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Tantrums explained!

Why do why do young children have tantrums?

By Nicki Dawson

There are few things in life more stressful than a young child in full tantrum mode. You are in the shop. You say a perfectly reasonable and polite no to your child’s unreasonable request for the toy or sweet they spotted in one of the aisles, and next thing you know you have a full-blown screaming, kicking human on your hands. Or maybe it isn’t even that obvious what triggered the tantrum. You told your kid you are going to the park that they love so much, and ten minutes later you are having an argument about putting on their shoes.

So what is the reason behind young children having such intense and sometimes unexpected outbursts?

A common narrative around tantrums is that children are misbehaving. And of course, a tantrum is made up of some quite “inappropriate” social behaviour. Kicking and shouting aren’t exactly nice things to do.

But recent neuroscience research has shown that young children do not yet have the connections in their brain that help with managing big emotions.

The big emotions we all experience come to us outside of our control. They are based on circumstances. Something happens and we have feelings about it. We can’t get something we want. Or we don’t like to put on our shoes. Big feelings are normal and come to us outside of our control.

For young children, the process of managing these big emotions so they don’t lead to kicking, screaming and shouting are also beyond their control. We all want to kick and shout when we are upset, disappointed or frustrated, but with time and practice, older children and adults can develop the impulse control, understanding of social rules and learnt strategies (such as walking away, deep breathing, naming feelings, asking for a hug, sharing your story with someone) that help us calm down.

It’s a bit like learning to cross a busy street. The impulsivity and lack of knowledge that causes a young child to run across the road when they see a friend on the other side plays a similar role in tantrums. Just like your young child needs to learn why and how to cross a road, so too do young children need to learn how to overcome and manage big feelings. And just like with crossing the road, you will probably need to do it with them for a good few years before they can do it on their own!

Children having tantrums are humans experiencing distress in the absence of a strategy to manage it.

Dealing with a tantrum is a big ask for parents with lots on their plate and big feelings of their own that they are already having to manage. If you would like to talk to someone about your child’s tantrums, please give Ububele a call.

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