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How to respond to my child's intense tantrums

Updated: Jan 30

a cute girl throwinbg a tantrum, in the style of a flat digital illustration, pastel dark blue and purple as main colour

Child tantrums can be exhausting and confusing - for the child, who might collapse exhausted at the end, and for parents who hardly recognize their child in such moments. These outbursts are often linked to the "terrible twos." They can be unpredictable, sometimes emerging out of the blue. While causes like fatigue or frustration are identifiable, not always. Especially concerning are the times when children become so overwhelmed that they hit other kids/siblings or break objects.

Understanding and Handling Children's Tantrums

Reasons Behind Child Tantrums

Tantrums vary in intensity and underlying reasons. Often, they stem from an unmet need that attentive parents can identify. Many experts prefer the term "tantrum outburst" as the anger seems to burst out of the child.

Hysterical Tantrums

Some tantrums appear almost hysterical. The child screams as if in pain, making parents feel helpless and sometimes even angry, despite their best efforts. It's essential to remember that children up to six or seven can't easily control their emotions. They often get overwhelmed. If they're already stressed, tired, or tense, the tantrum can seem hysterical to parents.

Staying calm is vital. Deep breathing can help release tension. Assure your child that everything's okay, and offer physical comfort, like hugs or gentle strokes. If the child resists, wait patiently and convey calm reassurance. Some kids might benefit from venting their anger, like punching a pillow.

Sudden Tantrums

These outbursts sometimes seem to come out of nowhere. Just moments after being in a good mood, a child might suddenly erupt. This behavior is tied to the previously mentioned lack of self-control. The approach remains the same as with hysterical tantrums.

Remember: your child isn't doing this deliberately. They're overwhelmed. Unexpected tantrums sometimes help children relieve stress. Therefore, organizing the daily routine to avoid undue stress can help.

Extreme Defiance in Children

Between ages two and six, tantrums often relate to perceived defiance. Instead of calling it the "terrible twos," consider it the "autonomy phase." During this time, children strongly sense their own will but struggle to understand why they can't always get their way. This mismatch leads to frustration, further complicated by limited impulse control.

Providing choices (e.g., "Do you want the pink or green jacket?") can cater to a child's need for autonomy. However, tantrums will still occur. During these times, a mix of empathy and logical consequences works best. Expressions like, "I wish I could grant us an extra hour right now!" can help convey understanding.

Tantrums are a Part of Healthy Development

Between ages one and a half to four, children discover their individuality, seeking independence and showcasing their abilities. This exploration often leads to frustration: their arms might be too short to reach a desired toy, or their motor skills might not be developed enough to put on stockings. It's a phase filled with challenges. Parents need to support rather than reprimand. Encouraging words and actions, inspired by educator Maria Montessori's principle, "Help me do it myself," can be beneficial.

A child's brain also plays a role in tantrums. The upper half, responsible for control, rational thinking, and reasoning, is still developing. In contrast, the lower half, which manages feelings and instincts, is almost fully developed at birth. Hence, emotions in children are intense, and they have little to counteract them.

Moreover, young children struggle to express their feelings verbally. This makes it even harder for them to calmly explain their emotions.

Properly Reacting to Tantrums

Tantrums can be challenging for adults too, eliciting strong emotions rooted in their own childhoods. Staying calm is crucial. If needed, leave the room briefly and take deep breaths.

It's helpful to know that most tantrums last between 5-15 minutes. However, some children might take longer to calm down.

If your child is aggressive during a tantrum, the primary response should be calmness. Always remember, they aren't doing it deliberately. Expressing your observations without judgment can also help the child understand their emotions.

Tantrums as a Sign of Exhaustion

Sometimes, tantrums are a sign of exhaustion. Consider if your child's daily routine is too hectic. Prioritize quality time and relaxation over packed schedules.


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