The meltdown… The highlight of any parent’s day!
Until your child learns to regulate their emotions, tantrums will just be part of your life.
Sometimes they will make you want to pull out your hair; other times they will seem so over exaggerated, you just can’t help but suppress a little laugh.
The public meltdown, on the other hand, is less cute.
Most people will be understanding – at least if they’ve ever had kids of their own – but you may also receive a few side glances as your child proceeds to make a scene.
Since no child is absolutely tantrum-proof, you will need to be ready for your crisis management skills to be put to the test, causing you to practice your resilience and patience!
What is a Tantrum?
Tantrums are a very common part of a child’s development, starting from infancy and continuing for the first few years of life.
During these early years, a child is still learning to understand and communicate their own feelings as well as handle their emotions.
These emotional outbursts may be their way of communicating that they are hungry, uncomfortable, tired, or just overall unhappy at the moment.
Symptoms of a Tantrum
Temper tantrums can vary widely in appearance. Most consist of screaming, crying, back arching stomping, and kicking.
Beyond these symptoms, you may also have children who take it to a more physical level, either with the intention of harming themselves or getting your attention through extreme means.
On the self-harm side, you may witness your child throwing their body on the ground or even hitting themselves.
Your child may also get themselves so upset that they begin to hold their breath or even cause themselves to vomit.
Are They Harmful to Your Baby?
Depending on your child’s personality and their reaction to certain stimuli that upset them, tantrums should not be harmful to them, even though they can be exhausting for you at times.
Most children throw a fit by just screaming, possibly with some kicking or stomping added in. However, there are some children that have more violent tantrums. They may throw themselves on the ground, hit themselves, or hit others as well.
It is important to get these more violent fits under control before anyone gets hurt.
Understanding Tantrums by Age
Tantrums will look different at every age. Your child’s response(s) to stressors will change as they grow and develop.
So, what can you expect to see at each stage, and when will the tantrums stop?
When your child is under a year old, you can’t really call their outbursts tantrums – though sometimes their breakdowns may seem just as irrational and explosive.
The only way your baby can communicate at this age is through their cries.
These distress signals let you know when they are tired, hungry, dirty, uncomfortable, or just want attention. It’s simply up to you to decipher what it is they need in the moment.
As long as you are able to anticipate their needs, responding to early cues of squirming and fussing, the crying and screaming can usually be kept to a minimum.
This is preferable since they are very difficult to console once they’ve started screaming.
1 Year Old
Real tantrums usually begin between 12 and 18 months. At this age, your child is more mobile and begins to form their own opinion of things.
They may feel restrained by the boundaries you set or they may just not like the way you do things.
Your little one will likely know a few words at this age, but their vocabulary is very limited.
This can be very frustrating for them as they cannot clearly communicate what it is they need or want.
As a result, they respond with big emotions and gestures. You may even hear the word “no” a lot since it’s one of the few they probably know.
2-3 Years Old
Tantrums usually are at their worse between the ages of two and three.
Your child’s personality starts to come through at this point and they are very opinionated, which can blow up if they feel that you aren’t doing things by their standards.
Their blowups are more purposeful at this stage.
At this stage, there are positives and negatives with tantrums.
On the negative side, your child has a very well-established vocabulary, so they can tell you exactly what it is they’re upset about.
They may also be very stubborn as they don’t fully understand the concept of consequences and reasoning.
On the positive side, because of their extended vocabulary and level of comprehension, you can talk with them a bit more.
Though it may take some time to calm them down, you can talk things through when they are done so they can start to understand the concept of reasoning and consequences.
Though the first three years of tantrums can seem long and exhausting, they should start to slow down a bit by age four.
They are starting to reason more, understanding the results of their tantrums.
They have also learned your personality a bit more, so if you stick to your guns instead of caving on their demands, they will realize that tantrums will get them nowhere.
Around this age, your child will probably be starting preschool, which will come with its own challenges.
Any tantrums that do occur may be the result of this change, stemming from tiredness or fear of change.
5+ Years Old
For the most part, tantrums should begin to disappear around age five.
Tantrums at this age often stem from the same issues as the year four tantrums (fear and tiredness after starting kindergarten), or they may just be due to your child’s personality.
Strong-willed children can be very difficult when it comes to tantrums.
They will insist on their own way, making it nearly impossible to reason with or sway them.
When are Tantrums Not Normal?
As we said before, tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, but no one knows your child better than you do.
You may be feeling that your child’s tantrums just aren’t normal.
There are some red flags to keep an eye out for if your child’s tantrums seem overly frequent, long-winded, or abnormal. These may be signs of a deeper, underlying issue or disorder.
Aggression Toward Others
A child who is overly aggressive toward caregivers, objects, or other kids may signal disruptive problems.
They might try to hit or kick in response to their anger, which is a common thing amongst tantrums.
However, if this is a response about 90% of the time, it may be something to talk to a doctor about.
Many toddlers will hit themselves when throwing a tantrum, but the older your child gets, self-injury becomes more concerning.
Kids with major depression and mixed major depression may take self-injury to another level.
