A couple of weeks ago, I dashed into Target with my two-year-old after a long day at work. We needed diapers and milk and I assumed it’d be a painless errand. Five minutes into the trip, my son started asking to get out of the cart. I tried to reason with him: “Honey, we just gotta grab a couple of things. We’ll be done really soon. I know you want to walk, but can you sit down for Mommy?” He proceeded to have a total meltdown; I yelled at him; we both cried.
The moral of this story? Tantrums are rough, but they’re also a regular part of everyday life. As children grow, they learn to communicate their needs and express their emotions. And, as a parent, you’re doing your best to keep the peace and discipline appropriately while teaching your child how to self-regulate. Here’s the scoop on why tantrums happen, how to react at home and in public, what to avoid, and ways you can prevent them in the first place.
Why do tantrums happen?
Sometimes, it can feel like your children are throwing a fit just to spite you. I can’t be alone in that sentiment, right? Like the time my kid laid on the sidewalk outside the library because I said he needed to hold my hand to cross the street (sorry, just trying to keep you alive!), or when he sobbed after I gave him a purple popsicle (…that he specifically requested). Mood swings are real, and it’s exhausting for everyone.
But it’s also completely normal. Parenting expert Susan G. Groner notes that a tantrum is a child’s way of expressing frustration, and frustration tolerance is something learned over time. “Tantrums can happen for several reasons,” adds Cara Day, a family coach who specializes in parenting language and tools. “Your child may lack skills for expressing his emotions in a productive way. Or, he may have the skills but has learned a tantrum is a faster way to get what he wants from you. Being overly hungry or tired is another reason almost any child can succumb to the tantrum abyss.”
Jocelyn Bates, a mom of three kids under the age of 10, emphasizes that each kid can be different. All three of her kids went through a tantrum stage, but one child was more prone to tantrums.
“Tantrums come in all shapes and sizes because they serve the function of communicating between child and caregivers,” explains Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center. “There are tantrums to communicate basic needs, frustration over unmet wants and demands, illness or discomfort, and emotions such as sadness, fear, or worry. Sometimes tantrums may communicate confusion, lack of understanding, inability to accurately express or use language efficiently, and frustration about being misunderstood or dismissed.”
How do tantrums change as a child ages?
Of course, there’s a big difference between the way my son acted out at 10 months versus two and a half years. It’s important for parents to know what to expect at various development stages. Dr. Mendez says it’s common for infants (0-12 months) to use crying in response to needing attention with respect to feeding, diapering, and nurturing because they don’t have verbal skills to communicate. Toddlers (roughly 1-5 years) are developing “social-emotional competence”, which means they are slowly learning how to cope with a variety of emotions. That’s why it feels like even small things are an exasperating cycle of request, frustration, and freakout.
The good news is that tantrums typically start to trail off once kids hit age five or so, at least in the way you’ve probably experienced them as a parent. “Tantrum behaviors decrease as children build communication skills, expressive language, develop complex problem solving, and learn to navigate relationships, environmental challenges, and personal care skills,” says Dr. Mendez. “Children learn more efficient communication tools which results in a decreased need to act-out behaviorally.”
However, Day says to pay close attention to continuing tantrums once a child is school-aged because it can indicate the need to address a lack of communication and self-regulation skills. This is also where you can start introducing concepts of logic (“How do you want this situation to turn out?”) and consequences (“When we get home, you will write an apology note.”)
Should I handle tantrums differently at home versus in public?
We’ve all been there: it’s easy to keep your cool amid a screaming fit in the privacy of your home, but, the second you’re in the mall, it feels like you’re an incompetent adult who just blew her fuse. With the former, you’re in the present and fairly focused on your child. In the latter situation, there’s the added pressure of your parenting skills being watched or observed.
“When I was a first-time parent, I would immediately take my child out of the situation by whatever means and hang my head in shame from the outside world,” shares Bates. “But as I became more confident in my parenting, I changed this. I remember sitting with my daughter on the floor of Whole Foods as she had a tantrum about something very minor. I saw it coming — tired, cranky, hungry — and she had a huge tantrum. I didn’t leave. I just sat down with her and let her cry and talked with her about her big feelings and it passed really very quickly. Within a minute or so, her head was in my lap and she was ready to move on with our day.”
It’s not wrong to pull your child off to a quiet place during a tantrum in a public space, says Dr. Mendez, especially if that helps you better manage the situation. In terms of what to do, there are basically two schools of thought: ignore the problem or talk it out. Both methods depend on the temperament and age of your kid.
“The best way to handle tantrums is to ignore them,” says Dr. Katie Davis, a pediatric neuropsychologist on the research faculty at Johns Hopkins. “Responding to tantrums reinforces them by providing kids the attention they are seeking. In other words, the kids learn that if they want to be heard and make a point, tantrums are effective. Ignoring is a strategy that should be used both at home and in public. Though it can be stressful and embarrassing and you feel like you want to intervene, it’s best to simply continue going about your business and letting the child scream. You’ll see a short burst in the tantruming behavior in which the kids scream longer and louder to try to get the attention you’re withholding, but after that, the behavior will extinguish.”
