Dr. Claire Conlon
Senior Clinical Psychologist
Temper tantrums are among the most common childhood behavioural problems especially between the ages of 1 and 3 years. These tantrums or extreme episodes of frustration or anger, can take the form of shouting, screaming, crying, falling to the floor, flailing arms and legs, hitting, kicking, throwing items, and engaging in breath holding spells.
Children who are tired, hungry, unwell, or frustrated may have limited coping skills and therefore engage in challenging behaviour. Additionally, children who are struggling to communicate their needs or feelings will engage in these negative type behaviours in order to try and seek support to be understood, get support from parents (attention), get what they need and avoid what they don’t want to do.
It is widely recognised that these tantrums are a normal part of development as the child learns to control his/her emotions, gain independence and increase their communication around their needs. They are rarely considered a serious emotional disturbance in children between the ages of 12 months and 4 years.
Tantrums in older children may indicate that the child has not yet learned to cope with his/her emotions. As children grow older they learn how to communicate their needs and wants to those around them and learn how to act appropriately, rather than communicating through tantrums. As a result, these temper tantrums typically decrease in severity, frequency and duration as the child ages. Temper tantrums that do not appear to be decreasing as the child ages, or occur alongside sleep disorders, aggression, enuresis (bed wetting) or development concerns, may require support from your local primary care team. However, generally with some specific support, tantrums can be both prevented and when they occur, managed effectively.
Children with disability often struggle with behavioural difficulties more frequently than their peers without disability. Children with delayed language, neurodevelopmental conditions like ASD and ADHD, delayed development and sensory needs can all display behavioural challenges that might require more tailored support to match their needs. Challenging behaviour in disability is often a result of a lack of understanding, frustration, dysregulation (the body feeling overwhelmed by input of any kind), social difficulties, sensory needs and challenges expressing their wants and needs. In this case, often basic or well know strategies require some tweaking to fit with the child’s needs in that moment. There are some strategies like time out that also might not work or be appropriate for these children. In this instance it requires a parent to sometimes think about developing a specific set of resources for their child that helps prevent these
behavioural challenges from occurring, while also teaching their child ways and skills to manage their frustration in certain environments and situations.
A big part of managing behavioural difficulties is considering how we as parents and caregivers, can both help the situation and occasionally without our meaning to, reinforce the behaviour in our own actions. Often these can be very subtle and require a parent to pause and think rather than react in the moment. Examples like immediately removing a child from a situation when they display a tantrum means that this child may learn that having a tantrum in this environment gets me out of the situation and therefore it might be something we see again. Taking the time to understand what is happening, what your child might need and what you might need in that moment can be enough to allow you to develop a plan that works to reduce behavioural difficulties in any child and give you the confidence to respond in a way that is also supportive of their needs and effective. Children will be children which means they are bound to have behavioural difficulties at frequent intervals and similarly adults are only human and are bound to have bad days. We just need to find a way to manage these challenges as best we can!
See the workshop on ‘Managing difficult behaviours’ on the website for ways to learn more about behavioural challenges. The workshop for parents focused on understanding, responding to and preventing temper tantrums!