Dr. Mom: Understanding tantrums

09/06/2012 12:00 AM

09/05/2012 2:42 PM

Tantrums are fascinating. Not because I enjoy them or enjoy watching my children go through one, but mostly they're fascinating to me because so many of us misunderstand them.

Many of us interpret them simply as bad behavior. We're frustrated, angry maybe, and likely embarrassed if it happens out in public.

But the truth is a tantrum is a normal emotional milestone for a child.

It's not one that we celebrate or record in his memory book, but a milestone nonetheless. It's big emotion, uncertain of how to be expressed in another way. Especially if your little one is tired, hungry, overwhelmed or frustrated.

So much has been written about tantrums. Parents want to know: why, what can I do, and when will it stop?


Children have tantrums for a number of reasons, but at the heart of it is overwhelming emotion. It is rarely about the dropped cookie or the wrong color cup. These seemingly innocuous (to us) events are merely the "last straw" in the mind of a child on the cusp of a tantrum.

It could have been a long day; they are overtired, hungry, or frustrated because they cannot put their feelings into words. By the time a tantrum takes over, their emotions have already been on overdrive for quite some time.

Think of a child's tantrum as an emotional catharsis – necessary to release all that emotion so she can move on with her day. If supported and comforted through it all, you will have helped them up his emotional IQ.

What to do

In the midst of a terrible tantrum, it's very challenging to maintain our composure. We are also usually coming to the end of a long day and our patience is thin. However, knowing that your child's tantrum is neither a sign of bad behavior nor a direct affront to you may help you weather the storm.

Stay close and wait. At the height of a tantrum, anger seems to be the only emotion there, especially when your child is yelling "no!" or "you're mean!" However, researchers have discovered that behind it all is sadness.

Fight the urge to shut down the child's negative emotions. Allow it. You don't have to like it. But let it come out. It will be over a lot quicker if you do.

When the tide starts to turn, validate your child's feelings. It doesn't mean you have to give in and buy that stuffed animal that started this whole thing. Just say to your child that you understand, you know she wanted that toy and that's she is sad/mad about it.

Continue to empathize, reconnect, and hug when the worst of the storm has passed. You both will feel better. I promise.


Aside from doing your best to avoid the common tantrum triggers like fatigue, hunger, overstimulation and frustration, do your best to keep your child on as regular a schedule as possible. Children find incredible comfort in routine, and a significant change in that routine could spark an uptick in tantrums.

Not just for toddlers

Kindergarten can be a momentous time in a child's life when tantrums seem to resurface. Just remember, your 5-year-old may look and act like a "big kid" at school, but you can bet he's tired and a bit overwhelmed by the time he gets home. Help him through these transitions and tantrums by letting him know that his emotions are OK and that you're there to help him through it.

I definitely think it's time we rethink and reframe tantrums. They are not a sign of bad behavior or bad parenting – rather, a golden opportunity for us to help our children accept and manage their sometimes scary and big emotions.


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