Taming Tantrums & Dealing with Distress

byAbram Sterne, Ph.D.

I have a problem with the word tantrum. But I can’t help but to use the word to describe my two and half year-old son lying down in the middle of the street stomping and crying as if the world were ending.

We use the word to describe the “terrible twos”, although tantrums can start earlier, and continue beyond into the fourth year and older. I know many adults who have anger outbursts that one could describe as a tantrum.

There are many reasons why kids have tantrums and that two-year olds are particularly susceptible. They are just beginning to learn language and become aware of the power of social communication and self-expression. It also marks the beginning of being able to reason, and the realization that things are not as readily available as once was thought (like parents and ice cream). The development of control and regulation begins, and for most two-year-olds, feelings are often big and bear-like. Most times it’s just easier to burst with frustration than trying to find ways to calmly explain and express.

There are problems with the word “tantrum.” It has an evaluative and judgmental ring to it, which often precludes the possibility of thinking about what a child is really reacting to. I also think that it can stop adults from having empathy with the child’s distress, which can often seem like an arbitrary and ridiculous reaction to a nonsensical situation. That’s why I like to think of a tantrum as an episode of distress – in which something is really bothering the child, and that part of our responsibility as caregivers is figuring it out.

When a child is having an episode of distress the obvious things to look for are the kinds of thing that can make anyone crabby and easily angered:

  • Hunger or thirst
  • Tiredness
  • Sensory overload (something too loud or too bright)
  • Physical discomfort (e.g., uncomfortable chair or scratchy clothing)

Of course, these things may also be part of the trigger of an emotional reaction that also about the child’s growing independence and wanting to test limits.

Of course not all children are alike. Some kids do just get more frustrated and frightened than others. There are some kids that have temperaments that just make them more susceptible to finding the world intimidating and/or frustrating. Typical temperament traits that one might consider could include:

  • Adaptability: The less well a child copes with transitions the more likely he or she will be susceptible to episodes of distress.
  • Approachability: Those children who find it more difficult to meet new people or start new routines (e.g., a new school) are also more likely to experience episodes of distress.
  • Intensity of feelings: A child with very strong feelings is more likely to display them in episodes of distress.
  • Sensory thresholds: When a child has low thresholds to noise or light, then he or she will also be more likely to have episodes of distress.

One of the main catalysts for distress is when a child — particularly a preschooler — experiences anxiety. Common causes for distress include separation anxiety (e.g., starting a new childcare setting), social anxiety (e.g., birthday parties), or specific anxiety reactions (e.g., fear of dog or cat).

So what to do with a child experiencing an episode of distress? Be ready for those common situations that trigger distress like the supermarket, dinnertime or bed time. Avoid triggering your own frustration (deep breathing and positive self-talk) and try to maintain empathy with what your child is experiencing. Use soothing feelings and words, and try to calm them physically. Actively listen and reflect back what the child is getting upset about. Avoid the use of threats, as making an already distressed child feel guilty won’t be helpful. Generally, punishments are unlikely to reduce the intensity and number of episodes of distress. Make choices as adults that model how to control our responses to our child. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. The chances are they will feel nothing but an understanding sympathy for you and your child.

Think of tantrums as a signal that your child is experiencing distress, and that it is an opportunity to learn what their buttons and triggers are, and thus to figure out ways to prevent them. Ultimately, prevention and emotional management goes a long way to helping a child and their parents stay sane in an episode of distress.