Understanding & Taming Temper Tantrums

Most parents would probably agree that one of the more harrowing experiences of parenting is dealing with a young child’s temper tantrum. When faced with an out-of-control toddler, often in a very public place, parents can feel that time seems to stand still while their parenting resolve seems to melt away. Although unpleasant for both parents and children, temper tantrums don’t have to be something you fear. As with any thorny parenting issue, it’s helpful to understand tantrums from your child’s perspective and let that guide you when responding to them.

What are Temper Tantrums?

Temper tantrums are a part of childhood for most children. All children get cranky at times and will cry and get angry when they really want something they cannot have. Temper tantrums generally begin to occur when children are between 12 and 15 months old and can continue until around age 4. During a temper tantrum, a child may whine, cry, or shout; kick, hit, or pinch; flail their arms and legs; hold their breath; tense their body or go limp.

While the above may sound familiar to any parent who has experienced a child having a tantrum, it’s also important to know what they are not. Temper tantrums are not calculated efforts at manipulation but rather acts of desperation. As such, it’s helpful to understand why they occur.

The Meaning Behind Tantrums

It’s a popular misconception that young children have tantrums because they lack the language skills to express themselves. However, as Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper discuss in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “The issue isn’t your child’s communication skills; children who are convinced that they can engage their parents’ love and understanding will not have tantrums even when they haven’t developed effective language skills.” Although these children will still cry and protest at times, eventually they will accept a hug or try again to communicate their wishes.

If, on the other hand, children feel that their parents cannot understand them, they experience this breakdown in communication as a traumatic event instead of as a difficulty that they can come to accept or overcome. The response to this “communication breakdown” can prompt a temper tantrum.

Handling Tantrums—Availability vs. Absence

Given that a child is more likely to have a tantrum as a result of feeling that her parents are unreachable (either emotionally and/or physically) during a difficult moment, it’s important to make yourself more available, not less. This typically runs counter to the advice parents often receive about dealing with temper tantrums. It’s common to hear that a parent should ignore a child during a tantrum and physically isolate her and/or themselves. Parents are often advised to say things like:

  • “I can’t hear you when you scream like that.”