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Tantrums – The Top Three Reasons They Happen

No no no - Amelia Naomi Art
Amelia Naomi Art Instagram @amelianaomiart

Tantrums are alarmingly common these days.   Parents are often so overwhelmed by the intensity and/or frequency of their child’s tantrums, they begin to desperately research options to address the problem. If you are the parent of a child who has tantrums, you may be reaching that point yourself.  You may also be confused by the timing of your child’s tantrums.  Sure, he is upset that he can’t have a milkshake before dinner, but why did he also have a tantrum when you simply offered to tie his shoe before you all headed out the door?  Understanding WHY your child has tantrums is the critical first step toward the goal of everyone in your family having the peaceful, fulfilling, and tantrum-free life you all deserve. 

Of course, environmental factors can play a role.  If your child is tired or hungry, for instance, the likelihood of a tantrum can increase.  These circumstances may contribute to the problem at times, but they cannot explain a history of consistent and predictable tantrums.  So, why do children have tantrums?  Having worked with countless children who had a history of tantrums, I have analyzed these cases and come up with the top three (possibly surprising!) reasons that children have tantrums.  One or more of these factors is present in virtually every case of a child who has habitual tantrums.

1. The child does not feel competent

Children who feel empowered (and this is possible for a child of any age!) are more resilient and less defiant than children who doubt their own abilities.  Conversely, children who believe they are not capable of being self-reliant in even small ways begin to feel resentment.  Of course, it’s unlikely that children in this situation understand these feelings on a conscious level, but that does not prevent them from reacting to the unwanted feelings of dependency. 

According to Erik Erikson, an acclaimed developmental psychologist, children begin striving for a sense of autonomy as early as age 18 months old.  Of course, young children are still improving and developing in many areas, such as their fine and gross motor skills, but more and more they want to find those things that they ARE able to do which helps them come to the conclusion that they are competent.   This can be as simple as successfully figuring out a toy (putting the shape through the right opening, for instance), opening a canister of play dough independently, or verbally walking an adult through the steps of how to do something, demonstrating their knowledge. 

It’s not uncommon for parents to complain, “I tell him all the time how capable he is, but he doesn’t believe me.”  The issue here is that children will only believe something about themselves if they come to the conclusion on their own—based on their own experiences.  Parents can certainly facilitate this process in a few ways, though.  They can look for opportunities for their children to do things independently, allow for exploration even if it’s a little messy sometimes, encourage their children to “try again” instead of jumping in and doing the task themselves.  These are just a few examples.  These strategies are important, because children who decide they are not capable as individuals will ALWAYS be more defiant and have more tantrums that children who feel empowered and competent. 

2. The child does not know how to interpret his/her own emotions.

Children who have tantrums tend to be emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated.  They have the same emotions as adults might have in a given circumstance, but they often lack the self-awareness to know what is being felt.  As a result, they react to the emotion instead of understanding their feelings and choosing how to respond.  This can lead to a situation where children get confused about why they are being disciplined, because in their minds there is no separation between the emotion and the behavior.  So, a child who gets in trouble for hitting another child and then having a tantrum may mistakenly come to the conclusion that he or she is also being disciplined for feeling angry in the first place. 

The greater insight children have into their own emotions, the less likely it becomes that they will have tantrums or act out in other ways in response to their feelings.  Parents can help their children become more self-aware by reflecting their emotions back to them, using emotional language, and making it a point to express empathy for the emotion (including desires/wants) even when a limit has to be set for a behavior that is unacceptable.

3. Tantrums have worked for the child.

Children do what works for them.  Imagine a child who asks for a toy while shopping with his mother.  The mother calmly says “No” but she sees right away that her son is getting upset.  She tries to explain to him why he can’t have the toy, but instead of understanding he falls to the floor, screaming, crying, flailing his arms and kicking his feet.  The mother feels humiliated because she is in public, so she tries to resolve the situation by saying something like, “Ok, if you’re a good boy the rest of the time we’re in the store, I’ll get you the toy.”  By making the toy contingent on good behavior in the store, she may think she is effectively managing the situation, but in reality she has just made it more likely that her son will have tantrums again in the future.  After all, he got what he wanted after having a tantrum. 

The first step to addressing a pattern of tantrums is identifying the reasons behind the tantrums.  This short list provides food for thought and a few likely contributing factors.  If your child has a history of frequent tantrums, a Registered Play Therapist near you can help you and your child so that the behavioral outbursts become a thing of the past forever!