What causes tantrums?

Tantrums are normal in young children and are not something to fear or be concerned about as parents. There are also ways to manage tantrums using emotional regulation but, despite all of your best efforts, you can always expect to have a few tantrums at various times.

The reason for this is around your child’s emotions and emotional regulation abilities. Basically a tantrum occurs when a young child becomes overwhelmed with their big emotions. Children under 5 years of age do not have the brain development in their neo-cortex (thinking part of their brain) to rationalise and make sense of what they are feeling and how to manage these feelings. This is something they need to learn and have to be taught. They are unable to control their reactions and require guidance in how to calm down and make sense of what they are feeling.

That is why you see children tantrum for the seemingly smallest of things. You may even experience them throwing a tantrum when they get too excited. It is this overwhelm and flooding of emotion that overtakes them and they react to this in various ways. Often this entails crying, shouting, becoming destructive, hitting, kicking and throwing things, spitting and a range of out of control behaviours.

Pre-verbal (not speaking yet) toddlers can show concerning behaviours such as banging their head against a wall or biting themselves because they are very frustrated and scared of what they are feeling and have no way of asking for help. Slightly older toddlers can say ‘I’m mad!!’ or ‘I want to keep playing!’ but pre-verbal toddlers are unable to yet.

We need to help children understand what emotion/s they are feeling by naming and validating their feelings. We guide them by being accepting of all feelings and we help them to feel less overwhelmed by making feelings normal and ok. We help them by showing them what to DO when they feel this way and we stay present with them until they are able to calm down. If we punish, dismiss or ignore children when they are in this state, the behaviours will escalate as their emotional needs are not being met. That is often why behaviours tend to get a bit out of hand in families a lot of the time. We often try to appease children and avoid tantrums by giving in or distracting them with something fun. Children then learn that this behaviour WORKS and you will start to see an increase in acting out. It is important to be with them through it and if possible, be calm and model being calm to them. Children learn best by observing you.

When children are sick, tired or just feeling vulnerable, they will likely tantrum and act out more. Children also struggle with changes and transitions in the home, environment and family. Don’t worry if it feels like you are going backwards at these times, this is normal and to be expected (remember to nurture yourselves through these times because it is hard work!).

The trick is to understand what causes tantrums and recognise that your child is struggling to manage their feelings. They are learning this and it is an important developmental phase. Emotional regulation is something we learn from our parents and prominent adults in our lives. Being mindful of what is going on and teaching children how to manage/regulate their feelings is one of the biggest gifts you can give them. TFBB teaching you the 4 steps of emotional regulation and how to implement them.