What to do when tantrums strike

Familiar sight: Throwing tantrums is an ordinary part of growing up for young children and isn't behaviour that needs to be punished.
Familiar sight: Throwing tantrums is an ordinary part of growing up for young children and isn't behaviour that needs to be punished.

Young children often throw tantrums guaranteed to embarrass their parents when thrown in public.

The reality is these are a perfectly normal part of childhood and learning to manage them appropriately can reduce stress both for parents and children.

Young children do not automatically learn to manage their emotions; this is a skill that will take years to learn. When they throw a tantrum they are telling us they are feeling totally overwhelming and they cannot manage the intensity of their feelings. Children can be emotionally overwhelmed by happiness and joy as well as sadness, anger or frustration.

The first step in managing tantrums is to be observant: what happened leading up to the tantrum, what is the child feeling?

This won’t help in managing this tantrum but it will help prevent the next one. Parents can learn to read the emotional signals and step in with some kind of calming strategy before children become overwhelmed.

Children who are overwhelmed with excitement and just cannot wait for a forthcoming treat may be supported to divert their energy into something else. Children who are angry can be supported to express their anger in a manner that is appropriate for the family and context.

Once children are having a tantrum we need to ensure that they are not in a position to hurt themselves or others.

It is a waste of time to try and reason with children who are in the grip of intense emotions. The very intensity of their emotions means they can’t think rationally.

Leave children to complete their tantrum without giving them much attention. If you are in public, sit calmly nearby. If you are in private and you know they are safe, walk a short distance away.

Once the child starts to calm you can step in – provide reassurance, let them know you understand they are really upset, and keep the situation as calm as possible. It is appropriate to cuddle.

Once children have completely calmed you can talk together – hopefully your observations will have given you some clues as to what triggered the tantrum.

At the same time, you make your own mental notes as to how you can best prevent this happening again. At different times over the next few days talk about feelings, how to manage them and practice some strategies.

It is not appropriate to punish children who have tantrums. Learning to manage emotions is an essential skill and learning is best supported when adults demonstrate how to reduce high emotions.

So the next time you are shopping and see a child having a tantrum, try sharing a sympathetic smile with the parents rather than condemning them for having a badly behaved child.


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