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Dealing with toddler tantrums

(As published on My Family Care Vouchers - an online parenting site for users of the market leading childcare voucher scheme.)

Tantrums are a rite of passage that nearly every child goes through around the age of two. Throwing a tantrum is not a sign of anything wrong with the child, nor with the parenting for that matter, it just shows that the child is growing up and becoming more independent and assertive. However, these angry episodes can be upsetting and unpleasant for parent and child alike, not to mention highly embarrassing if a tantrum occurs in a public place.

Tantrums are usually a result of frustration - because the child wants something but cannot have it, or because they simply lack the verbal skills to express what it is they want in the first place. Other common triggers include hunger, fatigue, boredom, or illness.

Many working parents find that their child is as good as gold at childcare during the day, but seems to save up their tantrums for when they get home. It may be exhausting and exasperating after a hard day at work, but try and take this Jekyll and Hyde behaviour as a compliment and not an insult - your child lets their true feelings come out when they are with you because they trust you and feel safe with you.

What can we do when faced with a tantrum?

First of all we need to stay calm. Screaming and shouting back at the child can provoke more anger and may well prolong the tantrum.

Do not try and argue with a child in mid-tantrum. They are angry, they are beyond reason, there will be time to talk later, once the child has calmed down.

If your child will allow it, gently holding and cuddling them can be comforting and soothing and may help them to calm down more quickly.

Distraction can help to defuse the tantrum, so try and move your child’s attention away from the source of frustration by telling them a funny story, or pointing out something interesting to look at.

However tempting it may seem, do not give in to your child’s demands. It may seem an easy way to stop the tantrum, but this is not good practice or your child will soon learn that having a tantrum is a good way to get what you want. What you want your child to understand is that a tantrum changes nothing, therefore there is no point in having one!

If none of these strategies work, then your next step is to completely ignore the behaviour. Tantrums feed on attention, and they will quickly run out of steam when it is taken away. You can sit down and start looking through a magazine or book, or alternatively, if you are sure your child is safe, you can leave the room completely. Tell your child you will return when the kicking and screaming stops.

It is important not to punish your child afterwards. Instead, once they have calmed down, have a talk about what caused the tantrum, explain why it was not a good way to get what they wanted, and ask them to think of different ways of dealing with that situation in the future.

Can tantrums be avoided?

It would be unrealistic to suggest that tantrums can be avoided altogether, but by identifying the triggers that set your child off – hunger, boredom, frustration, fatigue, etc - and trying to pre-empt and control them as best you can, you may lessen their frequency. Remember each child is very much an individual, and what one child can cope with, another may find very stressful, so know your own child’s limits.

Mornings can be especially difficult when you need to get to work on time and get your child ready for nursery or the childminder, so it is helpful if you can make sure you are well organised and allocate some extra time in your morning schedule to deal with any outbursts in a calm and rational manner. If you are already stressed and in a rush to get out the front door, it will be that much harder to deal with an angry child without getting angry yourself.

Thankfully the tantrum-throwing phase usually wears off at around three years old as the child learns to express him or herself more clearly, and is able to make their wishes understood without the need to resort to a tantrum. As childcare expert Stephen Biddulph says in his book, The Complete Secrets of Happy Children, “Early temper outbursts are a valuable chance to teach your child how to handle life with more good humour and flexibility”. That is one way of looking at it, although even Biddulph concedes that this may take a year or two to achieve, so stay patient, be positive and always remember to praise and reward your child when they do manage to keep their cool in a tricky situation.

Article published on MyFamilyCareVouchers.co.uk (Subscribers Only Parenting Site), August 2009

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