You are currently viewing Understanding Temper Tantrums

Screaming, uncontrollable crying, holding breath, rolling on the floor and stomping – these intense emotional outbursts by young children are temper tantrums – something we parents dread and often feel inadequately equipped to handle.

Common in early childhood, particularly at age 2 (the terrible twos) and 3 (the tempestuous threes), a child usually outgrows temper tantrums by age 5. We look at the underlying causes of temper tantrums in children and offer some advice on how to defuse and manage a challenging situation.

“Temper tantrums are a common and challenging aspect of childhood development that can leave parents, caregivers and even bystanders feeling anxious and overwhelmed,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health.

“The neuroscience behind tantrums reveals that meltdowns happen due to the ongoing development of children’s brains. They still need to acquire the coping mechanisms to manage intense emotions effectively. The good news is that most kids will grow out of temper tantrums as they learn to express themselves better.”

Also read our articles on dealing with challenging behaviour and  tantrums: why is my child so angry.

don’t be alarmed

By the time they reach the toddler stage, children have developed various skills, but temper control isn’t typically one of them. Temper tantrums can take various forms, from crying and screaming to kicking, hitting, and even breath-holding. While the behaviour can be distressing for children and adults, these emotional meltdowns are a normal part of child development and communication.

common causes of temper tantrums

What triggers a child’s temper tantrum varies from child to child, but some of the common causes include:

frustration

Children often lack the language skills to express their needs adequately. When they encounter obstacles or cannot communicate their needs, frustration can lead to tantrums.

attention-seeking

Some children use tantrums to gain attention from parents or caregivers. For some, negative attention, such as scolding or reprimanding, is as rewarding as positive attention.

fatigue and hunger

Being over-tired or hungry can exacerbate emotions and lead to increased irritability in children, making them more prone to tantrums.

transitions and changes

Children thrive on routine and the familiar. Changing routines, from playtime to mealtime or leaving a favourite place, can be challenging for young children and may trigger tantrums.

overstimulation

Excessive sensory input, such as noise, bright lights or crowded spaces, can overwhelm children, making them more likely to have tantrums.

independence and autonomy

As children strive for greater independence, they may become frustrated when their desires conflict with parental limits or expectations.

how to deal with temper tantrums

Dealing with tantrums requires patience, empathy and a practical approach. Here are some steps and tips for managing and diffusing temper tantrums:

stay calm

To defuse a tantrum, parents and caregivers must remain calm at all costs. Losing your temper can escalate the situation.

ensure safety

The child’s safety and that of others during a tantrum is paramount –  remove any potential hazards or objects that could cause harm.

comfort

Provide comfort and reassurance without giving in to the child’s demands. Let them know you understand their feelings.

distract and offer choices

Sometimes, redirecting a child’s attention to a different activity or object can help defuse the tantrum. You could try giving children choices, within reasonable limits, to help them feel a sense of control. For example, you could say: “You can choose between these two snacks,” or “Which of these two T-shirts do you want to wear today?

teach emotion regulation 

As children grow, help them understand and manage their emotions by teaching them techniques like deep breathing or using words to express feelings.

positive reinforcement

Praise and reward positive behaviour to reinforce good choices and encourage co-operation.

when to seek professional help

If temper tantrums are frequent, severe or interfere with daily life, consider consulting a healthcare provider or child psychologist for guidance.