This leaflet is provided by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the professional body responsible for education, training, setting and raising standards in psychiatry. They also provide readable, user-friendly and evidence-based information on various mental health problems.
What is a tantrum?
A tantrum is usually a short period of angry outburst or unreasonable behaviour such as crying, screaming, shouting and throwing objects.
What causes a tantrum?
This is a normal part of growing up. Between the ages of 1 and 4 years, most children will have tantrums. As children grow they are learning to become more physically independent. For example, they may want to play, want to dress and feed themselves, or pour their own juice. Your child therefore can get very upset if they are unable to do something or if they are stopped. A battle between freedom and frustration can lead to tantrums.
Tantrums can also occur when a child is:
- Feeling ignored.
- Worried or anxious - a younger child may be unable to tell you that they are anxious and they may cry, become clingy and have tantrums.
What can I do when my child is having a tantrum?
Your child's screams and yells can be alarming. You may feel angry, discouraged and hopeless. You will almost certainly be embarrassed if a tantrum occurs in a public place or in front of other people. It is not easy being a parent or carer of a toddler. However, it is important to set the rules, so your child learns to deal with their emotions. Remember, it is only natural that children will try to push the limits. Here are some ideas which may work for you and your child.
- Don't panic. The main thing to do is to stay calm and not to get upset. Just remind yourself that this is normal, that lots of parents do deal with it, be reassured that you will manage this too.
- Ignore the tantrum. You should calmly continue with whatever you are doing - chatting to someone else, packing your shopping or whatever. Every so often check to make sure your child is safe. Ignoring your child is very hard, but if you answer back, or even smack them, you are giving them the attention they are demanding.
- Be consistent with rules. You are trying to teach your child that rules are important and that you will stick to them.
- Pay attention to any good behaviour. As soon as you see any signs of calming down - eg, they stop screaming - praise them. Turn your full attention back to the child, talk to them with warmth and admiration. If you reward the new behaviour like this, your child is more likely to stay calm and carry on being good.
What can I do to prevent temper tantrums?
Planning ahead can help to avoid a tantrum, if you know when they are likely to occur or notice a pattern your child shows before having a tantrum. Here are some examples:
- Manage boredom when in a waiting room by taking their favourite books and toys to the doctor's surgery with you.
- Storing their favourite biscuits out of sight, rather than where they can see them.
- Manage a tired child by giving them an afternoon nap, instead of staying awake all day.
- Manage hunger by offering a snack after nursery at 3.30 pm, instead of having to wait until 5.00 pm for tea.
- Distraction can help - you may be able to avoid a tantrum by diverting your child's attention.
Where can I get help?
Talking problems over with other parents, family or friends is often useful. Talk to your child's teachers, as there may be a similar problem at nursery or school.
If this does not help and the tantrums are getting you down, ask your health visitor, school, practice nurse or general practitioner for advice. Many parents and carers find parenting programmes like Triple P or Webster Stratton groups helpful. Sometimes more specialist help from child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) may be required, especially when there are other worrying difficulties for the child, or when tantrums occur too long and often, with the child hurting themself or others.
- Bailey S, Shooter M (eds) The Young Mind: An Essential Guide to Mental Health for Young Adults, Parents and Teachers. RCPsych Publications, 2009.
- Rutter M, Bishop D, Pine D, et al (eds) Rutter's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (5th edn). Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
Content used with permission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists website: Dealing with tantrums (March 2012, due for review March 2014). Copyright for this leaflet is with the Royal College of Psychiatrists.