Toddler tantrums

Why toddler tantrums happen, triggers to avoid, and how to cope when they occur.

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Anything and everything can trigger a toddler tantrum: the wrong pair of socks, turning the page too quickly in a book, a broken biscuit, a kick from big brother… the list is endless. It helps if you understand why tantrums happen and how to keep your cool when your toddler has one.

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“Remember that all children have tantrums,” says Lorraine Thomas of the Parent Coaching Academy and author of Screamer to Sweet Dreamer. “They’re not an indication of your success or failure as a parent but a natural part of a child growing up.”

Why do tantrums happen?

“The best way to view a tantrum is as if it’s a blown fuse,” explains Penelope Leach, author of Your Baby and Child. “There’s usually been a build up of tension: frustration, anger, fear, confusion or simply tiredness, meaning even the smallest thing can trigger an almighty strop.”

The world can be a bewildering place for a toddler:

  • He can’t control much of what happens to him
  • He’s often frustrated by his inability to do things or make himself understood
  • He’s beginning to be independent, which is both exciting and alarming
  • He’s learning that he can’t always have what he wants

So sometimes these factors all become too much for your toddler.

There’s no set age when your toddler might start having tantrums. He could start from 18 months, or bypass the terrible twos, only to start throwing tantrums when he’s 3 or even 4.

Bear in mind that a tantrum’s not something your toddler can control, so although it may be alarming for you, it’s even more so for him. “Being out of control is terrifying,” says Penelope Leach. “He needs reassurance and help to manage his feelings.”

How to avoid tantrums

“Identify tantrum hot spots and triggers and try to make those situations less stressful,” suggests parent coach Lorraine Thomas.

Make sure you’re sensitive to your toddler’s needs and be realistic about what he can cope with:

  • Consider changing the time you go shopping
  • Allow him to wake fully from a nap before rushing out of the house with him
  • Pack snacks and a variety of toys and games if you anticipate a long wait
  • Allow him to let off steam in the park if you have a long journey ahead
  • Choose restaurants that have a play area for children, rather than expecting him to sit still through a lengthy adult meal

Set clear rules so your child knows what’s expected of him, then be consistent to avoid confusing him.

Choose your battles wisely: is it really important that he wears ‘sensible’ clothes rather than his Spiderman outfit?

Prevent a tantrum with a distraction

“Sometimes you can tell if a child is building to a tantrum and so can offer a distraction before he blows,” says Penelope Leach.

When you see that your toddler is getting worked up, stop what you’re doing and tune in to your child. “Rushing through a task before he explodes can be a recipe for disaster,” says Penelope.

Mum’s story

“My daughter holds her breath when she has a tantrum”

“Lucy has just developed the habit of holding her breath when she’s having a tantrum. The first time it happened, my mum was looking after her. I’d rushed her a bit that morning, so she was flustered, then she fell and banged her head.

“She got so upset that she just stopped breathing and briefly made herself pass out. My mum was terrified. Lucy has done it a few times since, when something hasn’t gone her way or if she’s frustrated. I don’t think she does it consciously to alarm us, but it scares the living daylights out of me!”

Rimini, 32, mum to Lucy, 18 months, and Peter, 6 weeks

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All toddlers need reassurance when they are having a tantrum

Here’s how to cope with your toddler’s tantrum in different situations…

Tantrum 1: At home

“Once a tantrum is fully under way, it’s a waiting game,” says Penelope Leach, author of Your Baby and Child. “Almost anything you try to do is a mistake: yelling back will only make it worse and even the friendliest words aren’t heard.

“If you’re at home and your child’s not in danger of harming himself, the best thing you can do is to sing a song, count to 10 or get on with something while he lets off steam. It can take every ounce of your self control not to escalate a tantrum by yelling back,” she adds.

Showing your child that you can control your anger helps him learn to deal with his own and offers him reassurance. He may be overwhelmed and frightened by the intensity of his emotions, but you’re not.

Some toddlers like to be held, while others will fight you off, but they all need reassurance, explains Penelope. “Hold him as soon as he’ll let you, and show him he’s safe and loved.”

Don’t continue to be icy once the tantrum has blown itself out, but help him to feel better.

When the tantrum passed, it may be useful to talk to your toddler about what happened. Explain that you understand how he was feeling but you didn’t like his behaviour. If you have an older toddler it may be a good idea to talk about other ways to show he’s angry or upset.

Brenda, 30, mum to Jaelyn, 13 months, says, “I tell Jaelyn I understand she’s upset and that it’s okay. When she’s angry, I hold her tight and make sure she feels she has a safe outlet for her feelings.”

Tantrum 2: In public

We’ve all been there – in a supermarket or coffee shop with a screaming toddler attracting disapproving glares or unhelpful comments from other customers.

“Tantrums in public are one of the most stressful things you go through as a parent,” says Lorraine Thomas of the Parent Coaching Academy and author of Screamer to Sweet Dreamer. “Under the public gaze we feel humiliated and under intense pressure. But try to be true to the mum you want to be, rather than do what other people expect. Most onlookers are probably recalling their own experiences and sympathising, anyway.

“Avoid giving in to unreasonable demands, or your child will learn that throwing a tantrum is the way to get what he wants, and you’ll be in for countless repeat performances.

“If possible, remove your little one from the situation to a place where he can let off steam and you feel less self-conscious. Then try to look at your child and see the toddler you love rather than a child who’s deliberately setting out to humiliate you and ruin your day.”

Tantrum 3: With other mums

Charlotte, 32, mum to Ruby, 6, and Scarlett, 4, remembers when Ruby was 2 and had a tantrum when Charlotte was having coffee with another mum.

“We’d moved to a new town and I was just getting to know people, so I was thrilled when another mum asked me for coffee. When Ruby had a tantrum, the other mum declared: ‘Oh, my daughter never has tantrums. She’s so bright, I don’t think she needs to!’”

“Be careful who you count as a friend,” says Penelope Leach. “Other parents who make you feel self-conscious or judged by your child’s behaviour aren’t the best companions.”

Penelope also urges parents to remember that playdates can be stressful for young children. “This is particularly so if one child’s on home ground while the other’s a visitor. If there are problems, it may be worth retreating to neutral ground such as a park.”

Mum’s story:

“A waitress asked if we needed an ambulance when our child started screaming”

“Pizza Express in January, will forever be etched on my memory: carrying my hysterical 18-month-old son kicking and screaming out of the restaurant, while my husband grabbed a takeaway box for our untouched pizza, and a kindly waitress asking if she should call an ambulance.”

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Zara, 30, mum to Joe, 4, and Sophie, 2

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