What is a tantrum?
A toddler meltdown is a child’s way of communicating when they don’t yet have the words and skills to manage their own feelings. Tantrums are a normal part of development and most children have them. Children who have more of them are not ‘bad’ or the product of poor parenting – they are normal.
Tantrum can look like the child getting angry, crying, screaming, breaking things, becoming aggressive, or running away. They may stiffen their limbs or arch their backs, they can also kick, bite, fall down, or flail around. They may even hold their breath or vomit. Often their outburst seems completely out of proportion to the cause. To be able to help in a situation which doesn’t make sense to us, it’s important to understand…
Why do tantrums happen?
- Speech and expression. As toddlers start to develop language skills, they also become aware of the gap in their ability to communicate. Not being able to express what they want, feel or need can cause frustration. Lack of ability to manage big emotions, like frustration leads to a tantrum.
- Testing boundaries. Toddlers are testing out their growing independence and realizing that there are boundaries. Wanting control over their environment creates a power struggle and a meltdown when they don’t get their own way. Toddlers come to realise the way they behave can influence other people and a tantrum is a way to change what’s going on around them. This is especially true if the tantrum gets them what they’re demanding.
- Temperament. Innate personality traits and sensitivities influence how a child reacts to a triggering event. If they naturally tend to get easily upset, they may be more susceptible to meltdowns too.
- Dysregulation or poor emotional regulation. At around 12 months the ability to understand and manage behaviour and actions starts to develop but it is a skill that requires time and patience to master. Being emotionally dysregulated is an overwhelming experience for a toddler, leading to a tantrum as a way to cope with the feelings.
What triggers tantrums?
There are many things that may initiate a meltdown – like wanting to do something and being told no, or not wanting to do something and being pushed to do it. There is also a list of things that exacerbate a tantrum:
- Lack of sleep doesn’t help anyone feel more kind and cooperative
- Hunger. Many people feel ‘hangry’ when their blood sugars are dropping, especially toddlers!
- Over-stimulation. When the sensory cup gets filled above capacity, something has to give. At the end of a very busy day even as an adult we can feel frazzled and have a short fuse.
- Boredom. Conversely, feeling blah about the day can make us less resilient to emotions.
- Fear, unhappiness, frustration or jealousy – all create feelings of distress and make our toddlers (and ourselves) more emotional.
All of these can make it harder for a toddler to manage their feelings and lead to an expression of overwhelm – a tantrum.
Do not be discouraged though, there is a big list of what causes tantrums but there is an equally long list of things you can do that help your toddler have less frequent and less overwhelming meltdowns – here.
If it’s too late to prevent, follow these steps to gain control of the situation.
What to do if a toddler does have a tantrum?
- Stick to it. As tempting as it can be to make our child happy and avoid a tantrum by buying the toy, or not making them wear their coat, giving in teaches them to repeat the behaviour to get what they want.
- Calm the situation. Once they have melted down, they will be unable to think or reason, so trying to do so just makes us feel frustrated. Instead, it’s best to remain calm and model the behaviour we expect of them.
- Reflect and chose a course of action.
- a) why a child is upset
- b) what helps to calm them, can help determine what course of action we take.
If they are not in danger, it’s often best not to intervene, argue or try to teach a lesson, especially if the tantrum is a demand to get their own way. You can use Time-In technique which is an effective tool. However, if the meltdown is due to difficulty coping for example, due to tiredness, comforting can bring calm to the situation.
We can comfort by using soothing techniques like:
- Softly speaking or singing
- Patting or rubbing them gently
- Opening the arms to receive them or gripping them in a firm hug.
These are always an appropriate way to repair the rupture in the relationship that the tantrum has crated. Time-In is a good strategy to manage when emotions are intense until it’s time to reconnect and offer affection.
This article is by Judith Yeabsley
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table. She is also available to run workshops.
Judith is mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.