On Tantrums

February 3, 2015, Parenting Success Network

Tantrums happen.

There are two things that most parents, myself included, would love to know more about when it comes to tantrums. One is how to avoid them. The other is how, when they happen, to deal with them.

Is it possible to keep a child from having a tantrum? Well, there are certainly conditions we can create that make them less likely, or at least less frequent. Children, especially toddlers, need an environment that is predictable and orderly. They want to know what is coming next, and in what order. What it comes down to is that they need to feel safe. When a child loses that sense of orderliness, of predictability, they will feel insecure. Too many choices, unclear expectations, transitions, anything which makes them feel a loss of control can trigger a tantrum.

In that sense, routines are important. Telling our children what is going to happen next, and giving them a sense that one thing will follow another, can certainly help. But as you may have noticed, life tends to upend these things. We might need to go to the store, for example. It might be time to clean up because we are going to have dinner. The castle built from blocks might fall down. The child might feel hot, cold, tired, hungry, frustrated, nervous, or confused. Really, anything could happen. And will.

So, tantrums. There hasn’t been a lot of study devoted to how they work and what they’re made of, possibly because scientists might have children too, and a screaming, flopping toddler will beat science every time.

But there have been some recent attempts to focus on the tantrum. A study detailed in this NPR story offers insight into what goes into a tantrum, and some ideas about what to do when they happen. It’s worth listening to the story (audio can be found in the link) and watching the brief video that accompanies the article. For one thing, it’s fantastic that researchers convinced a bunch of toddlers to wear special onesies wired with microphones to have tantrums in. I love that.

The story explains that, while it was previously held that a child’s outburst may come in waves of anger and sadness, the data collected in this study indicates that they are more often mixed or layered: there is a complicated and often volatile cloud of feelings coming out of a tantrum. It’s no wonder that children will feel overwhelmed and express themselves in ways that can be scary to them and to us.

So what can we do, as parents, when it happens? According to the researchers, the less the better. We want to help the child ride the peaks of anger and transition into a space in which she can accept comfort. Having expended all that energy, she will feel drained and disoriented and will need adult caregivers to help her reorient herself to her surroundings and her emotions.

Simply put, we should avoid adding fuel to the fire. Don’t ask questions. Don’t try to use reason or logic (even if the tantrum arose over something that simply doesn’t make sense; one example discussed in the story is a toddler who did not want her feet to be attached anymore). The more confusion, choices, or even simple information that we throw into the mix, the longer the tantrum will take to resolve itself. Simple instructions—sit here, put down the toy—are all that is needed to keep the child and others safe.

Perhaps most important, and not discussed in the article, is that the child needs to know we are there for them; that we are available when they need us (even when they are screaming at us to “go away”). Tantrums happen, and they pass, and we can imagine how frightening and exhausting they can be for the child. They will need our help when it is over.


Thanks to Rhonda Greene, Family Visitation Coach at Family Tree Relief Nursery, for calling attention to this study.