By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

Understanding Tantrums: When Are They Considered Atypical or Severe?

Before having young children, you probably had the realization that, as a parent, you would likely encounter toddler tantrums at some point or another. Tantrums are a normal part of child development, and it is important to understand the meaning of tantrums, as well as how you and your child can collectively work through these experiences.

Defining Tantrums

From an outside perspective, tantrums seem like angry outbursts; however, internally, a child is attempting to utilize their language skills to express their needs. Generally, these situations will not involve self-inflicted violence or violence to others.

How Many Tantrums Per Day Is Normal?

Children may have one or no tantrums each day. If your child has several tantrums a day, it is worth investigating and seeking professional help; tantrums can be stressful experiences for parents and can indicate a need for more support for the child in communication and emotional regulation.

Misconceptions About Tantrums

There are numerous misconceptions about tantrums. For one thing, people commonly associate tantrums with early childhood; however, older children can also have tantrums, especially those with sensory processing and developmental disabilities.

Another misconception—and a common situation parents find themselves in—is that giving in to tantrums is an effective solution for stopping them. While giving in can quickly resolve a tantrum, the action is only a temporary fix and will teach children that tantrums are an easy way to get what they want. Your child may learn that tantrums are a good strategy, so you are missing out on an opportunity to teach your child how they can recognize and understand their emotions.

Overall, tantrums are generally not a cause for concern, as they eventually subside. However, if they seem to appear alongside rigid and inflexible attachment to routines, repetitive behaviors, or missed developmental milestones, consider consulting with a clinical psychologist as well as your child’s pediatrician.

When Are Tantrums Considered Severe?

A psychology article in SAGE reports that almost 65% of the children in their study began having tantrums between two and three years old. As such, it is not uncommon to see severe temper tantrums in 2 year olds, 3 year olds, and other age groups as well.

Unlike typical tantrums, severe tantrums can happen multiple times in a day and be long-lasting experiences. 

If your child continues to have severe tantrums, or if their tantrums cause harm to themselves or others, seek professionals specializing in pediatrics and psychology to identify possible tantrum triggers. Tantrums may be one sign that other neurodevelopmental conditions should be evaluated, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Challenges with communication and difficulties with sensory integration are common triggers of tantrums.

Strategies For Caregivers And Parents

Thankfully, it is possible to avoid some tantrums before they arise as well as learn more effective techniques for helping your child manage their emotions. Continue reading to learn more about some strategies you can try.

Set The Tone

Whether your child is experiencing mild or severe tantrums, it is important to remain calm. By matching your child’s behavior, you may amplify the tension and worsen the situation. Additionally, your child may draw the conclusion that shouting is acceptable behavior. Encourage your child—and yourself—to take deep breaths and keep voice volumes low.

It is also important to remember that while your child may react based on the responses they receive, they are not always in control. In these situations, your kid is not intentionally trying to frustrate you. They are learning how to convey their thoughts, and patience can go a long way in connecting with your child.

Plan Ahead

Although you cannot prevent tantrums entirely, you may be able to take some steps to decrease the likelihood that they will happen. We know that children may be less likely to cooperate if they are under stress because their basic needs are not met. In this case, you can run errands at times when your child should have all their needs met, for example, after a meal or nap.

If you must bring your child out with you at an inconvenient time, you can consider choosing quick pick-up options for errands like grocery shopping or dining out. It can also help to pack drinks and snacks to keep them satisfied. In addition, a go-to tantrum or meltdown kit with items such as bubbles, headphones, puzzles, toys, and a weighted blanket can also be beneficial.

Should they experience a tantrum in a public place, you can still try different techniques with your child. For example, a common approach is to find a safe place where they can calm down with you and away from others. This should not be treated as a punishment or time-out, but rather, as a neutral space for you to comfort your child and understand how they feel while also allowing them to process their feelings.

Commit to a Daily Routine

As we have stated before, your child’s mood can quickly shift if their essential needs are not met. As such, it is crucial to stick with a familiar routine. This way, your child will know exactly when to expect food, sleep, playtime, and educational time every day. If you need to alter the routine in any way, it is crucial to prepare them for these changes, for instance, by informing them of the alternative plans and offering your support.

Provide Independence

While rigid expectations give parents control, children may feel they do not have a sense of control. As a result, they will throw a tantrum out of frustration because they either feel they can or cannot do something or they feel forced into something they do not want to do.

To help your child make strides toward independence, you can provide age-appropriate activities and chores—in other words, actions that are not overly challenging or easy. Examples you can try with your child include having them pick their own outfits, organize their toys, or retrieve their own snacks. As a bonus, you benefit because you are giving your child room to help take some of the everyday tasks off your plate.

Celebrate Positive Behavior

When children are throwing tantrums, it can be difficult for them to manage these experiences on their own. As such, it is important to be in tune with the child’s emotions, to intervene if necessary, and reinforce more appropriate emotional regulation through positive attention and validation of their feelings. Over time, with validation and appropriate limits, you are helping your child to develop the capacity for self-control and appropriate expression of emotions.

We hope you have found our insights helpful, as it is critical to keep an eye on your child’s tantrums and overall mental health. The tips we mention in this post are just a few strategies you can implement, and when it comes to understanding and resolving tantrums, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every child will react differently to each approach, so it may be worth staying persistent until you find what works best for your family.

We also want to note that, ultimately, you cannot directly control your child’s behavior. But, as a caretaker or parent, you can guide your child and model appropriate actions that will positively influence their behavior. It is probable that your child’s actions will not change overnight, but in time, your family will likely experience fewer tantrums.

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