Decoding Tantrums

By Stephanie Petters, leader of API of North Fulton, Georgia

**Originally published in the Spring 2007 annual New Baby issue of The Journal of API

TantrumWhen a parent utters the word tantrum to another parent, the reaction is either a supportive smile or a grimace of dread; I have yet to see or hear another parent respond with glee. And really, who blames her? Until recently, tantrums were considered manipulation by the child to control the parent.

Times are changing, and the subject of childhood tantrums has new meaning and insight for parents. We now understand the reasons and/or causes of tantrums, how to effectively manage them while remaining connected to our children, and how to take preventive action for the tantrums that you can control.

What is a Tantrum?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tantrum is a fit of a bad temper. Connection Parenting, by Pam Leo, defines a temper tantrum as a spillover of emotions, while the tantrum is the release of the accumulated hurts not seen by the parents. In Elizabeth Pantley’s Gentle Baby Care, a baby tantrum is defined as an abrupt and sudden loss of emotional control.

How Can I Recognize a Tantrum?

Your baby can really shock you when he turns from a cherubic sweetheart to a shrieking, stamping, hitting, stiff-postured stranger. The most terrifying of all tantrums, both to parent and child, are breath-holding spells in which the child cries so hard and becomes so angry that he appears to hold his breath, turns blue, becomes limp, and seems on the verge of fainting.

For toddlers and school-age children, behavior – such as lack of cooperation or acting out – is considered a tantrum. Sometimes, it feels explosive, as well.

What Causes Tantrums?

Tantrums occur for various reasons and are sometimes triggered by other events. When a child’s needs are met, nothing is hurting, he is happy, and his behavior is not a problem. When he is not doing well, his acting-out behavior is a request for help.

Besides using words, human beings communicate with our eyes, facial expressions, gestures, other body language, and behavior. We tell our children to use your words, but even when children have language, they cannot always identify and articulate their needs. When children cannot use their words, they communicate their needs by acting them out with their behavior, thus acting out.

Baby Tantrums

Baby tantrums aren’t about anything you’ve done wrong, and they aren’t really about temper, either. Tantrums do have a cause, and if you can identify the trigger, then you can help calm your baby and perhaps even avoid the tantrum altogether. Some common triggers for a baby tantrum are overtiredness, hunger, frustration, fear, anxiety, inability to communicate, resistance to change, and overstimulation.

Toddler and School-Age Child Tantrums

Toddlers and school-age children still need to have their physical and emotional needs met in order to respond with cooperative behavior. Sometimes they have accumulated a build-up of emotions from the day that they haven’t yet released. Individual sensitivities or temperaments can be prone to tantrums in certain situations. Too many no’s can create an environment of frustration and boredom, as well. Tantrums usually occur when kids are tired, hungry, or frustrated, or all three.

Often, when these children are on the verge of a major breakthrough in their physical, mental, or psychological development, they will become agitated, frustrated, sullen, or angry. During this time, temper tantrums seem to be the norm of the day, with calm and reasonable behavior just a long-lost memory.

Kids also tend to have more tantrums at these three stages of rebellion: around two years, five years, and puberty. At each of these stages, children are attempting to define themselves as distinct individuals, separate from those around them. At these stages, their verbal skills are often out of sync with their emotional state. You may have a very verbal five year old who throws temper tantrums, but being very verbal and having the verbal skills to match an emotional state are not the same. For kids, being able to articulate that they are tired, hungry, or frustrated is a skill to be learned over and over again.

How do You Handle a Tantrum Supportively?

Tantrums push our buttons. Many of us feel anxious, angry, or embarrassed. Since we can’t usually calm the child, it helps to focus on calming ourselves. Children depend on adults as their safety net. A child lost in a tantrum needs the adult to stay calm and to keep him from hurting anyone or anything while the tantrum is in action. Realize that you can’t handle tantrums; you can only respect them. Tantrums reflect your child’s emotions, which he has to learn to handle. You are not responsible for the cause or treatment of these outrages.

