Tantrum triggers


Find out what triggers temper tantrums and how you can avoid them

Children act out their feelings. This is how they communicate. They show you how they feel with their whole bodies. The message of a temper tantrum is: “I’m angry, tired, frustrated, disappointed, afraid, envious, hungry, sick, cold, or upset.”

Our role as parents is to read these messages and help our children to express their feelings in more appropriate ways. But if you’re expecting your 2-year-old to say “Mommy, I’m cross with you because I wanted to stay up later tonight” you’re in for quite a surprise. At his age he won’t be able to meet those high expectations.


Shopping is not a leisure activity for toddlers. It can be an assault on your child’s senses that leaves him feeling overwhelmed. This is because the sights, sounds, touch and “busy-ness” of everything can cause sensory overload. But if your toddler survives the sensory assault, then the frustration of not getting everything he wants will probably lead to a terrible temper tantrum. And so in general, shopping with children is not desirable.

It can also create “consumer kids” who learn more about “having” than “being”. But of course there will be times when shopping with your child is a necessity. If this is the case, then it would be helpful to keep it short. State your expectations clearly and stick to them.

Make your toddler an active participant rather than a passive bystander. You can do this by giving him a job to do. Perhaps he could help with putting the items into the trolley, unpacking them, or choosing them? Then there is the issue of: “Do I buy him something too?” For many children it’s hard to fill up the whole trolley and receive nothing for themselves. In my opinion this is a very high expectation to hold. If you take him shopping, you might need to allow him to get something of his own. And you can define what that is, such as a fruit or a toy, and then set the limit at that! 

Tiredness and hunger

When children are tired or hungry, they are running on lower emotional resources to cope with normal expectations. This means that if tired or hungry or sick, where they would normally be happy to share, get in the bath, get dressed, etc they will be unhappy. How can you deal with this?

Do what you can to deal with the primary issue – feed your child, or get him ready for bed. Then think of how long it will be until he is sleeping. Try not to get hooked into the power struggle. Access your own emotional resourcefulness since your child will be running on empty.

Transitional experiences

When children move from one experience to another, we call these ‘’transitional experiences”. For example, waking up is the transition from being asleep to being awake. Going to school involves the transition from being at home to going to school. Going home from Granny’s house involves the transition from being in one home with one set of rules and expectations and moving to another that is different.

Transitional experiences can erupt into temper tantrums, because some children don’t like change. They find the transition difficult. It might not be that they don’t want to go home, or they don’t want to get dressed – it could also be that they are protesting at having to change!

How can you deal with this? Give your child time to adjust when change occurs. Of course this doesn’t go down so well when we live in a rush. But some children do need more time. For example, in the morning your child may need to stay in his pajamas for a little while before getting dressed. It’s also a good idea to prepare your child for transitions. You can do this by saying: “We’re leaving Granny’s in a few minutes. You can start finishing off your game.” 

When you’re talking on the telephone

The telephone is a trigger for many pre-school children. It’s either the loss of attention that they react to or the desire to have control over you that gets them to tantrum when you are on the phone. So what can you do about it? A “call box” has helped many parents get through a short conversation. Have a box ready with some things inside that your child can busy himself with while you spend a few minutes on the phone. Of course, you could always choose not to put yourself through the drama and make your calls at another time.

When you’re in a rush

Pre-school children don’t understand time as adults do. They pick up on your anxiety around time, but they are not always able to work quickly in order to meet your demands. If you’re always in a rush and your child is always having tantrums, try to investigate whether there is a connection between the two. Of course there are times when you’re in a rush, and your child will need to hurry along.

When this happens, state your expectations clearly and take action. Put the shoes on yourself, pick him up, strap him in the car seat and leave. Try to do this mechanically, without shouting and without resentment. And if you feel like you’re always rushing your child, make a special effort to slow down where possible.

How to contain the outbursts

So now that you know what the triggers are, how do you contain these outbursts?

Here’s a 3-point plan that I have called the A.R.T. of parenting:

1. Acknowledge your child’s feelings

For example you can say, “I can see you’re very cross with Mommy.” 

2. Reflect your child’s unfulfilled desire (his wish or want)

Say for example: “You don’t want Mommy to go out of the room when she is on the phone.”

3. Tell it like it is!

Insert the reality: “Mommy needs quiet when she is on the phone. So Mommy had to go into her room and when she was finished she came out again.” This is the art of parenting. It provides emotional support because it helps children feel understood. It helps them to see that you can understand their inner wishes and desires. But it teaches them that this doesn’t mean their wish is your command.

As the parent, you can understand your child’s desires but you don’t have to give into them. You can still set limits and help him to come to terms with the realities of life. This is what is meant by letting your child down “gently”. It’s a valuable experience for him because it’s such an important life skill.

When children see that their parents can tolerate their distress, they learn that they can tolerate their distress too. They learn that their feelings are not all that powerful and that there are adults in their world who can contain them. This leaves them feeling emotionally, safe and secure. It also leaves them with the capacity for building emotional resilience and emotional maturity.

So the next time you sense your child’s pressure gauge is on overload, follow the above tips and know that you’re making him feel safe and loved – even though you’re not “giving in”. Then watch his smiles return shortly.

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