Temper tantrums – Why does my child have them?

If you are a parent you may be familiar with temper tantrums, maybe even too familiar. When your child does this (and let’s be honest, they are almost always in public spaces with loads of spectators around) it is never a nice feeling. I know you may think your child is being mean to your, or doing this on purpose, but most of the time this is the result of their undeveloped higher brain.

A temper tantrum is challenging not just for your child, who is trying to deal with certain emotions, but also for yourself. The most important part is to understand why your child has that tantrum and how you can act to help him overcome the situation in a productive way.

There are different types of temper tantrums, which determine our child’s behaviours and need in those moments.

The distress tantrum happens because the brain pathways are still underdeveloped, and the child has no mean of managing their feelings. This is when your child needs you to be calm and soothing instead of angry at them. If you respond with anger to the distress tantrum, this may get your child quieter, but it won’t solve the underlying cause of his action, which is the inability to cope with huge feelings. Receiving a kind response from you, will help him learn how to calm himself down and how to cope with big feelings like frustration or disappointment.

The Little Nero tantrum is all about manipulation. This happens when your child is looking for ways to get what they want, be that attention or a toy. With this mechanism, they bully the people around them until they receive what they were looking for. If you reward their behaviour by giving in to their requirements, either because you are tired or ashamed that everyone around is looking at you, this just enforces the fact that if they scream or throw things around they can get whatever they wanted in the first place. The risk in this situation is not only that they won that ‘fight’ but in time, they could grow up being bullying adults. The best way to deal with this tantrum is to ignore your child, don’t try to reason with them, don’t negotiate but do give them clear boundaries and use a calm, quite voice.

Even if you know the difference between the types of tantrums, they are not always so easy to differentiate. The ultimate goal you have is to soothe your child, even if you sometimes have to take a deep breath (or two) before you react; just let them know you are there to help with their pain, but not to be controlled or threatened.


Margot Sunderland, ‘What every parent needs to know’

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