Psychology

A quick fix for tantrums?

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Most under-fives have the odd tantrum, but Christmas always acts as a trigger! If you’d like your Christmas to be the ‘peace and goodwill’ variety, rather than your child writhing on the floor and kicking and screaming in frustration, read on.

Published

Tantrums are most common in two to three-year-olds who know what they want but don’t understand why they can’t have it. They haven’t yet developed sophisticated language skills, so they express frustration and anger through their behaviour. This could be anything from lying on the floor screaming, to kicking and even breath-holding. At this age tantrums are a perfectly normal part of development. Christmas is a peak time for them, because of the tantalising exposure in the media to attractive toys, and a relaxation of routine. But it isn’t the whole story.

Understanding the triggers

Young children want parental attention and don’t understand why they can’t always have it. Tantrums grab attention, so watch for patterns. Do they happen in the same place, same time, with the same person, or about the same things? If so, you need to change the pattern.

Children soon realise that tantrums are more effective in public places. Parents get embarrassed and give in – so beware. Tantrum triggers vary, but tired and hungry children are more prone to them. Another potent trigger is the desire for independence: children crave it but get frustrated when they can’t manage on their own, for instance when they’re getting dressed. Children also have tantrums to avoid things they don’t want to do, like going to bed.

Arguments, illness, the arrival of a younger sibling, people coming to stay or general over-stimulation are all trigger points. That is why Christmas is a Tantrum Danger Zone.

Children who have special needs are particularly prone to tantrums if they have limited language skills. When tantrums last more than 10-15 minutes or occur several times each day, you should seek professional help from your GP, or child and family services. Boys and girls are equally affected by tantrums, but the way a parent deals with the situation has a significant effect on the outcome.

Children love praise and attention so make sure you notice when they avoid tantrums. If you focus on children only when they do something wrong, the number of tantrums will almost certainly escalate!

Seasonal flashpoints

Routines get disrupted over Christmas so inevitably tantrums happen more often. Children get overwhelmed while tired parents struggle to be calm and consistent. Giving in to tantrums significantly increases the risk of repeat behaviour so do not give in. Parents who struggle to be consistent and sometimes do give in are likely to find themselves experiencing more disruptive behaviour.

Research shows a link between parents who shout, criticise, spank or struggle to control their own temper and the severity of their children’s tantrums. Sadly, we all tend to be more irritable, tired and stressed during the build-up to Christmas, leading to a vicious circle. Staying calm improves your chance of avoiding tantrums.

Breath holding attacks

These attacks happen in one in 20 children, often as part of a tantrum. Your child may cry, exhale then hold her breath, go red in the face, or very pale. If she goes blue around the mouth it is known as a cyanotic breath-holding attack. Children may even learn to hold their breath until they lose consciousness, so these attacks are not something you can ignore.

Your child will start to breathe normally again, and though it can be terrifying there is no evidence that the attack is harmful. Children may seem quiet and subdued afterwards, but unless attacks happen often there is no need to worry. Your GP can check if there is any other possible cause such as epilepsy.

QUICK FIXES

Before the tantrum builds:

• Have clear routines for events that might trigger tantrums, such as bedtimes.

• Plan relaxed play with your child each day for 15-20 minutes even on busy days.

• Look for patterns, such as avoidance of bedtime, then change the routine.

As the tantrum builds:

• Stay calm and use humour or distraction.

• Decide if you really need to say no before you say it: pick your battles.

• Try to give your child some choice rather than a direct order, such as: ‘Do you want to wear your Santa hat or your reindeer hat?’ Wearing a hat is non-negotiable, but in this instance children retain a degree of control over which one they wear.

• Remove the trigger that set them off, such as a gift they wanted to open.

When the tantrum is in full flood:

• Do not give in to whatever pressure your child is putting you under.

• Continue to avoid saying no if you can – give choices instead.

• Act disinterested and move away from your child. Tantrums are attention grabbers, but without attention they often stop.

• Take your child somewhere quiet, or with older children walk away to avoid an audience.

• Use time-out (between two and five minutes depending on the age of your child) so you can calm yourself and think, as well as giving your child time to calm down.

• Be brief – don’t get into negotiations.

• Avoid threatening or punishing behaviour as it usually increases the frequency of tantrums.

LONGER TERM FIXES

• Work out what is triggering the tantrums and teach children how to ask for what they want without making a fuss. Reward their efforts when they get it right. Use role play to practice, making it into a game.

• Try to build some one-to-one playtime with your child into each day even if it is only for five minutes.

• Don’t expect too much of your child on long shopping trips or lengthy seasonal lunches with lots of grown-ups. Think ahead and avoid these situations and make sure they don’t get too hungry or tired.

• Children love praise and attention so make sure you notice when they avoid tantrums. If you focus on children only when they do something wrong, the number of tantrums will almost certainly escalate! Pay attention when they are behaving well to reinforce good behaviour. Each shopping trip without a tantrum needs to be rewarded with praise and a hug.

• Children use play to understand the way things around them happen. Introduce role play, reversing the roles so your child can watch you having a tantrum, then talk about it with you afterwards. Talk about what caused the tantrum and whether it worked.


Tantrums are an extreme form of anger. Teach your child that there are lots of stages between feeling calm and having a tantrum. Show children the range of angry feelings and help them to learn the names. Once they can tell you how they feel, they will have less need for tantrums. Draw a chart including happy, sad and angry faces and get your child to identify each face.

If you have problems managing your own anger, you need to get help for yourself before you can help your child. Angry parents often make mistakes in the way they react to their children, such as over-reacting or making threats they can’t keep.

Young children don’t understand what is embarrassing for you, but they quickly learn when you are most likely to give in to them.

True and false?

Bad parenting causes tantrums

As 80 per cent of children aged two to four have tantrums this simply cannot be true.

Children throw tantrums on purpose

Young children don’t have this degree of control over their behaviour. Tantrums are an explosion of anger that they can’t control.

Your child picks the most embarrassing moment to tantrum

Young children don’t understand what is embarrassing for you, but they quickly learn when you are most likely to give in to them.

Children throw tantrums because you are too soft

Children reserve tantrums for the people they feel most secure with, so if they throw them with you, but not with the childminder, it is because they feel secure with you.

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