What exactly is a temper tantrum?
To me, there is no fixed definition of what a temper tantrum is. I see it as when a child becomes overwhelmed with negative emotions. It usually occurs around a time when a child has a decision to make. Either they have a strong opinion about wanting to do something, or they don’t want to do something. That usually is the trigger. The first few times a child becomes overwhelmed with those desires; it may be frightening for both the child and parent. Each child’s reaction will be different. Some may cry or scream, and it usually appears to adults as an over-reaction that doesn’t make sense.
At what age do children start to throw temper tantrums?
The window of opportunity for a child to develop emotional control is between 0 to 2 years of age, and temper tantrums start to occur right at this really important time in a child’s brain development. This window of opportunity is the best age for a child to acquire skills to manage emotions. Around 2 to 3 years of age, behaviours become more established. That is why parents’ reactions to children when they are between 0 to 2 years of age are very important.
The first 4 to 5 temper tantrums are the most important for parents because that is when you are going to establish a pattern about how you’re going to handle them. Moreover, that pattern is going to determine how often you see those tantrums in the future, and how long each will last.
Children mirror parents’ emotional responses, and parents’ calm response to children’s frustrations during this period is especially important.
What should I do when my child is throwing a tantrum?
Firstly, to avoid reaching that stage, avoid pushing your child to the limits – when they are tired, hungry, bored or frustrated. Those limits are the recipe for a temper tantrum.
Secondly, remember that your child is trying to acquire emotional control, and he or she is busy observing you and how you deal with your emotions. It’s crucial to be aware of how you are reacting to your emotions. An angry response will not help you or your child. It teaches your child to react angrily.
If your child is frustrated, and you get frustrated because of that and give a frustrated response, you are teaching your child that it is ok to give a frustrated response.
Make sure you’re in a position where you’re best able to calm down and maintain emotional control. For example, for me, it helps when I move my son and myself to a quiet area with few people.
Thirdly, treat your child’s emotions seriously but do not give in. If your child genuinely has a negative response that he cannot control, communicate that you understand those emotions, give him a small cuddle, and let him calm down. You don’t have to shower him with too much attention or bribe him out of it. Your child’s brain is linking experiences with emotions and trying to understand cause and effect. That is why it is necessary to let your child establish the logical connection that negative behaviour will consistently result in a negative response and that positive behaviour will generate a positive response.
After he has calmed down and controlled his emotions, move on and not give in to the original reason for his tantrum. That may inadvertently encourage the tantrum. Remember that when you make a rule in the first place, you have to enforce it.
Any last pieces of advice?
Theory and practice are different - just because you know why something happens doesn't mean you know what to do. Parents may get swamped with advice; do not follow blindly but reflect on your style, and think about the communication style that best suits your family. Do not try to impose others’ values into your relationship with your child.
It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to admit that you made a wrong decision or reacted negatively; there’s always a chance to try a different approach.
Lastly, be in an honest, open and respectful relationship with your child. Talk to your child honestly about your limits, what makes you tick and what is important to you. Being open about your feelings will let your child understand and appreciate your feelings and emotions. Your child is modelling you and will learn from you to be more conscious and connected with his feelings.