Tantrums occur when a child’s system of managing her feelings and thoughts collapses. It’s an expression in external action of internal feelings over which the child is seeking control. The best thing you can do as a parent is learn to understand the reason for the tantrums, to face the outburst without losing your composure and to help your child find a better way of displaying her intense emotions.
Temper tantrums may look similar, but the reasons for them vary considerably. A typical sign of a problem is when the child has trouble tolerating being told “No” in response to something he wants. This is often seen as the cause, but it’s usually evidence of inner difficulties that need to be deciphered in order to help the child. A tantrum that follows a parent or caregiver saying “No” is usually just the tip of the iceberg. Internal and external stressors prior to that have paved the way for the tantrum. Look for meaning beyond how the child reacts to the word “No.”
Children with ADHD, learning disabilities or sensory problems deal with additional frustrations compared to other children, so they’re more likely to have tantrums. Similarly, children with anxiety, phobias, depression, experiences of traumatic events or a tendency to feel over-stimulated may fall apart when they’re overwhelmed with excessive worries and fears.
Use these tips to help interpret and subdue the emotions behind your child’s temper tantrums:
Early on, teach youngsters feeling language, like happy, sad, mad and glad. As they grow older, give them the nuances of anger, such as irritated, frustrated, disappointed, annoyed and hurt. Vocabulary is important in helping the child to assess how angry he feels and why. Naming the emotions gives him the opportunity to express himself in words rather than physical actions when he’s upset.
It’s important that you tolerate angry feelings and not try to dissuade your child or teen from having these feelings. Your child or teen shouldn’t feel that you’re afraid of his emotions or that you’ll judge him harshly for having them. A child or teen needs to know that having and expressing anger doesn’t make him a bad person.
As a parent, the best way to help your child during a tantrum is to remain calm. Children need to know their tantrums aren’t so powerful and scary that you can’t withstand them. It’s important for the child to know that her anger doesn’t overpower you and that you’re able to hear and endure the anger. Experiencing anger can actually frighten your child, and she needs to know that having and expressing such emotions doesn’t frighten you, too. This will help her to know that she can share her feelings with you.
When the tantrum behavior slips outside the home, embarrassment becomes a part of the equation. You may need to take fast action in order to prevent humiliation for both you and your child. If possible, attend quickly to what the child needs or remove the child from the situation. Leaving a public place is not a way to punish the child—it’s a way to quickly reduce the stimulation and stop the outburst. Later, when everyone is calm, speak to your child about the situation. If the child is very young, her attention span is likely to be short, but a quick description of the problem along with a simple and easy rule like this can work: “Being upset belongs at home where we can solve problems.” Containing her anger and delaying its expression until a more appropriate time can only be internalized by a child if the parent also follows the tenets of self-regulation.
Children who have difficulty with unexpected or planned transitions between activities may tantrum at those times or immediately afterward. You can prepare a younger child for a planned transition by advising him there are five minutes left before the change. You can give an older child an idea of the sequence of activities for the day so he feels prepared for what’s ahead.
Tantrums that last more than half an hour and are unusually intense with flailing limbs and shocking shrieks where the child or teen seems to be unaware of the world around her may end in the youngster being exhausted, falling asleep, and later not remembering the tantrum. These actions and emotions, especially in children four years and older, are not typical and need special attention. Some young people who have tantrums, particularly later in life, may have a neurological disorder such as a bipolar disorder.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D, is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy a unique practice that covers the life span. Dr. Hollman is widely published on topics relevant to parents and children such as juried articles and chapters in the international Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation and the Inner World of the Mother. She is the author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence—Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, winner of the Mom’s Choice Award, and the Busy Parent’s Guides series of books: The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children and Teens—The Parental Intelligence Way, and The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anger in Children and Teens—The Parental Intelligence Way (Familius, Aug. 1, 2018). Learn more at lauriehollmanphd.com.
Written by Laurie Hollman Ph.D for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.