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Tantrums: why they happen, how to help prevent them and strategies to support your child

I had just told my almost 2-year-old daughter she needed to wear her hat since it was a sunny day outside. She kept saying “No!” and pulling the hat off her head. After I made several attempts to put it back on her head, her frustration had become too much for her and she released these emotions in a tantrum. She was flailing about, screaming and crying. I stayed with her, acknowledged her frustration, told her I would keep her safe, and that I loved her. After a few minutes of supporting her through it, she returned back to a calm state. Could I have prevented the tantrum by giving in to what she wanted? Possibly. But young children need us to set loving limits and boundaries. Furthermore, it is actually healthy and normal for her to release these emotions that were built up, even though it was difficult to see her in that state. This was a circumstance in which I was proud of how I handled the situation and helped her weather the storm. There have definitely been other times in my almost 5 years of parenting, that I did not remain as calm during a tantrum. So I wanted to write this post to share with you information about tantrums and why they are normal, strategies to reduce your child's stress to prevent excessive tantrums and how to help your child get through it while staying connected to you.

So first off, what is a tantrum exactly?

There are different definitions out there but one I came across that I really like is from Child Mind

Institute. They refer to it as “a reaction to a situation that a child can’t handle in a more grown-up way- say by, talking about how they feel, or making a case for what they want, or just doing what they’ve been asked to do. Instead, they are overwhelmed by emotion.” As a result, the emotional release the child experiences may come out in different ways such as crying, hitting, screaming, throwing things, etc.

Are tantrums developmentally normal?

Yes! Firstly, it has to do with their still developing brain. The brain of a young child can only feel one emotion at a time until the prefrontal cortex begins to develop typically between ages 5-7. This means that if your child is frustrated, they feel it very strongly and may lash out in aggressive behaviour. Once the prefrontal cortex has connections with the emotional centres of the brain when they are older, they have a better ability to mix the frustration with caring for others, which should stop them from attacking.

Another reason tantrums are developmentally normal is that the toddler/preschooler years are a time of intense brain development, including greater self-awareness. This leads to a strong desire to do what they want but at the same time, their communication skills are still in development, so they may struggle in expressing their needs and feelings clearly. This can then lead to extra frustration, resulting in tantrums.

What are some strategies to help prevent tantrums?

As I stated above, tantrums are developmentally normal and in fact, we want our children to release their emotions and to feel safe to do so with us. However, in order to reduce the amount of tantrums our children experience, here are some strategies:

1) Figure out your child’s signs of stress behaviour as well as ways to help them calm down. Dr. Stuart Shanker, the creator of Self-Reg Approach, talks about recognizing the signs of your child’s stress behaviour, which would sort of be like a pre-cursor to a potential tantrum. Signs of stress behaviour may differ between each child but some examples could be: avoiding eye contact, being extra fidgety, showing more clingy behaviour, high pitched voice, etc. Then, when you notice them showing these signs, you could work on helping them return to a calmer state before the tantrum occurs. The methods by which we help them calm down would also be unique to each child. Perhaps it is as simple as just sitting with them and doing an activity, or going outside together for a walk, or removing them from a situation that is too much for them at this time. In the example I gave at the beginning, which related to setting a boundary, I wouldn’t recommend giving in to this boundary just to stop the tantrum. But looking back on this situation, perhaps it was also that my daughter had had enough of being outside with several people (we were at a family gathering) and needed to be inside with just me to help her down-regulate. So, if I had picked up on the cues she was feeling over-stressed, removing her from the situation may have helped. This is not to say you are going to be able to stop every tantrum but by tuning into what stresses your child, it may be possible to reduce the frequency of them occurring.