They may bite or scratch themselves, bang their heads against the wall, or even kick and hit things in an attempt to hurt themselves.
Frequent or Long Tantrums
Certain psychiatric disorders can trigger frequent or prolonged tantrums.
This means 10 to 20 tantrums per month – or more than five per day – or tantrums that last 25 minutes or longer 90% of the time
These red flags don’t automatically signify a problem, but they should be things that you take note of and talk to your pediatrician about.
Tips for Dealing with Tantrums as They Happen
Oftentimes, these tantrums seem irrational and unnecessary to parents, which can lead to the wrong reaction. They are not meant to be understood; they are meant to be navigated.
You will encounter tantrums with your child, no matter how good or laid back they may seem. Here are some tips you can use to help you get through those tough times.
1. Be the Example
Your child’s actions are not rational – they don’t know what rational is yet.
By reacting to your own frustration, raising your voice, or becoming noticeably agitated you are only going to confuse your child and heighten their emotional state.
This is not helpful.
Take a deep breath and relax. Your child is looking to you to set the example for them to follow and keeping a calm exterior is essential.
No matter how uncomfortable it is for you to watch your toddler in this fragile emotional state, you always need to be considerate of the long-term effects your own behavior could have.
2. Mind Your Tone
I continue to find this the most difficult part. It is easy to react and raise your voice in an attempt to curb the meltdown before it sets in.
Sometimes you may also feel you need to raise your voice in order to be heard.
Part of being the adult in this relationship is showing your little one the appropriate way to respond to stressful situations.
By raising your voice and yelling, you are teaching them that this is how they should respond as well.
Instead, you should strive to maintain that calm demeanor.
Talking with an even voice, you will convey a soothing and calming influence on your child.
They will not notice at first, but eventually, they will and they will learn to respond the same way.
Let’s take a look at what this Dad had to say about his experience with tantrums:
“I have always had a short temper. My reaction to a tantrum was often limited to little more than, “Just stop it!” with increasing levels of aggression.
Not a very productive or kind response for my child to hear.
While it took some practice and experimenting, I worked out that if I knelt down to talk to my boy at his eye level, face to face, he would listen when I started to talk.
At first, I didn’t know if he understood, but he did listen. Then one day, after attempting to negotiate a transition into a stroller he turned and tried to climb in.
Now this doesn’t always work of course, but the more you practice patience, the easier it gets.”
3. Don’t Try to Argue or Reason
As the parent – the adult – it is not productive to argue with your child. It is your job to teach them and establish your role as their parent.
Arguing with your child is useless. It teaches them to argue with you as they get older, and they can’t really see reason when they are in the middle of a full-blown tantrum anyways.
Negotiations and bribes should also not be a part of calming your child.
You cannot expect to reason with them – they don’t understand reason anyways – and negotiating puts them in charge of the situation, showing them that they can get something out of their tantrum.
Rather than arguing, reasoning, or negotiating, our efforts are better directed towards identifying and solving the immediate problem, which we will talk about more shortly.
4. Stay with Your Child
It can be very tempting to step away in the middle of a tantrum in order to calm yourself and let your child wear themselves out.
Nevertheless, in the interest of safety, it is best to remain within reasonable proximity to your child.
They may be prone to hurting themselves during a tantrum as they become oblivious to their surroundings.
With babies and young toddlers, you will want to remain within eyesight of your child to make sure they do not place themselves in a dangerous position.
An awkward fall in the wrong place could lead to an injury that would outlast the initial tantrum.
For older toddlers and young children, remaining within earshot should be fine in most situations. Sometimes that lack of attention shows them that their tantrum is futile.
However, if your child is prone to self-harm, like banging their head on the wall or floor, you will want to remain within eyesight in case you need to intervene.
5. Identify the Cause
Tantrums can happen for lots of different reasons; each one may stem from a different cause.
It is essential to identify what the cause is so you can respond accordingly.
Some common causes include:
Feeling Overwhelmed or Overstimulated
This is especially true when in crowded places like a party, family gathering, or any situation that they are just not used to. Some children will go quiet and hide behind the parents; others will go the meltdown route.
I am sure you have seen your child attempt an ambitious journey somewhere. If they reach the point of no return and get stuck, they may end up crying out until you help them out of a tight spot.
Lack of Sleep or Tiredness
While naps are still an essential part of your child’s schedule (usually from birth through at least three years old), tiredness is a very common cause of tantrums.
A child is more prone to exhaustion-induced tantrums when away from their regular environment. If they are at home, they just go to sleep… Usually.
Worry and Anxiety
This will often stem from that fear of abandonment. If you leave the room for a moment, the separation anxiety kicks in and they can get very upset in a moment.
This can be very common when they start daycare, preschool, or kindergarten as well.
Just Not Getting Their Way
Toddlers are very opinionated. They are starting to become independent and want things done their way and in their timing.
If you have to stop them from doing something dangerous or irritating, or if you tell them they can’t have a snack when they ask, they may not like it.
6. Respond to the Individual
This tip is especially important for parents with multiple children. There is no one size fits all tantrum solution.
You need to respond according to each child’s personality as well as the individual situation.
