Tantrums are by far the biggest headache of most parents. Sooner or later, everyone of us is faced with a tantruming child, not always knowing how to react and what to do.
This is a huge topic because the specific reasons for a tantrum may be different and there will need to be an individualized approach to each particular scenario. Nonetheless, there are some basic principles, that may be helpful when trying to resolve a meltdown and support a struggling child.
The starting point to a tantrum intervention is understanding why they happen.
So let’s take a look at the possible reasons for a meltdown. When the child is screaming and crying, he is using the basic tools available to him to express his reaction to something he does not like. These big and loud expression of emotions will most likely guarantee that someone is going to pay attention and help the child get what he wants.
As adults, we have developed efficient strategies of getting what we want or taking ourselves out of a situation that is not pleasant for us. We too have a reaction to situations and can notice how we feel about them, which leads us to problem-solving around our options and choices. We can use our logical brain (the same part that is responsible for controlling impulsive behaviors) to help us reason through and take actions without dropping to the floor and kicking our feet. As adults, we don’t need to tantrum.
A child, however, is guided more by his emotions and is not able to think through the choices, let alone explain to others what’s wrong.
Very often we wonder how is it that our child is throwing a tantrum over little things. It is easy for us, the grownups, to dismiss them as trivial and silly. Have you heard (or even said it yourself) things like “It is silly to cry over this”? Let’s try looking at the situation through the child’s eyes, and we will see that from her perspective, what she wants and cannot get is a complete and total tragedy. The child often feels helpless and not in control of what is happening to her, and reacts either with a complete meltdown of despair or a tantrum as an expression of anger.
The louder the child, the more desperately she wants to feel in control of what is happening around her.
At the same time, it may take a while to process these emotions and to calm down. Children are different from adults because developmentally they have limited resources available to them. And guess what? We, the parents, are their biggest resource! However, in order to really be helpful, a parent needs to approach the child with that child’s perspective in mind. Let us also remember that every child is different and no two children react to things the same way. Because of their individual personalities and temperaments, we need to understand that one child may need more or less time and more or less help than someone else.
So at what age do tantrums start and when will they be over?
If we approach tantrums as an expression of discomfort (and this is what I encourage you to do), we will see that they start at birth, though they most definitely don’t look the same as those later tantrums we get overwhelmed by. Think about a baby crying. It is to express and to communicate some type of discomfort, be it feeling cold or hot, being hungry or in pain, etc. We don’t neglect a crying baby because at a very elementary level we understand that its needs have to be met for basic survival. However, a tantruming toddler or preschooler is also expressing a need that is vitally important.
This expression of emotions has direct relation to how the child’s personality develops and how well it is integrated later in life. With the help of all the emotional mini-crises the child goes through, there are many critical skills and strategies learned along the way.
Perhaps we never thought of a baby crying the same way as we think of tantrums because we are so tuned in with infants. This is a biologically built response in us, which ensures that the infant gets our attention and gets cared for. After all, those needs are very basic in nature and are not mediated by the power of wills. Whereas a preschooler may not scream, kick, and cry out of hunger (because she is past that stage by now and feels like that part of her life is in control), she may still feel hopeless and powerless about other things like having to go to bed or wanting a piece of candy.
I hope we can see that tantrums are normal and are part of a typical development. A scenario of a child that never expresses strong emotions is very unusual. The way each child expresses emotions will depend on his age and personality. However, with every milestone and with all new gains, there will be new challenges and more things that our children will strongly react to. That applies to teenagers too (just so we don’t think that tantrums go away after the “terrible two’s”).
This is not to say that a teenager will throw himself on the floor — hopefully, he has more skills than that — but an attempt at a screaming match and a slammed door are likely to be some of the expressions.
So, in this sense, if we think of temper tantrums as expressions of negative emotions, they are not likely to stop as there is no shortage of negative experiences in life. However, if we are wondering whether the way in which these emotions get expressed will change and whether the outbursts will end, then yes, they will, as the child matures over time. This will depend on how we teach our children to process their emotions and what strategies we give them.
I hope these thoughts help you better understand the nature of temper tantrums. Perhaps now you see your child’s meltdowns from a different perspective. And if you are saying to yourself “OK, I get it, now what?” — then head over here to get basic tips on how to deal with this kind of situation.
In the meanwhile, connect with me if you have questions and comments. Please share this article with those who may find it helpful.