Why infants experience tantrums and how to manage them

Firstly, it’s best to remind ourselves that tantrums are a normal part of development for children between one year and four years. Dr. Michael Potegal, Ph.D., a psychologist, and associate professor at the University of Minnesota Roughly researches tantrums and suggests that 85% of 2 and 3 year olds have tantrums. According to the National Association of School Psychgologists, tantrums generally begin to occur when children are between 12 and 15 months old then peak between 18 and 36 months, and continue until around 4 years old.

How would you feel if you were hungry and really wanted something to eat, and everyone thought you were saying “foot” instead of “food’?

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., (neuropsychiatrist), and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., (psychotherapist), wrote that children in this age group “haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment.” This is why they are oblivious to your concerns for safety, punctuality or whatever other reasons you have for wanting your child to stop or start doing something.

What To Do

  • Remaining calm and empathetic during your child’s tantrum is much more effective than a more harsh approach such as ignoring or punitive.
  • Having a plan in place in advance can go a long way to helping you remain calm when a tantrum strikes unexpectedly.
  • Rewarding good behaviour and attaching consequences to undesired behaviour is a way to help minimize tantrums. You just need to be sure it is ‘bad behaviour’ and not over-emotion.
  • Check in with a sleep professional that your child is getting enough sleep and that the sleep quality is sufficient. This is an extremely important point because toddler sleep isn’t just a luxury but an essential part of a young infants overall emotional and physical health. We all know how lack of sleep can affect our moods but a toddler, who has no way of controlling his emotions in general, will suffer more when sleep deprivation is added into the mix.
  • Tantrums can transform parents too, causing us to say and do things we will later regret, like yelling — or, worse, giving in to an infant’s demands. But, with a little thoughtful preparation, you can learn to head off many tantrums before they start.  React as calmly and constructively as possible when your cheeky monster does have a meltdown. When tantrums are unpreventable, learning to manage them is an essential part of any parent’s skill set, however unpleasant they may appear.
  • A parent’s goal is to reset the temperature and not to take it and respond to it. If you’re not calm yourself it is much harder for your child to calm down. Remind yourself that tantrums aren’t personal: It’s not your fault your child is having a tantrum, but it is your responsibility to help guide her out of it. Pause, and offer your child some loving reassurance. Take a deep breath. Count backward if that helps. If you’re having trouble keeping your cool, try to take note of why you might be struggling. Past experiences? Your own fatigue?
  • Here’s some wisdom that Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide” suggests: A parent should be the thermostat, not the thermometer.
  • This might seem obvious, but if your child is at risk of harming himself or others, or damaging property, quickly and calmly move him to a safer area. The advice to move him also applies if you’re in a public setting — a shop, a restaurant, a library and anywhere that a tantrum would be disruptive. Do whatever gets you out of that area quickly without being emotional yourself. Once your child is in a safe spot, you can attempt other tantrum-taming methods.
  • With a tantrum, what the child is really doing is trying to communicate something to you in the best way they can,” she said. Your child’s tantrum may be an expression of hunger, fatigue, sickness or simply frustration at not getting her way. Sometimes, with a little thought, the root cause of a tantrum can be identified and addressed.
  • Just as every child is different, every tantrum is different, too. Since no one method will stop every tantrum every time for every child, familiarize yourself with several different tantrum-taming techniques. Each of the following methods will become easier and more effective with practice.
  • Calmly offer to hug or to hold your child. This does not mean physically restraining your child, or expecting him to hug you against his will. But an expression of your love and affection may reassure your toddler who is probably feeling overwhelmed.
  • Distraction. If, for example, your child’s sibling has snatched his toy, you may be able to end the tantrum by offering him another one. Try changing the setting by moving to a different room, or putting on your child’s favorite song. The distraction method tends to work better with younger kids, whose memories are shorter and who may forget their frustrations from one moment to the next.
  • Ignore the tantrum but not your child. You should stay in the room and remain physically and emotionally available. You can, however, refuse to engage with the crying and screaming, and instead focus on helping your child with an unrelated need.
  • Research has shown, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls social and emotional behaviour, isn’t fully developed until we reach our 20s. Plan ahead by packing snacks when you venture out and, if possible, scheduling outings and activities around naps. Watch for tantrum warning signs, too, like extra-whiny or slightly manic behaviour.
  • Try to look ahead to address your particular child’s more individual triggers to trantrums. If leaving the park always proves problematic, make an exciting-sounding exit plan in advance. Give yourself extra time just in case your child does have a tantrum, so your frustration doesn’t make it worse.
  • Remember to notice when your little one is being positive, and reinforce that behaviour with praise and encouragement. Young children look for parental attention of any kind, so try to reserve your most intense reactions for behaviour you’d like to see repeated.

Over the last 30 years or so the vast majority of my work has been around correcting and helping parents managing infant behaviours (sleeping, feeding, social etc).  If you would like support with experienced advice, please do not hesitate to contact me to share your concerns and for an initial 20-minute assessment… It’s free prior to booking.