Tantrums are the most common behavioural problem in children between the ages of 18 months and three years. They are also a normal part of development.
Some toddlers have regular tantrums, while others experience them less frequently. Tantrum prevalence generally increases up to three years of age and declines when the child goes to school. Children with strong wills and high emotions are more likely to fall into tantrum behaviour than those with milder temperaments.
Tantrum behaviour varies greatly in children. Reactions may vary from a full-blown screaming, hitting, kicking, pushing, and pulling outburst to a milder response that includes whining or crying. Some toddlers have one tantrum per month while others have as many as six per day. Duration can vary from less than one minute to more than 40 minutes.
Tantrums can provide an opportunity for parents and practitioners to observe the events that lead up to the behaviour, and then find ways of dealing with them. Parents can also help toddlers develop self-control skills, which will enable them to manage their emotions in a positive way.
In the second year, the brain undergoes rapid development. The frontal lobes associated with speech and language mature, and vocabulary becomes more expressive. In the third year, the medial-temporal lobes undergo rapid change, and toddlers gain more control of their emotions. However, communication between these important brain structures remains limited. This is one reason why toddlers have difficulty in expressing themselves verbally and why they have rapid mood swings.
Genetic inheritance, health and environmental influences also play a role in emotional behaviour. Some children are more prone to temperamental qualities such as stubbornness, determination, and persistence than others. However, these qualities can be beneficial to their intellectual and creative development.
Health problems or developmental delays can also drive an emotional outburst. Toddlers with speech or hearing impairments may throw tantrums due to the lack of communication skills and frustration in getting their needs understood.
Tantrums are very often the result of stored anxieties or emotions. Some children find it difficult to adjust to new events such as starting nursery school, moving to a new house or the birth of a new sibling. Waking in the night, thumb-sucking, and prickly behaviour during the day may suggest that the toddler has stored emotions that are difficult to manage.
Diet is another factor that can affect mood swings. Low blood glucose levels can affect the child’s ability to exercise self-control in difficult situations. If glucose is restored to a sufficient level, self-control typically improves. An inadequate intake of protein can also trigger a tantrum. Protein stimulates production of the hormone glucagon, which raises blood-sugar levels and helps to maintain a normal environment for body cells.
Toddlers may also assert their independence if their boundaries are too tight or too restrictive. They may express anger and frustration if the rules and guidelines that they are expected to follow are inconsistent or unfair. Parental problems such as financial difficulties, marital stress, depression, and illness can also bring on an emotional outburst. If the toddler’s emotional needs are not met for a sustained period, anger may be directed at the people closest to them. When the adult retaliates, toddlers get the attention that they need.
Curiosity and the desire for independence and control can also bring on a temper tantrum. Curiosity for example, drives the toddler to explore the china cupboard. When the parent removes the child and says “No”, the child reacts with an angry outburst.
Whenever something interferes with the child’s attempt to master a skill or gain independence, or whenever the environment becomes too stressful or frustrating, the chances of an emotional outburst increase.
Tantrums can also be triggered by:
• Tiredness., hunger, boredom.
• Lack of physical activity or staying indoors too long.
• Negative criticism, adult inattentiveness and ack of affection or belonging.
• Pressure to do something that they are not mentally ready for.
• Frustration at being misunderstood.
• Unwanted interference in an activity.
• Frustration at being unable to accomplish a task.
• Being asked to finish an activity before they are ready.
• Not understanding what is wanted.
• Frustration at being denied something that is wanted.
• Separation from the parent. or lack of an attachment bond to the parent or keyworker.
Any one of the above may lead to a tantrum as toddlers struggle to cope with their emotions.