Coping with Tantrums
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Tantrums: Why do They Happen?
Tantrums are most common between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. Around this time toddlers become more mobile and therefore more independent. However, with increased mobility comes increased frustration! Toddlers want to do things for themselves, but often cant quite manage to; they want to explore, but are held back by adult restrictions (“don’t touch” “no!”). What’s more, verbal skills lag behind advancing motor skills so when frustrated, toddlers have limited verbal skills to communicate their wishes.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that tantrums can also develop as effective ways to get attention or to exert control ever situations. If a toddler comes to realise that screaming and lashing out is an effective way to get their own way, then tantrums will become more frequent.
Lastly, tiredness & hunger can also cause tantrums, or at least make them worse. This is because these states reduce the tolerance for coping with frustration and explosions are therefore more likely.
Tantrums: How Can I Avoid Them?
Tips for Reducing Tantrums
- Monitor flashpoints and see if they can be avoided. For example, if your child is irritable and tantrum-prone when they are hungry after nursery, take a snack with you when you go to pick them up.
- Support your child’s need for independence; give them control over small things by offering simple choices. For example, "Do you want orange juice or apple juice?" or " Do you want to wear the red tea-shirt or the blue one?"
- Make sure that tantrums aren't the only way for your child to get your attention.
- Reward positive behaviour with praise and encouragement.
- Minimise frustration associated with disappointment by giving warnings about what will happen next "One more minute, then I'll take the plug out". "This is the last story, then its time to sleep"
- Involve your child as much as possible during flashpoint activities. E.g. at the supermarket give your child a mini list (you could use pictures) and get them to help you choose the products or ask them to put a few things in a bag at the checkout. It may take a bit longer, but they less likely to get bored and attempt to get your attention through explosions. If you see frustration kicking in, take advantage of a child's short attention span and divert their attention. Introduce a new activity to replace the frustrating one or shift their visual attention - point at an aeroplane in the sky, the cute dog on the highstreet...
Tantrums: How Should I Respond?
- Tantrums are a child's way of expressing intense emotion. There's nothing wrong with feeling negative emotions. Telling a child to stop being upset or angry is about as effective as if an other adult told you to stop feeling these feelings!
- Show empathy for your child's frustration or upset by putting their feelings into words. This will help them to verbalise feelings rather than act them out as they get older. E.g. "You're upset because you wanted me to put that chocolate in the trolley, but I didn’t" or "You're frustrated because you want to put the puzzle together but you cant quite work it out"
- Try to divert the tantrum by distraction or alternative activities "Right, can you find me the bananas?", "hum this puzzle's a bit tricky, lets try another one". Sometimes this is enough to prevent an explosion, but not always…!
- Make sure your child is safe and cant hurt herself or other people or damage things.
- Stay calm. Avoid shouting or hitting which will only make the tantrums worse. If you're starting to lose your temper, leave the room.
- Don't reason with your child, they wont be in a position to listen.
- If your limitations (e.g. "no you can't have those sweets") sparked the tantrum, don't give in. Stick by whatever you said otherwise you give the message that tantrums are an effective way for your child to gain control.
- If you're not feeling too stressed, stay near to the child as the intense emotion they are feeling can be quite frightening for them.
- Let the tantrum run its course whilst calmly carrying on with your activities. The idea is to reassure your child with your presence, but give minimum attention so as not to reinforce the behaviour.
- For older children, you may wish to use time out - take them to a boring place, calmly explaining that they need to "cool down".
- When the tantrum has subsided, cuddle your child, praise them for calming down and move on with the rest of the day in an upbeat manner.