Temper Tantrums

Temper Tantrums

The 2nd temper tantrum of the day shows no sign of stopping. And your classroom is disrupted!

Temper tantrums range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting and breath holding. They’re equally common in boys and girls and usually occur between the ages of 1 to 3. Then they may stop for a little while and when the child turns four, and resume again.

Kids’ temperaments vary dramatically – so some children experience regular tantrums, whereas others have them rarely. They’re a normal part of development and don’t have to be seen as something negative. Unlike adults, children don’t have the same inhibitions or control.

Several basic causes of tantrums are familiar to child caregivers everywhere: the child is seeking attention or is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. In addition, tantrums are often the result of kids’ frustration with the world – they can’t get something (e.g. an object), or their caregiver to do what they want. Frustration is an unavoidable part of their lives as they learn how people, objects and their own bodies work.

Tantrums are most common during the 2nd year of life, a time when children are acquiring language. Toddlers generally understand more than they can express. Imaging your frustration if you were unable to communicate your needs to someone. As language skills improve, tantrums tend to decrease.

Toddlers also face an increasing need for autonomy. They want a sense of independence and control over the environment – more than they are capable of handling. This creates the perfect condition for power struggles as a child thinks “I can do it myself” or “I want it, give it to me”. When the children discover that they can’t do it, and/or can’t have it, the stage is set for a tantrum.

Avoiding tantrums:

Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure so here are some strategies for avoiding tantrums:

  • Make sure child gets enough attention. Beware though of giving negative attention (which is generally what an adult’s response to a tantrum is), lest the child sees negative attention as better than no attention at all. Try to establish a habit of catching the child being good which means rewarding your little one with attention for positive behavior.
  • Try to give the toddler some control over little things as this may fill a need for independence and ward off one or two tantrums. Offer minor choices, this way you avoid giving commands, which may result in a ‘No!”.
  • Distract the child. This method is as old a time and works. Children have have short attention spans, so make use of that by putting a replacement for the coveted object. Or you could quietly begin a new activity to replace the frustration or forbidden one. Or simply change the environment and go from inside to outside or vice versa.
  • Set the stage for success when kids are playing or trying master a new task. Offer age- appropriate toys and games. Also, start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
  • Consider the request carefully when a child wants something. Is it really something he/she can’t have. Maybe it isn’t. Choose your battles!
  • Know the child’s limits. If you know the toddler is tired, it’s not the best time to start a new activity.
  • If safety becomes an issue and the toddler repeats the forbidden behavior after being told to stop, use a time out or hold the child firmly for several minutes. Be consistent. Kids must understand that you are inflexible on safety issues.

Tantrum Tactics:

  • The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re faced with a child in the throes of a tantrum, no matter what the cause, is simple and crucial: Keep cool. Don’t complicate the problem with your own frustration. The child will sense it, which makes their frustration worse and you will end up with a more exaggerated tantrum on your hands. Instead, take a deep breath, or ten if you need to.
  • The child relies on you to be the example. Hitting and spanking don’t help; physical tactics sends the message that using force and physical punishment is ok. You need to have enough self-control for both of you. 
First, try to understand what’s going on.
  • Tantrums should be handled differently depending on the cause. For example, if the little one has just had a great disappointment and is letting rip, you need to provide comfort. It’s a different situation when the tantrums stems from a child being refused something. Toddlers have rudimentary reasoning skills, so you won’t get away with explanations. You could ignore the outburst – that’s one way of handling it. Continue with what you were doing before the tantrum, pay no attention, but remain within sight. If you leave the little one alone, he/she may feel abandoned on top of all the other uncontrollable emotions.
  • If the child learns that temper tantrums work, he/she will continue to use this behavior. As they get older they can be given time out. Try to avoid setting a specific length of time, rather tell them to stay there until they feel better. This is empowering as they can affect the outcome of the tantrum by their own actions, thereby regaining the sense of control which was lost during the tantrum.

After the Storm:

Occasionally a child will have a hard time stopping a tantrum. In these cases, it might help to say “I’ll help you settle down”. But, do not reward the child after a tantrum by giving in. Also, kids may be especially vulnerable after a tantrum when they know they’ve been less than adorable. Now is the time for a hug and reassurance that the child is loved, no matter what.

Remember this: tantrums usually aren’t cause for concern and generally diminish on their own. As kids mature developmentally and their grasp of themselves and the world increases, their frustration levels decrease. Less frustration and more control mean fewer tantrums – and happier caregivers.


About Andrea Sciarappa

The heart of any pre-school comes from three places. • Firstly, from the Principal of the school, because that is who sets the ethos (yes, it is a bit lonely at the top, but that's why Tools for School is here). • Secondly, from the teachers and other staff. • In third place, is the office because this is the central place from which everything that happens in the school is organised. I have 20 years of experience in pre-school management, and it is my passion and privilege to share all I know about pre-school management with you.
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