Infants cry when they are trying to communicate a need. They may cry when they are hungry, tired, or need a new diaper. It is the only way they can communicate their needs. As they grow into toddlers, they learn new ways to get their needs met. Even though toddlers learn new ways to communicate, they often cry or scream when they are upset or frustrated. This is often referred to as “temper tantrums.”
Temper tantrums are outbursts of anger, sadness, or frustration. Children typically start having temper tantrums around their first birthdays, and they can last until they are around 3 years old. Temper tantrums can range from mild to severe. Tantrums that last for long stretches of time could be a sign of a developmental concern, but often tantrums can be resolved within a reasonable amount of time.
Temper tantrums can include the following behaviors:
- Crying and screaming
- Hitting and kicking
- Jumping up and down or stomping feet
- Refusing to communicate
- Peeing on themselves
When do temper tantrums happen?
Temper tantrums can happen for a variety of reasons. Here are some examples:
- When a child is told that they can’t have, or do, something they want. – Toddlers are learning independence, so they do not like being told “no.”
- When a child is overstimulated. – When children are overstimulated, they usually can’t articulate how they’re feeling. They are overwhelmed and need help getting relief.
- When a child is feeling anxious about a transition. – The unknown can be scary for children. Even adults struggle with uncertainty. Children may become upset when they are not sure what is going to happen next.
A key component to understanding temper tantrums is that children want independence and take comfort in routines.
How to reduce temper tantrums:
- Be consistent. – Consistency is important, because it helps children understand the expectations. They will feel more secure if they are able to rely on a consistent parental figure.
- Give choices – Children want to be independent. Giving a child choices helps them to feel like they are in control of themselves. It’s important that parents only give choices that they are okay with. If you want them to choose a healthy snack, avoid a choice like “apple slices or chocolates?” and instead offer a choice like “apple slices, or grapes?”.
- Help them communicate – A lot of frustration happens because toddlers are not able to communicate. Most toddlers are learning to speak, so they may struggle with knowing the words they need to voice their frustrations – instead, they scream, cry, or hit. You can ease their frustrations by helping them label their feelings, or you can teach them sign language. Simple signs like “more” or “hungry” can effectively reduce temper tantrums during mealtimes.
- Acknowledge the behavior you want to encourage. – It is important that parents praise good behavior. Often, parents spend a lot of time managing temper tantrums and redirecting behaviors that it reinforces the negative behavior. Temper tantrums are attention grabbers; ultimately, what children want is their parents’ attention and they will get it by the means that is most effective. Encouraging the positive behavior helps to communicate that positive behavior will get the attention of their parent.
Toddlers can have big emotions, and it is up to the adults in their lives to help them manage those big emotions. When they get upset, calm parents who model consistency help to reduce their feelings of frustration. Over time, children will learn to communicate their feelings in healthy ways.