When a child is having a temper tantrum, the child is pouring out built-up hurts, disappointments, and frustrations. All we need to do is prevent children from hurting themselves or anyone else, and let them pour out their feelings. As soon as the feelings are released, the behavior improves.

It takes time to teach kids to handle their feelings appropriately, but in doing so, you teach them that their own feelings are important, that they can be trusted to handle those feelings, and that they can count on you for support and guidance when they have handled them poorly.

Handling Baby Tantrums

When your baby is overly emotional, keep yourself as calm as possible. Use a soothing tone and gentle touch to help calm your baby. Your baby can’t do it all alone she needs your help. Here are some suggestions for handling some tantrum-causing behaviors. If you think the cause may be:

  • Overtiredness – Provide a quiet activity or settle the baby down to sleep.
  • Hunger – Give the baby a snack, a nursing, a bottle, or something to drink.
  • Frustration – Help the baby achieve her goal or remove the source of frustration; distract the baby.
  • Fear or Anxiety – Hold and cuddle the baby; remove him from a difficult situation; breastfeed.
  • Inability to Communicate – Try to figure out what the baby wants; calmly encourage baby to show you.
  • Resistance to Change – Allow a few minutes for the baby to adjust.
  • Overstimulation – Move the baby to a quiet place.

Handling Toddler Tantrums

Toddlers have a very difficult time because children can have very big feelings, but they lack the verbal skills to fully discuss them or to problem-solve. Parents can use these events as opportunities to lay the groundwork for managing feelings. Here are some actions you can take to support your toddler:

  • Observe, Label and Give Feedback – This is the where we can begin putting words to feelings. Parents can give concrete feedback about what they see. I see you’re feeling frustrated because you wanted that toy.
  • Model Appropriate Ways to Express Emotions – Show your child how to express a wide variety of emotions anger, joy, sadness, disappointment. Just as toddlers need the words to describe what they are feeling, they need to be shown what to do with these feelings. Read books that involve children and adults acting appropriately in response to feelings. Fantasy play is an important outlet for feelings for children under seven. Parents can join in this play to help their children explore emotions.
  • Keep It Safe and Stay Close – Intense feelings often bring feelings of fear and vulnerability. A child may not want to be held, but he does want you nearby. Sending a child away or leaving him alone when he is angry or intense sends the message that these feelings are not acceptable and the child can’t have strong feelings around other people.
  • Talk About What You See – You look really sad and frustrated right now. You worked on that block tower and it fell down.
  • Practice Listening – By carefully listening, we let children know that we’re there for them when they’re having big, scary feelings.
  • Don’t Try to Distract Your Child from the Feeling – Unless it’s getting worse, let the crying and fuming run its course. By doing this, we let our children safely explore the extent of their feelings. (If, because she is temperamentally intense, a child is becoming hysterical, moving to another place or changing the focus to an object may help to ground her so she can calm down.)

Handling School-Age Child Tantrums

To help your school-age child, try to get behind the eyes of the child and try to understand the reasons for the behavior. Listen to your child, help the child understand what’s going on inside, and teach him how to manage those emotions.

If a child’s emotions are validated and he is helped to articulate his feelings, and then to act on those feelings responsibly when he is in the first stage of rebellion, he will find it easier to adapt those skills to the challenges of the next two stages of rebellion. He will have in his own toolbox the appropriate techniques to handle exhaustion, hunger, and frustration. He will know that he has the support and encouragement of the adults around him during the next two stages especially the third stage when he will be dealing with exhaustion, hunger, frustration, and hormones.

What Can I Do During a Tantrum?

The last thing an out-of-control kid needs is an out-of-control parent. Give yourself a moment to remind yourself that you can handle this. If it is possible to remove yourself and your child from the scene, all the better; if that is not possible, do the next best thing: Pretend that you have removed yourself from the scene and that those people staring at you are really not there.

Ask yourself: What is causing this behavior? What is the intention behind the action? Is this an unmet physical or emotional need? Is this the release of emotional pain? Is this a sensitivity or temperament reaction? Once you identify the cause of the behavior you can begin to resolve it.

