Tantrums…. Easily one of the most feared aspects of raising young kids. I haven’t met a single parent yet who didn’t loath tantrums with a passion! Frequently occurring in public, most of us have experienced that moment when you mentally consider selling your child to the circus when he gloriously begins to scream, kick, and throw himself to the floor in a rage because you didn’t buy him something in the toy aisle.
As a therapist, one of the most frequent questions I get is how to manage these behaviors so that they don’t get worse! Today, I’m going to cover this popular topic by giving you some insight as to why kids tantrum. Being able to understand the “why” is a hugely important step in solving the problem. Once you have pinpointed the “why,” you’ll have a clearer idea of what you will need to do to correct the behavior.
The “Why” Behind Tantrums
We should start off by noting that ALL behavior in children serves a purpose. Whether your kiddo is being cuddly, to saying his “please” and “thank you's,” to anger outbursts, all behaviors serve a greater purpose. From fulfilling an emotional need for comfort, to trying to assert independence, and so on, behaviors are all geared toward something. As such, whenever we encounter a behavior we don’t want, such as biting, hitting, or tantrums, we should be motivated to try and understand the “why” behind the behavior (i.e. What purpose does the behavior serve?). In knowing what the purpose is, you’ll be able to begin developing ways your child can have that need met that doesn’t include the undesirable behavior.
In young children, tantrums arise for a variety of reasons, but the common reasons are usually centered around a lack of vocabulary for self-expression, difficulty regulating their emotions, poor modeling from primary caregivers, and parental reactions to the child’s behavior. For the purpose of this post, it’s really difficult to go into a detailed discussion of all four of these common core reasons for tantrums, but I’ll give you a quick rundown of each one.
Lack of Vocabulary
Most tots lack language. They are either just starting to develop their vocabulary, or know lots of words, but don’t know how to put them together in a way that is meaningful. This results in a child who has a need or want that they are trying to express, but can’t explain. This produces frustration and develops into a tantrum.
With older children, there may not be a “lack” of vocabulary per say, but rather a lack of understanding of how to appropriately express their feelings. To make things more complicating, our body gives us many clues into the emotions we are feeling at any given time, and most kids don't know how to interpret those bodily signals. For example, if you are nervous or anxious, you might feel queasy. Although an older child may know what “anxiety” is, they may not recognize that the queasiness they feel in their stomach is related to the emotion of feeling anxious. Instead, they communicate that they “just don’t feel good.” This same process can arise with anger, hurt, jealousy, and so on.
Most parents don’t like hearing this one, but we all have to consider it, including myself! Our kids are often a mirror, reflecting back to us our own behavior. For example, children who yell usually have parents who are frequently yelling themselves. In this case, the “why” behind the tantrum is simple… the child has learned (from observing their caregivers), that the appropriate way to express their emotions is through yelling. As another example, parents who spank their children are more likely to have kids who hit when they are upset because they are reflecting back the behavior.
Poor Emotion Regulation
Emotion Regulation is the ability to control and moderate one’s emotions. Toddlers have poor emotion regulation simply due to their age and impulsive nature. This is a biological, developmental component to tantrums that all children struggle with. Some older children struggle with emotion regulation as well, which might be due to trauma history, or simply never really learning how to effectively regulate their emotions.
Finally, when children become upset, how a parent reacts will either contribute to or diffuse the escalating behavior. So, looking into how you react when your child first shows signs of getting upset may help to shed light on whether you are contributing to the tantrum or helping to prevent it. Furthermore, Parental Reaction may be a “why” behind undesirable behavior because, frequently, children will misbehave to get the attention of their parents. For example, your child may want your attention while you are making dinner and has been pulling on your pant leg over and over again. When you continue to tell your child that he needs to wait or move away from the kitchen (because he could be burned by the hot pan), he finally decides to hit you. You stop what you are doing to scold him, but in doing so, you gave him exactly what he is looking for… your attention. This, in turn, actually rewards the hitting behavior because the behavior has served its purpose (i.e. getting your attention).
Knowing the common forces that cause and/or contribute to tantrum behavior can help us fix the problem. Understanding why your child results to tantrums as a form of self-expression is the first step in correcting the behavior. Once you figure out the “reason” behind the tantrum, you’ll be able to figure out a different way of meeting your child’s needs or navigating their wants.
If you liked this post, you may want to consider subscribing to my blog for more helpful tips and tricks from a professional Marriage and Family Therapist, or you can pick up a copy of my book, "Trials of the Working Parent: The Busy Mom’s Guide to Kids, Work, and Loving Yourself,” where I go into more depth on how to manage undesirable behaviors, such as tantrums.