What is normal?

Is it normal for a child to have a tantrum? Yes! Tantrums are a normal and expected part of a child’s development. They start happening from around 18 months, and they’re actually quite useful in terms of child development, as we’ll explain later on. 

Why do children have them?

Tantrums happen when a child is feeling overwhelmed by an intense emotion that they aren’t able to process.

Whilst a tantrum can be sparked by many different reasons, the underlying issue is that a child is expressing an emotion which is ‘too big’, unknown, unmanageable, and overwhelming. It could be frustration, a desire to be more independent, a scary new experience, jealousy, or anger etc.

Letting it all out by having a tantrum is the way they feel able to express how they feel.

Some children might also have a tantrum as a way to be ‘seen’, and to get the attention they crave.

It’s important to remember that, no matter how trivial the reason for the tantrum may seem to you, it is a real and important feeling to them.

As they get older, children do need to learn other ways that they can express their feelings in a safe way, and they need to learn to manage intense emotions. Children do gradually learn these things as time goes by, but the only way to really work this out, is for them to actually start having the tantrums to begin with.

Why is it important for you to step in with your support?

When a tantrum happens, it's your role to help a child to moderate and contain the child's feelings.

Whilst it’s normal for the child to feel them, it’s not pleasant for them to be overwhelmed by them, and it’s also not ok for them to act them out in a physically aggressive way. For example, whilst anger may be a completely understandable feeling for a child to have, without help it can be a very scary feeling that could lead to a child withdrawing or becoming aggressive.

Children’s tantrums will reduce around the age of four. But this is not something they necessarily grow out of automatically. How we help toddlers with this behaviour is an important part of their development.

If they don’t receive any help from adults, they won’t have any resolution for the difficult feelings they had that lead to the tantrums to begin with. They also may not learn the skills they need to regulate themselves.

If they do receive help from adults, eventually the tantrums should decrease, and the feelings will become less overwhelming.

Some way to help a child who is having a tantrum

Talk to them – but keep it really slow and simple

If you try to talk to a child when they are feeling enraged or overwhelmed, they won’t always be able to process and understand what you are saying to them. So, when you speak, it might help to say each word very slowly and calmly and use just very simple language.

Your calmness and your soft, slow and gentle tones may rub off on them and help them regulate their emotion. Sometimes it’s just necessary to be present as a calm figure whilst the child is ‘letting off steam’ or having an emotional outburst. Let them know that you’re there with them and they are not alone. Help them feel that the tantrum they are having is manageable, and not a cause for alarm. A child should always feel that they are in a safe environment whenever tantrums occur, and that there is help at hand.

Give them a hug

A hug can soothe and calm and make a child feel safe. They may be feeling alarmed by their own behaviour.

Mention the incident that made them react, but in a way that shows you understand the reason for their reaction

Think about what might have caused the anger or emotion to rise in the child. if you know what it was, you could also spell out what you think is happening for them at the same time in a way that makes them feel understood. If they were being e.g. “I know that it can make you feel bad when someone takes away a toy.”

If they are tearful, suggest they come with you to wash their face

Sometimes the act of putting cool water on their face will have a calming effect and help them regulate their emotions. This will also help the child feel that you are there for them and attending to their needs.

Encourage them to burn off some energy

Find a way to get rid of the physical feelings. You could encourage them run to the end of the playground and back, or to jump or stamp.

Distract them

You could try and distract them by pointing at the sky and ask them to count the clouds or point to an interesting item in the classroom – or talk about a topic that you know interests them. (But do avoid giving treats to make them feel better. Giving a child something like a sweet to get them to stop behaviour can actually prompt them to do it again.)

Suggest they come to your setting’s ‘quiet space’

If you have one, suggest they walk with you to the special class ‘quiet space’ to calm down and regulate their feelings.

Suggest the child label the emotion they are feeling

Help the child find words to name the particular feeling they might have. You could also get them to think about how it’s affecting them or their body.

Maybe you can ask them to explain to you how they are feeling, or where and how they feel it in their body (e.g. “does it make your head feel funny, or your heart race?”) This will also help them to talk about them and explore their feelings.

Tell them to take a number of deep breaths, or ‘scrunch and release’.

You might like to tell them to breathe whilst taking deep breaths at the same time so they can copy you. Another calming exercise is to tell them to scrunch up their face or fists and then release them.