Keeping your child safe, which may require relocating your child, while being calm and empathetic communicates unconditional understanding and acceptance. Be sensitive to how you can help with the situation and meet your child’s immediate needs. Sometimes, it is not possible to fix things your empathetic presence may be all that is needed. You may be able to help your child articulate his feelings or fantasize with him about what he wished had happened.

If your child has thrown herself on the floor of the grocery store, get down there with her and rub the top of her head and across her back, calmly affirming her, labeling her feelings, and letting her know you are there to help her handle them: “I know you are tired (or hungry or frustrated or all three), and I am going to be here for you. It’s OK. You’re going to be all right.”

Once your child has calmed down, you can hug her and find a way to relieve her hunger, to get through the store faster so that she can get the sleep she needs, or to redirect her attention from the cereal by giving her an errand to run in the next aisle.

Even when you desperately want to set her straight, you need to listen attentively, empathetically, patiently, and often silently while the person vents feelings and unloads. Similarly, let the toddler’s tantrum run its course. Let the overdramatic teenager play her scene to the finish. Nothing sinks in when a child is an emotional wreck. Tears enable children to get in touch with their thoughts and feelings and express them openly in an atmosphere of support, without fear of reprimand.

Some parents have found that when their children are extremely upset, a physical activity helps relieve some of the painful feelings. Some angry children feel calmer after punching pillows, hammering old grocery cartons, pounding and kneading clay, roaring like a lion, or throwing darts.

Another activity that seems most comfortable for parents to watch and most satisfying for children to do is to draw their feelings. For example, when your child is angry, kneel down on the floor, hand the pencil and pad to your child and say, Here, show me how angry you are. Draw me a picture of the way you feel. If they need some inspiration, draw what anger looks like to you; for example, big circles done continuously or zigzag lines up and down with angry strokes.

Another way to honor your child’s desires is in the following example provided by How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. When you are in a toy store with your child and your child runs around pointing to everything they want, take out a pencil and a scrap of paper and write it all down on their wish list. This may satisfy your child. It doesn’t mean you have to buy any of the things for your child unless maybe it’s a special occasion. This shows your child that you not only know what she wants, but that you care enough to put it in writing.

How Do I Help My Emotionally Intense Child?

Emotionally intense kids need extra help calming down enough to problem-solve. When they are experiencing their feelings, they cannot think straight, and they need help managing the intensity. A parent can help the child recognize the signs that his emotions are escalating. When there is a meltdown, help the child find a calming, comfortable, safe space away from the action and stay with him. Encourage him to take a break to rest and gather his resources. For example, you might speak softly and rub your child’s back until he is calm enough to talk about what happened.

How Can I Prevent Tantrums?

You can now smile with understanding and knowledge when you hear someone mention tantrums. You know that tantrums are a part of normal childhood development, that there are reasons and triggers, and that identifying these causes will help prevent future tantrums. Being supportive and understanding will help you effectively handle a tantrum and use it as a learning experience for your toddler or school-age child.

Preventing Baby Tantrums

Often, you can prevent babies from losing control of their emotions if you monitor the situations that trigger these events. Here are some common triggers to remember:

  • Tiredness – When your baby is tired, help him get to sleep.
  • Hunger – Feed your baby frequently. Babies have small tummies and need regular nourishment.
  • Frustration – Prevent frustration by giving your baby toys that are geared to her age and ability level.
  • Transitions – Warn your baby before changing activities.
  • New Experiences – Be patient when exposing your baby to a new environment or when introducing your baby to new people.
  • New Challenges – Help your baby learn new skills, such as climbing stairs or working puzzles. Remember to keep your expectations realistic; don’t expect more from your baby than he can do at that moment.
  • Routine – As much as possible, keep a regular and predictable schedule.

Preventing Toddler and School-Age Child Tantrums

To prevent future tantrums, wait until your child is calm, then discuss the situation that caused the tantrum and help your child find words to express his emotions to deal with the situation in the future. Here are some other ways to defuse tantrums:

  • Try to Anticipate Your Child’s Needs – Recognize the roots of a temper tantrum. Try to avoid situations where
    you know your child gets overly tired, extremely hungry, or too frustrated.
  • Keep a Tantrum Diary – Know what sets off your child. For example, if your child cannot handle the supermarket scene, shop during off hours or leave the child with your spouse.
  • Watch for Pre-Tantrum Signs – If you notice that a few minutes before the flare-up, your child is usually bored, doesn’t seem connected to anyone or anything, whines, broods, or asks for something he can’t have, intervene when you hear these rumblings, before the little volcano erupts.

