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Why do kids have tantrums, and what should you do about it?

tantrums child cryingAs unpleasant as they are, tantrums are a completely normal part of early childhood: according to the Supernanny website, one in five 2-year-olds may have two or more tantrums a day. (Yikes!) It’s a common behavior among kids ages 1-3, and can still occur for a few more years afterwards.  It makes sense: your child’s physical and intellectual skills are expanding fast, but there are so many things they can’t do, and they have so little control over their lives. As Jan Hunt at the Natural Child Project writes:

“When a child is having a tantrum, the key word is helplessness. A tantrum develops when a child feels that he has no control over his circumstances: he wants things to be different, but he is helpless to bring about those changes. And helplessness brings fear – after all, he is then at the mercy of other people’s wishes. Helplessness also affects the child’s self-esteem; when he feels powerless to change things, he may begin to believe that he is not capable or not deserving of having his desires fulfilled.”

Motor skills outpacing verbal skills is also an issue: if your toddler can’t tell you how bad he feels, he may have no choice but to act it out. The result is a total loss of self-control, with enraged screaming, crying, kicking, throwing himself on the floor, and possibly even breath-holding and vomiting.

While a tantrum often appears to be a response to you saying “no” one too many times, Dr. Tali Shenfield argues that tantrums are less about trying to get their way and more about the expression of anxiety and stress:  “More often than not, as adults we know our limitations and have the ability to say ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough!’ We take control of the situation or walk away, but sometimes, deep down, we want to throw ourselves to the ground and scream too. Many children do not have that ability yet.”

A tantrum usually happens because your child is overtired, hungry, or scared; kids on the autism spectrum may experience meltdowns that look a lot like tantrums but are a reaction to sensory overload. Beatrice Motamedi at Healthday.com divides tantrums into the following types:

  • Fatigue or frustration
  • Attention-seeking or demanding
  • Refusal or avoidance
  • Disruptive tantrums
  • Rage tantrums

While every kid is going to have at least a few tantrums in early childhood, they can be prevented to some degree: obviously, if hunger and tiredness are triggers, a regular schedule of meals, naps, and consistent bedtime will prevent freakouts, and it will also help kids feel secure. The Supernanny website has some great suggestions as well for how to curb the frustration that can lead to freakouts; for instance, you can help relieve some of your child’s sense of helplessness by offering him choices, like whether he wants to have a bath or brush his teeth first. You can read the rest here, and I thoroughly recommend it – this article is just loaded with excellent tips for how to keep your toddler happy and willing to cooperate!

When meltdowns actually occur, there are many schools of thought on how best to respond. WebMD cautions you not to just give in and give the kid what they want (which you probably are too annoyed to do anyway); we also agree that spanking is only going to make things worse, and that as difficult as it is to do, you need to stay calm yourself. With that said, there are a few approaches to employ that might help:

  • tantrums child hugTime-outs: WebMD recommends that a time-out should last about one minute for each year of a child’s age (3 minutes for a 3-year-old, 4 minutes for a 4-year-old, and so on).
  • Distractions: What To Expect suggests trying to engage your child in a game, or making them laugh with a joke or silliness. They also suggest allowing your kid a chance to play with something they’re normally not allowed to, but beware: if the iPad temporary halts a tantrum, taking it away again may send them right over the edge again.
  • Give hugs: It sounds counterintuitive, but many parents find that a big squeeze will help a child calm down. The more you think about it, the more sense it makes: after all, being swaddled tightly helped to keep your child calm when they were a newborn, and having your undivided attention and love can help to ease their anxiety.
  • Let it run its course: Stephanie Petters of API of North Fulton, Georgia points out that “nothing sinks in when a child is an emotional wreck.” They may just need to vent, unload, and cry until the bad feeling is gone. Calmly labeling feelings and offering reassurance may be all you can do until the storm has passed, after which you can offer a snack to ward away the hunger or get your child to a quiet place for her nap.

Remember, as awful as this situation is for you (especially if you’re in public), you can’t fix the situation by reacting to your own anger or embarrassment. Lauren Lindsay Porter at The Natural Child Project writes that “most parental interventions during tantrums have been found to actually be responses to a child’s behavior, not actual interventions.” Lindsay recommends time-outs for the grownups involved rather than the kids, suggesting that you only remove yourself from the situation to take a minute to calm down and re-center yourself, so you can be more responsive to what they need.

And finally: remember that your kid isn’t trying to be a jerk! A kid who’s freaking out isn’t a “monster” – they’re just being a child. The phase will usually pass within a few years.

If you see the following warning flags frequently, you may want to discuss it with a professional:

  • Aggression towards other people and/or objects;
  • Self-injury;
  • Frequent tantrums;
  • Very long tantrums;
  • Inability to calm themselves.

A study at Washington University in 2007 suggested that these patterns may indicate a mental health issue if they occur frequently. Don’t try and diagnose your child yourself; researcher Andy C. Belden, PhD recommends taking your child who is exhibiting “red flag” behaviors to a pediatric neuropsychologist or a child psychologist for an evaluation and possible treatment.

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