Some children respond well with simply a look of warning; others may need consequences.
Some may respond well to a firm tone or a light spank; others are better with some alone time in their room to calm down.
Every child is different. You just need to treat them as individuals and find the best response for each personality and situation.
7. Stick to Your Guns
Be consistent with the rules no matter where you are. Sometimes that means gritting your teeth and sticking to your guns even when you know there is an easy solution staring you in the face.
Easy isn’t always the answer.
If you enable your child and give in to the pressure of their tantrum, you are teaching them that this is the way to get what they want.
It also increases the likelihood of a future tantrum with the same cause.
We want to teach them how to deal with disappointment and discomfort in a reasonable manner.
That means you have to stand your ground for this lesson to sink in.
The other challenge of adulthood is the ability to stick to your guns regardless of the environment.
Staying consistent at home and in public will ensure your child is not confused by your own changing behavior.
Handling tantrums in public can be difficult though, especially when you feel like all eyes are on you and your child is upsetting the peace.
Instead of panicking, you can handle public tantrums in one of two ways.
8. Offer Distractions
If you are unable to handle your child’s tantrum right in the moment, you may want to be prepared with some distractions to at least calm them down.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean giving in just to calm them down in the moment. It’s about being prepared.
As you learn about your child’s triggers, you can be prepared with both preventative measures and reactive solutions.
Keep snacks on hand, favorite toys as distractions, milk, pacifiers, baby carriers… whipping out the boob. You get the idea.
The quicker you can distract or comfort them, the sooner they will move on.
9. Retreat to a Private Location
For older toddlers and children, distractions may not be enough to calm them.
You may need to remove them from the environment if the emotional escalation is unsafe or bothering other people.
Retreating a private location like a bathroom, isolated corner, or just stepping outside can be helpful for both of you.
It gives you a few moments to compose yourself if you feel your emotions rising and also helps your child learn about consideration for others, as well as the self-management of emotions.
Children will often lash out for attention as well.
So, moving away from the crowds also reduces their audience and helps them to learn that a public tantrum will not help them get their way.
10. Talk It Out
After your child has calmed down, it is productive to discuss what happened.
The older and more responsive your child is the more effective this will be. But even if they are not yet talking, it can still be very helpful for their communication skills.
Oftentimes, children can feel like their parent is a dictator, not allowing them to have their own feelings and opinions on things.
They can feel like the only way to get you to listen is through a tantrum.
Talking things through shows them that you want to listen to their emotions and opinions, but not while they are screaming and crying.
It allows them to better understand their feelings and put those feelings into words.
This also gives you an opportunity to explain your reasoning behind any consequences you gave, talk them through their feelings, and to display unconditional love through forgiveness.
Remember that this should not be an argument. It is helpful to keep the tone friendly and supportive. Sometimes just asking, “Can you tell me why you were upset?” is all you need.
Preventative Measures to Avoid Tantrums
While you won’t be able to avoid every tantrum, there are some preventative measures you can take to head off most of them.
Reinforce Positive Behavior
With frequent tantrums, you and your child may start to feel like you are nagging.
They may start to feel discouraged – like they can’t do anything right – which could lead to more negative behavior.
To balance out the correction, be sure to praise them for good behavior. Focus on giving positive attention.
You may be surprised to find that your child doesn’t act up as much as you think when you don’t just focus on what they do wrong.
Offer Simple Choices
When your child is developing their independence, they will want to start making decisions for themselves.
However, if you let them have full control over their decisions, things will start to spin out.
For those children who like to have some semblance of control, offer simple choices rather than open-ended decisions.
For instance, instead of letting them choose anything they want to eat, give them a choice between two things you want for them so they still feel like they have a say.
It’s no wonder children learn the word “no” at such a young age; they hear it so often from their parents.
You want to keep your child healthy and safe, but constantly saying no is frustrating for them and exhausting for you.
Instead of repeating “no” a thousand times per day, just remove temptation.
This means hiding anything that your child is drawn to that they are not supposed to have. Out of sight, out of mind.
Choose Your Battles
Every parent wants their child to be perfect. We correct and restraint in order to keep them healthy and safe, and we strive to stop any negative aspects of behavior before they even start.
This can cause you to nitpick at everything, placing everything at the same level. You are as strict about sitting still at the table as you are about not walking out into the street alone.
Sometimes, you just need to pick your battles. Decide what’s most important in the long run and let the other stuff go.
Know Their Limits
No one knows your child better than you do. This means you know their schedule when they get hungry and tired, and you know their limits.
This is very important to keep in mind as you notice early cues of a possible tantrum and make plans for your day.
You shouldn’t plan a trip to the supermarket if you know it’s going to be close to nap time.
What the Experts Say:
Tantrums are just part of growing up. You will be dealing with them for a few years, and despite the challenges they present, they are just part of the road towards an emotionally mature child.
When you decode the meltdown, it all comes down to the fact that your child is trying to tell you something.
They just don’t know how to communicate effectively.
Self-control and discipline can be learned by both parent and child with intentional practice and restraint.
The goal is to help them grow and be the example they need while navigating this complicated path.