Now, will that be effective on a three-year-old? Maybe not. On the flip side, Groner equates ignoring a tantrum with ignoring your child’s feelings and instead recommends validation and a loving, physical presence.
With younger kids, Day says it’s all about setting yourself up for success in advance. “For toddlers, this means making sure they are well-rested, appropriately dressed, and well-fed,” she says. “Have snacks, a change of clothes, and a comfort toy on hand. Always have an exit strategy. Make sure your expectations of your child are right for the occasion and your child’s needs.”
With older kids, you can be a little more proactive regarding potential issues that might come up in certain situations. “You might say, “I know how much you love to swing. Remember there will be lots of kids there and only one swing, so what can you do to be successful with that?” Let your child brainstorm with you,” says Day. “By taking a few minutes to visualize the event and what it will look like for them to be successful, you are setting them up for a better outcome. Let them know you are there to help them.”
Don’t get angry, talk too much, or overreact.
Easier said than done, right? Still, your best bet involves a calm attitude, clear-but-firm directions, and patience. Responding to tantrums with anger, says Dr. Mendez, doesn’t teach your children problem-solving skills or allow you to set the tone in terms of managing emotions. Likewise, responding to a child’s tantrum with violence or physical harm is never the answer. (One major caveat: If anyone’s safety is in question, or a child can’t calm down after more than 30 minutes, you’re looking at more serious situations that might require professional help and support.)
“When children tantrum or otherwise misbehave, many parents believe if they act really mad or raise their voice, their child will know they are serious,” says Day. “This is a mistake! Become calm, lower your voice, and maintain control of yourself, no matter how hard it can be at that moment. Whenever you are redirecting your child, make your voice business-like and limit your talking. Save your emotions for the fun times you have with your child and do not give your child your emotions when they are misbehaving or having a tantrum.”
Also, realize your kids might just need some extra time to process. Dr. Davis sees a lot of parents give a string of commands and then get frustrated when kids don’t comply instantaneously, which leads to conflict. In reality, kids are often listening but move and think a little more slowly, so if you ask your kid to do something, she suggests counting to ten before expecting a response.
Do set consistent limits, pay attention to emotional triggers, and lower your expectations.
One of the most helpful things you can do as a parent is to set reasonable, realistic limits and follow through on them instead of backing off or feeling sorry for a child, says Dr. Mendez. It’s natural for children to use tantrums to push limits, but your job is to stick to those limits and simultaneously praise the type of behavior you want to see.
“You need to be consistent,” concurs Dr. Davis. “If you give a command, you absolutely must follow through. If you threaten a punishment, you absolutely must follow through. If you say the child will get a reward for good behavior, you absolutely must follow through. So always keep that in mind, and make sure that the requests and consequences you are doling out are clear and doable.”
Another strategy, says Groner, involves being mindful of which situations will likely cause your child to have a tantrum, then make adjustments, like skipping the route home that takes you past an ice cream shop. Watch for signs of distress, fatigue, confusion or stress, says Dr. Mendez, so you can react and act to prevent tantrum behavior. Finally, let go of unnecessarily high expectations.
“Children are not born knowing how to regulate,” says Dr. Mendez. “They learn emotional regulation and resiliency by watching the trusted adults around them manage stress and emotions. Parents who expect a child to behave at a level higher than their developmental capacity set the child and themselves up for failure.”
Most importantly, offer love and support.
When my son has a tantrum, I try really hard to remind myself that he’s little, and life is hard when you’re little. I’m definitely not perfect, but I channel as much empathy as I can, which proves key to tantrum management, says Groner.
Kids don’t have the words to express their feelings, so they act them out, and the greatest gift you can give them is a feeling of safety and support.
Day breaks it down like this: verbally acknowledge what your child is feeling (whether you agree with it or not), identify the value at the heart of the situation, and validate those feelings. Here are a couple examples of how you can use this strategy to de-escalate a tantrum and find a solution.
- You want a turn with that right now. You were having so much fun on that swing! No wonder you don’t want to stop swinging because swinging is fun.
- You want to have another treat. You want to be able to do what you want. Treats are so yummy, so, of course, you want more. Anyone would.
- You do not want to leave yet. You love being here. Being here is fun so it’s no wonder you’re upset about leaving.
“When all else fails, wait it out with your child,” says Bates. “If we help children deal with the emotions they are feeling and give them clear ways to move through a tantrum, each tantrum will get easier to handle. Just remember that your child is a little human being who has big feelings, and is still trying to understand and deal with those feelings on a daily basis.”