Blog · Toddlers

What Is Causing My Toddler’s Tantrum?

Like most mums, my stress levels can at times, go through the roof.

Whether we are on a day out, eating dinner, putting on shoes, potty training; the threat of a toddler meltdown is always looming.

Even the best-behaved toddlers have days where it’s hard to keep their cool. Tantrums are hard to predict but they are a normal part of development.

However, according to experts, the first step to managing tantrums is to understand what might be causing them.

What is a Tantrum?

Tantrums usually linked to children aged between 0-3 years old, the stage in which children lack the words they need to express themselves.

Although not a clinical term, tantrums can stem from emotions that a child is struggling to regulate.

Experts believe they can be due to either a child feeling distressed, for example, alone, scared, tired, hungry or in pain. Or they are trying to exert control and getting what they want by expressing anger.

Dr Steven Dickstein, a paediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist compares this to the child version of road rage, where they feel they deserve or need something that is being deliberately withheld from them.

How Can You Help Your Toddler?

Emotions running adrift can be all-consuming for a child. They are overwhelmed and as the parent, you are your child’s anchor during this turbulent moment in time.

For generations, parents have been advised that tantrums are a way of a child getting what they want and to ignore them, leaving them to cry it out else you will spoil them.

Although tantrums may at times be a way of seeking attention and getting control, they can be a sign that your child is having trouble with their emotions and needs your help to calm them down.

Give Your Child Space

How you respond to a tantrum entirely depends on the reason for the tantrum and your child’s needs at that point.

My toddler would tantrum when we woke up after he’d fallen asleep during a car journey. We’d pick him up from his car seat and try and put him down in his bed, but he would always wake up and be inconsolable.

We tried cuddling, calm talking, distraction techniques and we soon realised the best thing to do was to simply give him safe space and be there for him as he rode it out.

“Sometimes your kid just needs to get his anger out,” says Linda Pearson, a nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle.

“I’m a big believer in this approach in this approach because it helps children learn how to vent in a non-destructive way. They’re able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together, and regain self-control – without engaging in a yelling match or a battle of will with you.”

Think about what they need from you and always make sure they know you are there and aren’t leaving them.  Once the tantrum has finished, then give your toddler a cuddle and let them know you love them. Don’t dwell on what happened.

If your child is three or four years old then have a talk with them a couple of hours later, asking what it might have been that upset them. This will help them learn how to deal with the issue in the future.

Acknowledge Their Feelings

If your child is under the age of three, then they may have trouble verbalising their feelings. This can lead to feelings of frustration from both child and parent as you try and figure out what the issue might be.

Try and identify what might be causing them upset and verbalise their emotion for them.

I know it’s been a long day and you are feeling tired.

You are feeling angry because you can’t have that toy.

I know you feel sad about leaving the park, but you had a nice time and we will come back another day.

By making your child aware of their feelings and that you understand them, will give them less reason to stage a protest.

Identify the Trigger

As parents, we never know when the next tantrum will strike. However, preparation can help in avoiding a meltdown when it’s least needed.

The triggers might be easy to identify, such as tiredness, hunger or feeling unwell. Tantrums bred from frustrations need your empathy and support. For example, if they are trying to do something like put together a jigsaw, and are getting angry, then offer help but don’t do it for them.

If your child is throwing a tantrum because they want their own way, then be a bit creative. Don’t give in to the tantrum, but offer an alternative (You can’t play with that wire, but play with this car instead)

It’s time to go home after a fun afternoon playing at the park, so give your child a five-minute warning before you leave.

Show Some Empathy

We often fall into the trap of thinking that our children will easily adapt to whatever situation we put them in. Some kids are great at settling into new situations straight away, but others may find it a little scary.

Normal, everyday tasks for a parent will be unfamiliar to your child and could be met with anxiety or trepidation.  It could be going to the doctors or a dentist, or something bigger like going to a wedding.

If you are going to be doing something outside of what is routine for what is normal, then explain to your child about what will be happening and what they are to expect.

For example my toddler was distraught when going to nursery for the first time. I would drop him off, say ‘Love you, see you later,’ and he would immediately become distressed. Walking out the door and leaving him in such a distraught state was heartbreaking.

Talking to him on the way home, he told me ‘You left me at nursery’.

The phrase ‘you left me’ was akin to ‘you abandoned me’.

By saying ‘see you later,’ I didn’t give my child an indication of when I would be coming back to get him. For all he knew, it would be weeks or days later. He didn’t have a proper concept of time, so the next day during our walk to nursery I told him:

“You are going to nursery today, and I will stay at home and do some work. When you have had a play and some lunch, then I will come back and get you.”

When I dropped him off he was still upset, but less so than the day before. Picking him up, he said:

“Mummy, you took me to nursery and you came back.”

Your child needs to know you will still be there and you will come back, giving them the confidence to go and conquer whatever the day has to offer.

Don’t Panic

Tantrums are horrible, especially if they are happening in public. It can be stressful and embarrassing.

Just remember that your child is not being horrible, their behaviour is completely normal for their age.

Resist the urge to seek out those inevitable stares, in fact, it’s probably best to not give a care what others think. Your toddler doesn’t want to humiliate you (even though it probably feels like it does!)

Channel your inner calm and carry on with what you are doing. Diane Ryals, University of Illinois Extension family life education told SheKnows: “Tantrums become a problem when parents give in to the child too soon or too often, teaching the child that a tantrum is an effective way to get what they want.”

The Action Plan for Parents

Tantrums are normal and expected part of growing up and development. However, it is still worth putting together a practical plan that will help make tantrums less likely to happen.

It may take a while to put the plan into place as your child will be used to a different approach to discipline.

As well as a practical plan, look at your own response to tantrums. Children learn a lot from their parent’s behaviour, and I found that once I adopted a gentler approach to discipline my son’s temperament in response to stress also calmed down.

Set limits to keep your child feel secure and safe. Children will always test the limit and your response but provide guidance to help them stay within those boundaries.

Most importantly, be generous with praise and encouragement. Use it to nurture your toddler’s self-esteem, self-worth and ability to handle stress.

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