2) Identify potential stressors that tend to lead to tantrums and try to reduce them when possible. Similarly to signs of stress behaviour, these stressors will be unique to each child and may vary depending on the developmental stage they are in or other changes happening in their life at the moment. Some possible stressors could be: being in a bright, loud environment such as a mall or concert; being separated from their primary caregiver for a long period of time; being in an unfamiliar environment they are not yet used to such as daycare or a friend’s house; too much screen time in one day, etc. I know some of these situations are beyond our control. For example, it is just a reality that your child may need to be in daycare all day due to your work schedule. However, if you know this is a stressor for them, you could be extra compassionate and patient when you pick them up, in order not to add any more stress upon them. Furthermore, if the stressor is something you can reduce or be aware of, it could go a long way. For example, if you notice your child typically becomes dysregulated when they are at a birthday party, you could be looking out for their particular stress behaviours at this event. Then, you could either leave party early or take them to a quiet space to help them calm down.

3) Identify your own stressors and work on reducing them at the same time as adding in activities that help you destress. Young children are still developing their own self-regulation skills, and so rely upon their caregivers’ calm to down-regulate in a process called co-regulation. So this is where it would be very helpful to reflect upon our own stressors and work at reducing them. For example, perhaps you have taken on way too many activities and commitments and as such, do not have enough time to destress. Then, an action you could take is to examine your schedule and eliminate commitments that are not serving you and prioritize ones that help you recharge. (for example, if you do a weekly yoga class or meet up with a friend for coffee to chat).

Lastly, what are some strategies to help your child when they are in the throes of a tantrum?

1) Take the lead and take them to a safe place to release their frustration with you by their side. This may look like removing them from the situation if they are around other children. Or, if they are at home, a great strategy is to have a calm corner set up where you can sit with them as they go through these big emotions. It could be a place in your house with some books and blankets or somewhere they can listen to relaxing music…really just whatever works to help your child feel more at ease and is safe (so they can’t hurt themselves if they are wanting to roll around or throw things). An important aspect to note is this is not a time-out corner where they are left on their own. As mentioned previously, children need us to stay with them during these big emotions.

2) Try to bring yourself to a place of calm, even though I know it can be challenging! As I mentioned earlier, children co-regulate with us so when they are in this heightened state of stress, they really rely upon us to help them down-regulate. So, figure out what best works for you to remain calm, whether it’s taking some deep breaths, humming, saying affirmations to yourself such as “this will pass and I am here to help my child get through it”, reminding yourself this is normal and you are doing the best you can, etc.

3) Let them release these emotions and support them through this in the best way that works for them. It really depends on the child. For some children, this could be acknowledging their frustration and why they are feeling this way so they feel seen and heard. (Ex. “You are feeling frustrated because you didn’t want to wear a hat. I am here for you.”) For others, perhaps they just need you to stay with them as they ride through these emotions and need to be shown you are there to help them through it. Relating to the concept of releasing emotions, if you can guide them to their tears during these times, it can help them adapt to the things in life they cannot change. According to Dr. Deborah MacNamara..”Tears are the ultimate answer and resolution to the frustration that comes in the face of life’s futilities.” This doesn’t mean telling them to cry, but you could put some sadness in your voice as you are talking to them to encourage the tears to flow as well as allowing for them to cry in your presence which should help them return to a state of calm.

4) Lastly, once the tantrum is done, continue to be a calming presence and see what sort of connection they are looking for. Some children may want to hug after getting through such an event. Others may be ready just to continue doing what they were doing before the emotional outburst. Either way, it is a good idea to wait to talk about what happened and what led to the tantrum until later on when they have fully recovered. If the tantrum related to you enforcing the boundary, continue to set the loving limit.

To finish off this post, I will leave you with this final quote that I love about why tantrums are an important part of healthy development from Alicia F. Lieberman, author of “The Emotional Life of the Toddler”:

“Tantrums take a child to the very bottom of his being, helping him learn that anger and despair are part of the human experience and need not lead to lasting emotional collapse. If the parents can remain emotionally centred while firm in their position of denying something, tantrums also teach the child that his anger is not dangerous, that the parents will not abandon him and that he will not be left alone in his “dark night of the soul”.”


Self-Reg Parenting Course ( Parents - Self-Reg)


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