What is a Toddler Tantrum?
Toddler tantrums can feel stressful, unpleasant, and extremely challenging for any parent! Tantrums are brief episodes of extreme frustration and aggression often displayed by children as a response to not being able to adequately communicate their needs. The episodes are usually inappropriate to the situation and may include whining, crying, kicking, flailing, and sometimes even hitting.
Why do Toddlers Have Tantrums?
Typical tantrums occur when a toddler wants access to something they can’t have (e.g., cries because they want to play on their iPad before dinner time), wants to escape an unpleasant situation (e.g., whines about having to complete homework), or wants to get their parent’s attention (e.g., screams because you’re on the phone and they want you to play with them). Tantrums can even be a response to sensory overload.
Toddler tantrums usually occur between the ages of 1 and 3 and are part of typical child development. Around this age range, children are just learning how to communicate and do not always know how to express their needs verbally. Children may have tantrums when they feel tired, upset, hungry, uncomfortable, or frustrated. Depending on their temperament style, some children may have tantrums often and others rarely.
It can be helpful for you to think of tantrums as how children sometimes respond when they are in a situation they don’t have the skills to handle and are overwhelmed with emotion. For a child to successfully manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors requires a great deal of self-regulation. A tantrum is a tricky situation— as parents, we don’t want to reinforce tantrum behavior (by giving in to any demands, for example), but we do want to teach kids adaptive skills (like coping and self-regulation) to help them grow.
Children with frequent tantrums may have skill deficits that need to be addressed. In other words, they may lack the ability to handle the big emotions they are experiencing. This may include communication, emotional regulation, impulse control, problem-solving, and/or self-soothing deficits.
What to Expect When it Comes to Toddler Tantrums
Typical toddler tantrums can occur once a day and last between 1-15 minutes. The severity and frequency of the tantrums typically decrease as a child gets older and language skills develop. Although tantrums are typical in a child’s development, atypical ones can present behavioral disorders. Atypical tantrums may occur more than 5 times daily and last more than 15 minutes. Extreme aggression, including the destruction of objects, is atypical and may indicate the need for a consult with a healthcare professional.
It is important to note that tantrums should be handled differently depending on the situation or trigger. It is important to consider the request your child is asking and what is causing them to be so upset. For example, if your child is tired or hungry, it is important to respond to their needs by providing the opportunity for a nap or snack. Parents need to remember that tantrums are often not willful, they are learned responses. Our goal is to help children learn to meet their needs in more adaptive ways.
Importance of Co-regulation
Co-regulation involves warm and responsive interactions that allow children to understand, express, and modulate how they think, feel, and behave.
A parent’s warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity will help you build a stronger relationship with your child and increase effective communication. Providing consistent and predictable routines and expectations will increase a child’s sense of security and limit environmental stressors.
Through teaching, coaching, modeling, and practicing, these skills will support children as they develop their own means of self-regulation. An appropriate analogy is that of a sports team coach: You first teach your child these skills, then provide support and coaching where necessary by talking them through and modeling them. This will enhance their self-regulation.
The brain forms neural connections through experience, and tantrums count as experiences! When we help children regulate their emotions during a tantrum, they form new connections in the brain. This co-regulation molds the brain – helping the child learn essential skills and build connections they can activate again and again.
And guess what? The more often a child experiences that skill-building experience, the stronger those connections become – and thus, the stronger the child’s emotional regulation abilities! In contrast, if a child feels resentment, anger, and punishment when they have a tantrum, they will have a much harder time developing those skills and dealing with difficult emotions.
Now that you are familiar with toddler tantrums, you can learn how to avoid them by reading Stopping Toddler Tantrums.