with a reasoning as opposed to a simple, “NO” with zero explanation. This stipulates rational explanations to your child that, in turn, contributes to positive emotional regulation.

Distract, Distract, Distract

Next, you want to provide a distraction. It sounds amateur, but 9 times out of 10 you will get the result you are looking for. It is important to be strategic with your distractions and not deceitful. A random distraction like, “I understand you are upset because I said we can’t buy these green apples, but remember we already have green apples at home, SQUIRREL!” will seldom work. This will only inhibit your child’s thinking process and prolong any de-escalation of emotions back to equilibrium. The best kind of distraction you can provide still addresses the original problem, but includes a positive solution. For example, “I understand you are upset because I said we can’t buy these green apples, but remember we already have green apples at home. Why don’t we go home and cut them up for snack?” Now you have shifted your child’s thought process to a new task. It also provides them with that idea of choice, making them feel like they are in control of their autonomy once again.

tantrum3Support your child’s autonomy

You can exaggerate distractions even further by giving your child the option to personally help you with the solution provided. By saying, “Do you think you can help me get the snack ready?” illustrates to your child that their help is needed and important to you. If they continue to say “NO”, then shift their train of thought by providing even more choice: “What would you like for snack then? What do you think we can have when we get home, because I am hungry!” Again, this is providing a distraction that leaves your child feeling like they have control over the situation and gives them a sense of autonomy.

Provide Comfort

The last step is the easiest one: offer up some love. Sometimes all our children need to hear is, “Do you need a hug?” and *poof* problem solved. This supports the notion that we want our children to feel important and respected, especially in times when they are feeling upset and stressed. A simple hug can go a long way for both parties at the finale of a temper tantrum, so always keep that in mind.

Though every child is vastly different and responds in vastly different ways, the most important thing to remember about your child during a temper tantrum is that they are a person. What are they trying to communicate to you? How can you validate their reactions and provide verbal understanding in return? What can you do to give them a sense of autonomy without surrendering to the initial trigger? You know your child better than anyone, so always incorporate what you know in addition to these strategies. It may not be a cure, but I promise both you and your child will feel fulfilled in the end.


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