Anatomy of a Tantrum


By Elaine Frank, a clinician who has led parent child groups in Philadelphia for over 30 years



In the dictionary, the word TANTRUM is defined this way – an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child.; “he has temper tantrums if he can’t get his own way;” fit of temper, fit of rage, outburst, paroxysm, frenzy, bad mood, huff, scene.

When speaking of a child the emphasis is on the ‘uncontrolled outburst’ aspect of this activity!

Most often tantrums occur in children from around 15 months to 3 to 4 years of age.  The cause is usually frustration triggered by the child’s conflict about both wanting what he wants and wanting to keep his or her parents’ love and attention. And this is entirely normal for this age group. In fact, tantrums are even normal for older children, adolescents and adults who haven’t progressed to being fully able to control their own tempers, express their feelings in words, or who are pushed to extremes by unfortunate circumstances.

So WHAT causes the baby’s first tantrums?

New abilities in walking and talking when the baby is moving into toddlerhood increase the baby’s urge to separate emotionally from his or her parents. Normal conflicts around this wish to separate create anxiety and a contrary wish to return to the early days when Mom or Dad could satisfy every need and wish, making the baby feel good and feel part of a functioning duo. When the toddler encounters the many frustrations that come with increasing abilities and expectations — shoes won’t go on, doors won’t open, other kids grab their toys away or refuse to share, parents say NO – all these things can trigger ANGER and anger in excess can lead to a tantrum.

All parents have experienced this: one day your adorable toddler has a real tantrum – seemingly out of nowhere! What came before the tantrum seemed like such a minor frustration. What can you do?  First, recognize that your child is in conflict between his wish to do what he wants and his need to feel close and loved by you.  Then, once you understand this conflict, it will be easier to feel sympathy – and despite the fact that you may feel angry and frustrated yourself by this outburst, you become a little less angry in response.

Another example: your daughter wants a cookie, you say “no” because it is so close to lunch time and she falls apart, screaming and banging her little fists on the floor.  You pick her up and try to hug her struggling body.  She hits you and you say loudly, “Ouch, don’t hit Mommy…it hurts me.”

She cries for a while longer and slowly softens up and snuggles against you.  You say again, “Don’t hit Mommy. You are mad because I said no cookies.  But you can have a cookie after you eat lunch.”  She cries a little louder again but you can see she is more relaxed and is able to move on.  The tantrum is pretty much over for now.

Children’s tantrums cause anxiety and anger in  adults too.  When was the last time you felt so angry? And at someone so adorable, that you love, and who is so much smaller than you are?

Your first experience of anger at your baby when he won’t stop crying, bites your breast, or spits and kicks when he doesn’t want to leave the playground, can be unnerving and cause you to feel helpless and incapable.  What a surprise when you find yourself having an UNCONTROLLED OUTBURST when being pushed beyond your limits by your own beloved toddler!

Perhaps it is the second or third tantrum of the day.  Or perhaps you are particularly vulnerable that day because you are tired or feeling stress from other things going on in your life.  At these moments, you may feel triggered by your child’s tantrum and you may become more angry than you could previously have imagined!

For you, the parent, this can feel utterly humiliating.  Afterwards, you may wonder how you could have felt this way and how you could have reacted toward your own child with such feelings. This is truly a difficult moment in parenting.

And from your child’s point of view, the toddler who still is emotionally utterly dependent on a parent, is startled at first and then disbelieving when his parent gets angry, says “no” and follows up with a loud voice and a strong action such as removing her from the playground or taking the grabbed cookie away.  The toddler may sometimes give a tentative smile, as if to say, “I’m your lovable little angel, the one you feed and cuddle; why are you so mad at me?”

For many children in this stage, Mom or Dad’s anger may be particularly frightening because they fear it will lead to actual or emotional separation, or at least an estrangement that she won’t know how to bridge.

Once you get a hold of yourself, a tantrum is an opportunity to let your toddler know you love her still, and also to teach her some the beginnings of self control.  You can repeat that you can’t throw the block because you might hurt someone; and you can tell her that she is angry at you for stopping her but that she cannot hurt people.

Under these circumstances, the toddler still experiences her frustration but she also feels your concern and takes in the limits you are setting.  Your child understands your words by now, and that is one of the most important tips in dealing with a toddler—talk to her! Our goals are for our children to exchange some of their actions for words, especially words for their feelings, and to learn that others have feelings too. This will not “work” the first twenty or thirty times you try it.  You toddler will not magicially stop having tantrums once you start to talk about the feelings that caused the tantrum and the reasons that you had to set some limits – but eventually, the goal is for the toddler to begin to be able to take in your words, understand his own feelings and begin to talk himself about feelings rather than having to act on them.

The essence of civilization is our attempt to tame aggression in ourselves and others. Inner controls flourish in children when they are provided with a soothing mixture of comforting and limit-setting exercised by parents in the earliest years.