How Can I Handle My Own Emotions?

It’s one thing to understand how remaining calm, supportive, and objective can be a great service to our children, and another to do it when we’re exhausted, frazzled, and sleep-deprived. It’s also another matter when the emotional wounds from our own childhoods come roaring forth like a fire-breathing dragon. Once we become parents, we are often so tired or pushed or overwhelmed that those darker sides we’d rather not acknowledge make all-too-frequent appearances.

If your child’s cries or tantrums make you angry or anxious (by pushing your buttons), it is important to understand the connection from your past. Sometimes just knowing that there is a connection helps a parent deal with this behavior in their children in a mature way. Often the issues run quite deep, especially when abuse of any kind was inflicted on a person as a child, and counseling may be necessary.

Children learn by watching you deal with your own feelings, just as they do by watching you deal with theirs. While you wouldn’t want to saddle your child with inappropriate exposure to your adult issues and emotions, it is not unhealthy for them to simply see you angry. It’s what you do when you are angry, and how you manage your intensity, that is important. Showing healthy responses to strong emotions teaches children that these emotions can be expressed and managed safely.

13 thoughts on “Decoding Tantrums”

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  3. and all this gets tossed out the window when Autism shows it’s head.

    the triggers for meltdowns change from day to day. It’s fun..not.

  4. I am so glad I found your website. I have a very verbal four and a half year old daughter. She attends preschool five days a week for 8 to 11 hours a day. She eats very little during school and also refuses to nap. She is an only child and around adults a lot.

    I usually bring a snack and drink when I pick her up from school, however, her grandmother who sometimes picks her up, does not always do this.

    On a recent occasion, grandma picked my daughter up, and my daughter did not want to leave the other children as she was having fun. She started acting out in front of the other children, saying she didn’t want to go. When in the car, the tantrum escalated to an all out cry fest for about fifteen minutes. When I came home shortly after all of this, I fed my daughter, and within minutes she was her normal happy self.

    My mother (grandma) insists that my daughter is a spoiled brat. While I encourage my daughter to use words to explain what is bothering her, she doesn’t seem to realize that eating will make her mood better. I know that when she is very hungry and tired, all bets are off. I try to encourage her to nap and eat while at school, but she is not interested. I spoke to her about being nice to grandma when she picks her up.

    Also, I use a chart system to change undesired behaviors which result in a reward for positive behavior and a negative consequence for negative behavior (a doll or something she would like to do or have, vs. no tv, or a time out for negative consequence). This has also been under question, that the positive reward is too much (the doll) for a month’s worth of good behaviors (listen to the teacher, quiet during naptime, be kind). I was told that these are things she should be doing anyway, and should not be rewarded. Any thoughts on this? I thought it was a good way to learn about consequences.

  5. Lisa –

    We are so glad you are finding our website useful. We have many resources to offer you on the topic of gentle and positive discipline. First, I’d like to point out that we have an article in the upcoming print issue of Attached Family that centers on avoiding meltdowns by honoring children’s basic needs. As you have seen for yourself, one of these basic needs is hunger! If you are not already a member of Attachment Parenting International, you can join for free, and you’ll receive a copy of the magazine issue when it comes out.

    Some other resources related to discipline that you might find helpful:
    1. API’s Principle of Parenting: Practice Positive Discipline
    2. More API resources on Effective Discipline
    3. You can read many articles about discipline on by typing “discipline” in the search box
    4. You can also read blog posts about discipline on our blog APtly Said by clicking on the Practice Positive Discipline category
    5. You can also post questions to other parents and experienced API Leaders on the API Forum. This is a great way to find out what other parents find helpful (or not!) in their parenting journey.

    I hope you find these resources helpful.

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