You’ve probably heard about the “terrible twos” – but guess what? Tantrums can start earlier and can last until your child’s fully grown. We spoke to Chartered Psychologist Dr Adam Abdelnoor who shared his tips on riding the storm.
One minute your toddler is gazing at you like a lovestruck pup, hanging off your every word – next minute they change. Or at least that’s the way it can seem.
Suddenly your child’s favourite word is “No”, they struggle when you attempt to strap them in their buggy or car seat, create a scene in the chocolate aisle at the supermarket and run off when you call them back in the park. Welcome to the world of toddler tantrums.
Why do they happen?
“Be reassured that tantrums are very much part of normal child development,” advises Dr Adam Abdelnoor.
“It’s no reflection on your skills as a parent or the way you are managing your child. Tantrums are your child’s way of communicating what they want and need – and to start with crying may be their only way of communicating those needs.”
One in five two-year-olds will have a tantrum at least once a day – so you’re by no means on your own when it comes to coping with this.
When do they start?
“Usually around 18 months is the time when toddlers start having tantrums,” says Dr Abdelnoor.
“They are developing a sense of self and of being quite powerful. They think that if they cry they’ll get what they want immediately – but when this doesn’t always happen, they become frustrated and angry and cry louder.
“Tantrums are about them learning to manipulate you and other people around them. They are trying out strategies to see what works and gets them what they want. They are testing out the boundaries,” says Dr Abdelnoor.
How to handle them
It can be very upsetting if your toddler becomes agitated and starts screaming – especially if you are tired and coping with it alone and/or in addition to caring for other children in the family.
“The golden rule is not to get upset or lose your temper with them, though,” says Dr Abdelnoor.
“Although this can be very hard in practice – it is important you stay calm. Instead, try to find out what it is they want – try all the obvious things first such as whether they need a drink or nappy change, or are hungry.
“Sometimes, though, it will be a case of them wanting something they can’t have or can’t do – and you will have to explain this to them calmly.”
Coping strategies for parents
To a certain extent every parent will work out by trial and error the best ways of handling their toddler’s strops. Here are a few strategies to try:
- Distraction: Point to something outside the window or take out a toy and talk about it enthusiastically as if you are really interested in it to take their mind off their grievance.
- Ignore them: “This is just a question of waiting for their tantrum to pass and can be very hard to bear in the short term but will make it easier in the long term,” explains Dr Abdelnoor.
- Change the scene: “Try putting them in their cot or in a different room or taking them out for a walk.”
- Stick to your guns: “It’s important you be consistent and stick to what you said originally because if you give in to their demands they will learn that tantrums get them what they want,” explains Dr Abdelnoor.
- Negotiate: “If they are old enough to understand – perhaps three or four years old – negotiate a compromise with them, but one in which you set the terms. For instance, if they want another sweet, say yes, but only after tea and then it’s time for bed. They have to learn that you are in control, you are the head of the family hierarchy, and they are not the centre of the universe.”
- Reassure them you love them: Hug them and give them love but say you don’t like the way they are behaving.
Avoiding triggers for tantrums
If you can work out what is causing your toddler to go ballistic, it may be possible for you to avoid those triggers.
Common reasons for tantrums include getting overtired, hungry and thirsty. Regular mealtimes, a supply of healthy snacks, naps and a drinking cup of water they can carry around with them can help some of these situations developing.
Another trigger is your child wanting attention – so avoid having long phone coversations or checking emails when you could be doing something together. If you are busy, try to involve them in whatever you are doing, for example, when you are cooking or cleaning. Try eating together as a family or keeping fit together.
“It may be that you can just avoid some situations altogether – for instance, if they are always playing up for chocolate in the supermarket, avoid that aisle or go shopping without them,” advises Dr Abdelnoor.
“If they are too tired for tea time or bath time – bring it forward or or change their routine so they get a nap later in the day.”
How grandparents can help
“Grandparents can help reinforce your rules about behaviour – it’s ok for them to say your child can have two biscuits instead of one at their house – but they mustn’t undermine the rules you have at your house. Your child has to understand that their parents are the ones in charge – so don’t undermine each other either,” says Dr Abdelnoor.
For related information read our article on improving your child’s social skills.
Find out more about the child health care options available to your family. You can also discover more information in our Pregnancy and Childcare Centre or if you have a specific question, you can ask our experts.