Sunday 25 February 2018

Family Life: What level of tantrum is considered normal?

David Coleman

David Coleman

Q I am the mother of two children, a six-year-old girl, and a little boy aged a year and nine months. My little boy is presently proving quite difficult and stressful to cope with.

I am aware of the 'terrible twos' but his tantrums appear to me to be quite severe -- he just goes crazy. He screams, roars, throws things, and lashes out at everything and everyone around. This could last up to 15/20 minutes and there is no hope of distracting him or changing the focus. My worry is what 'level' of a tantrum is considered normal? The simplest thing can trigger an episode. For example, any time when he doesn't get his way or when things don't go to his plan! He is quite independent; he is able to feed himself no problem, his language is good for his age (putting little phrases together), he understands everything we say to him and can follow instructions. All along both myself and my husband have been consistent in our coping with him but we find now when we have to go somewhere with him, we are on tenterhooks as to what might happen. I just find it hard to understand why he is so aggressive at times and am wondering would you consider this behaviour normal or should we be worried?

A The toddler years are consistently difficult for parents and toddlers! Elements of your son's behaviour are definitely normal, although his tantrums do seem to be on the extreme end of things.

Should you be worried about this? Yes. You should be concerned about how you will deal with him and it is understandable that you feel anxious about how he will react when you bring him out.


Do you need to be worried about his long-term development? Probably not. Many toddlers have severe tantrums that get dealt with by parents and represent simply a passing phase.

However, toddler tantrums that do not get responded to effectively by parents can lead to many more behaviour problems as that toddler grows older. So it is vital that parents feel they can respond successfully.

Most tantrums result from escalating frustration on behalf of the toddler.

That frustration can come from not being allowed to do what they want, not being physically or developmentally able to do some things, or having to stop things they are enjoying doing.

The key theme running through the source of their frustration is that it is reactive and responsive. Toddlers, rarely, are spontaneously aggressive to try to provoke a response from others.

The aggression that you describe is most likely to be learned behaviour. Usually, toddler tantrums increase in frequency or intensity when they remain frustrated.

With that increase we are more likely to crack and give in to their demand just for some peace and quiet!

It may be that he has learned that if he pushes things to extremes then sometimes he does get what he wants.

Or, perhaps, when he first threw something, for example, he got a big reaction from you (albeit unintentionally on your part).


If so, he may have learned 'when you throw things your mum or dad pays more attention to you'.

It is also the case that we can't ignore children who are trying to hurt us or others. We must respond to this behaviour but, simply because we react, our toddler might decide that hitting is now the best way to get a response of any kind from us.

It is good to hear that you and your husband try to be consistent in how you cope with him. Hopefully this will minimise the learned behaviour aspect of his tantrums.

If this is the case, then it may be that he has a fiery temperament and just struggles to regulate the ferocious nature of his anger and frustration when it arrives.

Empathy, where we try to show toddlers that we understand that they are upset and frustrated, is the best way to diffuse the intensity or ferocity of that upset.


Ideally we can empathise with their plight before a full-blown tantrum can emerge and so the frustration or anger is lessened before it can cause an outburst.

Similarly, if you can reduce or eliminate the source of his frustration before a tantrum kicks in then do so.

Even if a tantrum does begin we need to remain really calm and use soft and soothing tones. This will help your toddler to regulate his feelings.

Say things like: "You seem really frustrated but until you are calm I can't help you."

Then give your son a little time to calm down on his own (while you keep a watchful eye from a distance to make sure he doesn't hurt himself or anyone else).

This lets the feelings of rage subside more safely. Then your child will come to learn that not only do they get really angry sometimes, but that with time, patience and understanding, their anger will fade away too.

Irish Independent

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