SOS! Temper tantrums!

Last week I held a workshop on temper tantrums - a phenomenon that is familiar to most parents. Are they normal? Am I doing something wrong as a parent? Is there something wrong with my child? These are the questions that can fly through your head while your child is kicking and screaming because of something that may seem completely trivial to you (or not).

The first piece of good news is that temper tantrums are absolutely normal. Yes, there is nothing wrong with you or your child, even if they are throwing a fit every day. The most common reasons for tantrums include:

  • Your child is feeling hungry or tired. If you think of it, many adults become grumpy when they are tired or hungry, so this is perfectly reasonable.

  • They are dealing with strong emotions, such as anger or frustration

  • They could also be reflecting your mood back to you. Children pick up on our emotional state really well, so if you are feeling angry or frustrated, they will often reflect it back to you.

The second (not so great, but somewhat relieving) piece of news is that there is little relationship between what happens during the tantrum or how long it lasts and what parents actually do during the tantrum (Potegal et al., 2003). In other words, once it's on, IT'S ON!! So if you have tried various techniques on what to do when your child is throwing a fit and they don't seem to make much difference - that's actually perfectly normal too! If you think of it, when we are in a rage, it does not matter what happens around us - our brains are not very susceptible to what is around us when we are in an adrenaline-fuelled state of anger.

The third (and most interesting!) piece of news is that every tantrum has 2 stages (Potegal and Davidson, 2003). The tantrum starts with Anger (this is when your child is kicking, screaming, banging their limbs on the floor, you name it!). Often during this stage we (parents) get triggered and become angry and frustrated as well, and we are no longer available for the second stage, which is called Distress (or Sadness). This is the stage when our child needs us, they need to be comforted and helped. During this stage, the child is often crying and whining. However, if we ourselves got angry at the start, often we are emotionally unavailable by this time and are just plainly annoyed. So what should we do? The best thing is to wait out the Anger stage, check in with yourself if you are getting angry and try not to get triggered. Then, when your child hits the Distress stage - be there for them. Give them a hug, calm them down, be empathetic. And no, you are not rewarding them for throwing a fit - you are responding to their distress.

So, knowing all this, how do we cope with temper tantrums?

Well, the best thing is to prevent them. When you see the first signs that your child is starting to get angry or frustrated - check if they need a nap, a snack or a hug. If they are getting frustrated with a certain situation, talk to them. Ask them what is frustrating them, what they need help with or would like to happen. Finally, check in with yourself - are you angry or frustrated? If you are, share those feelings with them, name them and explain why you feel that way. This is an excellent example for your child of how one can express those kinds of feelings (as there is nothing wrong with feeling anger or frustration, the question is how we express them).

Last but not least, remember to praise your child (and, if you use reward charts, reward them with stickers/points) every time they use their words to express their anger or frustration. Humans (just like other animals) learn best by reward and positive reinforcement! This way you will also be giving them positive attention (and not only paying attention to them when they are throwing a fit).

Keeping your cool during a temper tantrum: oh so easy!..

On a final note, you won't always be able to avoid a tantrum - and that is perfectly normal! But do try to remember to stay calm during the Anger stage and comfort them during the Distress/Sadness stage. I hope this will help you bring a bit more peace and calm into your family life!

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