Tell them to count to 10

Ask for help if you need it

Sometimes we all need to ask for help – so don’t be afraid to ask colleague to help you.

If children get this kind of help from you, they will soon start to learn how to do these things themselves and move towards being able to regulate themselves.

So, as you can see, it is actually pretty necessary for a child to have tantrums so they can learn different ways to manage them. It’s also important for children to feel safe enough to be able to express all their emotions, to learn about their feelings, and feel that they are being heard by the adults around them. Sometimes they need to have their feelings communicated back to them in a way they can understand.

Thing to consider when parents or carers are struggling to manage their child’s tantrums

When an adult is helping a child with the feelings that they’re experiencing, they will need to help them understand what they’re feeling and why. They also need to give them guidance on how to manage the feelings.

Whilst it is a good thing if a child can express themselves, even if it’s via a tantrum, that doesn’t mean this behaviour isn’t difficult for parents and carers. Tantrums may bring up many feelings for adults too – therefore it’s important for parents to be aware of their own emotional responses.

For example, a parent might feel ashamed or embarrassed when this happens or feel stressed if they’re surrounded by other parents.

This might mean that it’s a struggle for them to be curious about what’s going on for the child at the time of the tantrum.

This could be especially hard for parents who didn’t have this kind of support when they were younger, or who find these aspects of parenting testing. It’s especially difficult if they are in a stressed place themselves or are battling with other fears and worries. (For example, they might be coping with daily struggles such as getting through the week, battling with the shops and food preparation, or lack of sleep. Or their worries could be revolving around their financial situation or a relationship breakdown).

Parents should be aware that the most important part is for them to get themselves into a place where they can be curious about the child’s mind, so they can start to help them to understand their emotional state.

Top tips for parent and carers on managing tantrums
  • Encourage parents and carers to be curious as to why the tantrum may be happening – what might be going on for the child. However, acknowledge that this can be hard if they’re feeling embarrassed, about to lose their temper, or feeling overwhelmed. Encourage them to focus on trying to stay calm, because it’s hard to figure out what’s going on if feeling stressed. Ideas for staying calm could include taking a deep breath or counting to 10.
  • Support parents and carers to think about what might be going on for the child, and then respond. Such responses could include, the parent and carer naming what they think is happening for the child, offering them a hug, helping the child to get rid of the physical feelings (e.g. to run around or dance) or finding a distraction.
  • Sometimes it may just be important to be a calm figure nearby whilst they’re letting ‘off steam’ and knowing that when they’ve calmed down, you’re there with them. This may sometimes be in the same room or nearby, and other times it may be with more space between yourselves (ensuring they’re physically safe and know you’re accessible if they want you). Other ways to help could be to create a story or to play a game.
  • Let parents and carers know that this doesn’t mean that their boundaries should change. It’s important to be curious about what their child is feeling but it doesn’t mean that they should respond to the tantrum by giving in to their desires. For example, they may be very upset they can’t buy sweets on a shopping trip. Naming this upset is helpful but it would be important to clarify that sweets are not what they’re buying on this trip. Buying the sweets would signal to the child that having a tantrum is a way for them to get what they want.
  • Let parents and carers know that there is an important distinction between a ‘distraction’ and a ‘bribe’. A distraction may be to point to something else, whilst a bribe would be to offer them something if they stop. Namely a distraction would be to start animatedly looking at the clouds and trying to count them, whereas a bribe would be to give them some sweets to keep quiet.
  • An important part of all of this, is sometimes we all need to ask for help. This may be from friends or family, or it may be asking a professional.
The impact of the health crisis

There are numerous different ways the current health crisis will be impacting you and the children in your care. You may now be with your children for more time, or in confined spaces. The routine for you all may have changed dramatically, and children will not have been able to access outdoor spaces for play in the same way. They may also feel a loss for the friends and family members they were used to seeing (for example, at nursery or grandparents). All of this impacts our patience as adults, and the children will be confused and possibly scared.

Whilst things are so uncertain, it is important to try to continue focusing on ways you can try to keep yourself in a calm state of mind. This will look different for each adult but will include also ensuring you have time to try and work out how you’re feeling. For a child, they’ll need age appropriate explanations, as much of a routine as is possible and help understanding their emotions (for example, how difficult it must be that they can’t play at the park so to create a mini indoor ‘assault course’ to burn off some energy instead).

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