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How to tackle my child’s tantrums  

Do you find yourself wondering if your child will ever stop having tantrums? I’m sure there are many mothers and fathers reading this blog, who have found themselves at their wits end trying to figure out how and why their child doesn’t seem to be able to make it through those ‘terrible twos’.

Does your child find it hard to accept being told no? Do they get upset when you ask them to tidy their toys away for bedtime, or to share their toys with their siblings? It can be exhausting as a parent trying to piece together how to help your child (toddler or otherwise), work through these tantrums and communicate more effectively.

Here at First Bridge Centre the children we teach, and support often have difficulty with communication, and other language and behavioural-based skills, for example expressing their wants and needs with words, pictures, or signs, transitioning from activities they enjoy, and accepting that sometimes, you just can’t have that chocolate from the shelf in the supermarket. These delays in their skills, language, and behavioural development, are often a key contributing factor to those ‘impossible to figure out’ tantrums. We always want and need to remember, that all behaviour happens for a reason!

First – Figuring out the why?

Figuring out why the tantrums are happening is the first step towards helping your child communicate more effectively. In behavioural science, there are likely three main reasons (we call these functions) for your child’s tantrums:

  • Wanting to Escape or Avoid something they don’t like or isn’t preferred by them (e.g., bedtime, dinner time, nursery)
  • Wanting to Access something preferred (e.g., a toy from a sibling, an ice cream from the shop, their favourite snack from the fridge)
  • Wanting your Attention (e.g., cuddles from Mummy/Daddy, a reaction (good or bad) from a sibling, praise/reactions from a teacher)

Next – Figuring out the how?

Once you think you have a good idea of why your child is engaging in tantrums, it’s time to understand how you can help them communicate more effectively, without the need for a ‘meltdown’. In behavioural science, there are two key components to consider when approaching how to deal with (and hopefully reduce) your child’s tantrums:

  • Antecedent strategies (Things you can do before the tantrum occurs, so that your child does not need to tantrum)
  • Appropriate consequences (Things you should ideally do following a tantrum, to help reduce the likelihood of the tantrum in the future)

It is vital that you always identify ‘why’ before you apply the ‘how’ – if you don’t do this, it is likely you will miss the key reasons your child is communicating through tantrums, and that they will continue to happen.

To help we have provided some examples below based on each ‘why’ e.g., the function of the behaviour, followed then by the ‘how’ dependent on each reason for the tantrum.

Escape/Avoidance 

You might see that when you ask your toddler to “tidy up” their toys, “get ready for bed” or to “wash hands” after dinner, that they begin to have a tantrum. This could be due to them wanting to escape or avoid that specific demand. This could be because they prefer to stay up late playing with toys, rather than going to bed. They may not want to wash their hands because they do not like the feeling of the soap or the water. Here are some examples of how you could approach these scenarios:

Antecedent strategies: 

  • It can be a good idea to save something your child loves, to offer up as a ‘promise’, if they listen to you. It’s important your child knows this is available before they start having a tantrum, rather than after! If they walk nicely with you to the bathroom, and wash their hands, give them a big hug, and say how proud you are, and deliver that favourite toy or food item straight away.
  • Provide lots of praise for the small things. We want to make sure we don’t take them doing the things you ask them to do for granted. You want them to learn that doing more of what Mummy and Daddy say, is a good thing that leads to good things. Praise them when they do listen to you. When they do tidy up their toys without a tantrum say, “I love the way you tidied your toys away, good job” and when they go to bed without a fuss, give them extra story time and hugs. This will help them begin to learn and understand that you are asking them to do things, and them not having a tantrum, will lead to good things for them.

Consequences 

  • It is important that you follow through with your demands and what you have asked them to do. You do not want your child to learn that throwing a tantrum will lead to them getting more time with their favourite toys, or delay bedtime. Support and help them to complete the task you have asked them to do, and make sure to give them lots of feedback when they start doing the right things “thank you that’s tidying up your toys for Mummy”.

Access to Tangibles 

Tantrums can happen when you’ve said “no” to crisps before dinner, when their favourite toy is out of reach or packed away, or when their sibling might be playing with the trains they want. In this instance, your child is likely engaging in a tantrum in the hope of gaining access to the thing they want.

Antecedent strategies: 

  • If you’re planning to say no to something you know they want, it is always a good idea to offer them an alternative that could act as a distractor. For example, you can say, “You can’t have crisps right now because its nearly dinner time, but I can get you some juice?”.
  • If your child is having difficulties with their communication and language skills, and therefore need to tantrum as a way of getting you to understand them, begin to teach them an alternative way to ask. You could teach them to point to the things they want, or prompt them to make a sign or gesture, exchange a picture of the item, or you can model the word or phrase for them to use if they can speak “there’s no need to cry, you can just say Daddy I want more chocolate”. Once they perform the alternative to the tantrum, deliver the thing they want.
  • If their siblings or friends are playing with something they want, you can model and praise them for sharing. “I love how you’re letting your friends play with your toys”. Give them praise and things they like when they are sharing and make sure when they do share, they also get a turn to play when they are not upset.

Consequences: 

  • Let your “no” mean “no”. Make sure to follow through if you say no, and don’t be tempted to give in and let them have something you’ve already said no to, following a tantrum. If a tantrum occurs, try to distract by redirecting them to a different activity (this should not be something they enjoy doing, but something more neutral to distract).
  • If the tantrum occurs due to a lack of communication skills, calmly ask them to calm down and wait for five to ten seconds to pass without them crying or having a tantrum. Once this time passes, model or prompt the appropriate communication (speech, visuals, sign, or gesture) to get them what they want e.g., juice.

Attention 

You may see that tantrums can happen when you are talking to your friend and not paying attention to your little one, or when you’re busy cooking or maybe when you’re on the phone. This outburst could be due to them purely wanting your attention. If you think this is ‘why’, follow some of the advice below:

Antecedent strategies: 

  • Remember to plan time in your day to spend one-on-one time with your child. Play games, try new activities, or read some books. If they get to spend lots of high-quality time with you throughout the day, it is less likely they will want your attention, for the very little time you need to be doing other things.
  • Praise them when they are being independent from you. If you see them playing nicely on their own, let them know how well they are doing, giving them lots of your attention when they are doing all the right things.

Consequences: 

  • Where possible, ignore this tantrum. You need to make sure to keep them safe throughout the tantrum but try not to give any additional attention such as talking to them, engaging in lots of dialogue whilst the tantrum is happening, or offering up things they like such as hugs and kisses during the meltdown. Wait until they have started to calm down, and reinforce them calming down, with your attention and a hug.

Tantrums can be distressing for both the parent and the child. We hope that the strategies provided here can help you to begin to understand why they might be happening, and how to help your child become a happier, and calmer communicator.

Joey Nichols, MSc., FBC Room Lead