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toddler tantrum

Why toddlers have tantrums, how to avoid them & discipline techniques

Tantrums, defiance, bad behaviour and pushing the boundaries are words that we often hear in the same sentence as “toddler”. Those without children may say things like, “my child will never behave like that”, while parents are likely to respond, “just you wait and see”. The age group two to four years old is renowned for their outbursts, but not every situation needs to end badly for either the parent or the child.

Children & temper tantrums

A couple of years ago I found myself in the unfortunate position of being in a queue at the till of a busy supermarket. It was around 12.30pm on a Saturday. At the next till was a heavily pregnant woman with a full trolley and a toddler. The toddler was demanding a sweetie to which his mommy sweetly said, “no darling, its lunchtime”.

With that the toddler hit the floor and spun like a beetle on his back, kicking and screaming with arms and legs flailing. His mother was mortified and tried her best to get the child to stop. In the end the mommy was crying and the toddler had successfully disrupted matters to such an extent that the mother left her trolley at the till and walked out. The majority of the other people in the store were staring at her, some empathising with her and others with their own opinion on her parenting ability. My heart broke for both of them. How could this have ended better?

Why do young children have tantrums?

Most often a tantrum is the only way a young child can express their frustration. Children in this age group may have limited communication skills so letting you know how they are feeling gets acted out rather than verbalised. Not all children will fling themselves to the floor crying – kicking, hitting, biting, and breath holding are other forms of temper tantrums. Generally, as communication skills improve, so does a child’s behaviour.

Between the ages of two and four a child often wants to do and control more than he or she is capable of. This can certainly lead to a power struggle between the adult and child resulting in a tantrum.

These children are also testing boundaries as they begin to experience a sense of independence. Being told “no” when “I want to do it myself” is not going to go down well.

In addition, if your child is hungry, tired, overwhelmed or feeling ill then he or she is more likely to experience a meltdown of emotions, leading to a tantrum.

why toddlers have tantrums how to avoid them and discipline techniques: young girl screaming

Why are some children worse than others when it comes to tantrums?

There is no doubt that personality has a lot to do with this. Some children are just headstrong and want to do things their way more often. I don’t believe that any child sets out to embarrass mommy or daddy but if your child has a strong personality and is easily frustrated, then the chances of a tantrum when words fail them is more likely.

Older children who throw tantrums have usually learned that they can get their own way if they behave badly. If a tantrum is rewarded with something the child wants or if the child gets out of doing what they are told just because the parent is fearful of a tantrum, then this behaviour continues for way longer than it should.

How can I avoid my child having a tantrum?

Remember the toddler in the supermarket? It was midday, the little tiger was most likely tired and hungry. Mommy was busy shopping so probably not paying much attention to him and mommy was exhausted. All of these things would have been enough to trigger a meltdown. So here’s how this situation could have been avoided:

  • Planning ahead Shopping or doing an activity close to a meal or nap time is going to mean that you will be dealing with a miserable child. Instead the mommy should rather have embarked on her shopping at a time when her child would have coped better.
  • Let your child make appropriate choices Since it was lunchtime and the child was hungry, the mother could have offered an alternative to the sweetie. Perhaps having a snack box with her would have meant that the child could have chosen something other than a sweet. This would have curbed the hunger and given him a sense of control.
  • Praise good behaviour This child had been in a busy shop for a long time. He needed to be told what a good boy he was for being so patient and perhaps he should have also been rewarded before the meltdown happened. A simple hug or being told what a big boy he is may just have helped the child cope for a little longer.
  • Consistency A child that has a set routine and knows what to expect usually has fewer tantrums. Perhaps this child was used to grocery shopping with mom but his routine may have been disturbed. In cases like this the sleepiness, hunger and disruption to routine may have been the cause of the tantrum.

What should I do if my child is having a tantrum?

