You’re in the middle of the grocery store/preschool parking lot/a nice family brunch, when suddenly your tiny companion transforms into a shrieking, snotty, impossible-to-reason-with hellion before your eyes. The bad news is, yes, it’s a temper tantrum. But the good news is that these ferocious flip-outs are actually an essential step along your child’s journey from helpless lump to capable human.
The intense temper tantrum stage tends to start in the months leading up to a child’s second birthday and usually start tapering off in preschool. They happen when kids begin to seek independence and develop their own desires, “but there is a gap between what they want to do and what they can do, so they’re massively frustrated human beings,” says Ann Douglas, a parenting expert and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. That frustration, says Douglas, is compounded by extreme volatility (“the part of their brain that regulates emotional responses is still very much a work in progress”) and impulsiveness (“they are still developing the ability to weigh the pros and cons of their behaviour”).
While these extreme emotional outbursts can be a trying ordeal, they are also an essential stage in development. Douglas says viewing tantrums through this lens can help manage stress and frustration on the parental side. If not, she says, parents may end up trying to fix something that isn’t a problem and interfering with normal age-appropriate behaviour.
Here’s how to make the most of this growth opportunity.
If your partner comes home from work and tells you they had a horrible day, you wouldn’t respond by telling them their day wasn’t bad and they should cheer up. “Children need to be validated, just like adults,” says Douglas. So if the raincoat zipper is causing a cataclysmic reaction, try to see things from their perspective and teach them how to handle the frustration. Say something like, “You must be so upset that you’re trying so hard to get the zipper up, but it’s not working.”
“Learning how to calm down is a skill,” says Douglas—just like tying your shoes or learning times tables. Parents who are able to control their own reactions during their child’s emotional earthquakes are not just expressing their own maturity, but they’re also demonstrating behaviour a child can look to for inspiration.
Tantrums can feel like a form of emotional terrorism, so remember that it’s best not to negotiate. Otherwise, you risk falling into a pattern where a kid might view a freak-out as a means of getting what they want. “Look for a way to turn it into a win for both of you,” says Douglas. “So you could say, ‘You can’t play with the iPad right now, but you can go for a ride around the block on your scooter.’” Douglas says if your kid is still throwing tantrums by age five or six, it’s time to take a different approach. “At that stage, your kid should be able to identify that they are feeling frustrated and you can work on coping mechanisms and strategies together.” Either that, or it could be time to look at the cause behind the behaviour. “In slightly older kids, tantrums can be a sign of anxiety, which sometimes presents as aggression.”