  • Distraction When it comes to discipline, I always advise parents to use this technique. Showing your child something new that’s unrelated to what the tantrum is about, or changing location may be all it takes to make the child forget their frustration. If your child is performing because he or she doesn’t want to follow an instruction, offer to help but ensure that what you asked is actually done.
  • Stay calm We know that children are really good at mimicking our behaviour so getting angry or shouting will only encourage this kind of behaviour in your child. It is really difficult to pick up a screaming, kicking child so simply removing yourself from the situation, as long as it is safe, is often all that is needed for the child to collect themselves.
  • Find a discipline measure that works for you If you have tried distraction and done all that you can think of to avoid a tantrum, then you may need to turn to a firmer form of discipline.

Disciplining a child without smacking them

Study after study has shown that hitting a child for bad behaviour is completely ineffective. In fact, it often rienforces the bad behaviour and a child who gets smacked will seldom learn to self-regulate. Methods which have been shown to be effective include:

Consequences Make sure the consequence for bad behaviour is appropriate and happens immediately after the episode. Let’s say your child is pouring water out of the bath and onto the floor. Suggest a different game but if another cup of water lands on the floor pull out the bath plug and bath time is done. Your little one will soon cotton on to the fact that mommy or daddy means business if he or she doesn’t comply.

Time out The theory behind time out is that it gives the child an opportunity to calm down and get back control. Choose a place that has no distractions but that is safe and within your view. The study or dining room are not particularly interesting but could be a good space to calm down in. Allow the child to go into that space and to choose when he or she has calmed down sufficiently to join you again.

If the child doesn’t co-operate, set a timer. Your kitchen timer can be very effective. Two or 3 minutes may be all that is necessary. When the bell rings the child can join you again. If you are not at home, then a couple of minutes of silence works a charm. We used to use this technique very effectively when our children were squabbling or getting out of hand.

The command for silence must be firm. The child has to sit still and keep absolutely quiet for a full minute. It doesn’t sound like much but a minute is a very long time for a little person. Time-out is effective if the child is being destructive or if the tantrum really escalates. I would use this sparingly because it does lose its effectiveness if over used.

Holding your child There may be times when your child is just seriously out of control. Biting, hitting, kicking or running into the street may require you to take swift action, especially when there is no time for a nice explanation and distractions. Should this happen, hold your child until he or she calms down. Once your child is calm you will probably be able to talk quietly and explain why the behaviour is unacceptable.

Can bad behaviour and tantrums mean that there is an underlying problem?

Being a parent is tough and it can be particularly difficult if you have a difficult child. Being aware that children do go through phases of saying “no” or throwing tantrums does help and certainly doesn’t mean that you will have a delinquent teenager. Having said this, some children can have behavioural disorders that may make schooling and socialising difficult for them in the future.

Experts agree that labelling a child as having a behavioural disorder under the age of five years old is not ideal. In this young age group it is really difficult to distinguish between what is normal and what is not. Taking the measures we have discussed above or perhaps getting help from a play therapist may provide your child with the skills to better explain feelings and frustrations.

Behavioural disorders include conditions like ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, the autism spectrum, anxiety disorders and depression. If you as parents are struggling with a child’s behaviour and feedback from nursery school is suggestive of a behavioural issue, then I would recommend that you speak to your healthcare practitioner.

Conditions such as autism are best addressed as soon as possible. Delays in speech, the inability to interact with others and delayed milestones can all be supported through early intervention.

It is not recommended that treatment for ADHD is started before the age of five years but support from a psychologist that uses behaviour modification methods may be of tremendous value.

why children have temper tantrums, how to avoid them and discipline techniques: cross young girl


Parenting is by far the toughest job but like all jobs, what you put in will definitely affect the outcomes. While no parent enjoys disciplining a child, we have to accept that this is one of the most important things we will ever do.

A child needs boundaries from an early age and this means well before his or her second birthday. There are various parenting styles and each of these will ultimately determine the type of adult you are grooming. The parent who has strict rules but who has empathy for the child and has good listening skills is seen to be the most effective. This style is known as authoritative parenting.

The parent who sets no rules and allows the child to behave as if the world belongs to him or her is likely to raise a child with poor self-esteem and a lack of self-control. The effects are seen well into the teenage years and often into adulthood.

The terrible twos and the trying threes are also very rewarding years for parents. These little tigers will reveal their personalities and give you a whole lot of joy while you provide them with a safe and secure home where their feelings are validated.








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