4 Reasons Why Your Toddler has Tantrums

Tantrums are what we all dread as moms!Tantrums.  That’s what we hear about the most as our children transition from babies to toddlers, isn’t it?  It’s the big topic of conversation, it’s the basis for all of our most interesting stories, and it’s often the thing we fear the most!

As a Special Education teacher, I helped students through countless difficult moments, things that other teachers referred to as “meltdowns.”  What I learned through teaching, and what I know is supported by behavioral research, is that there are generally four reasons why children will have tantrums, meltdowns, or difficult behaviors.  As my own baby has begun to enter the tantrum stage, I can say with some authority now that these four categories of tantrum hold true for all children, not just those with disabilities.  Here are four reasons why your toddler has tantrums!

1. A Physical or Sensory Reason

We all know that our babies aren’t feeling well when they start fussing, crying, and becoming unreasonable.  Sometimes it’s illness.  Sometimes it’s over stimulation.  Occasionally, it’s simply being tired!  Before they have the vocabulary to say, “I’m not feeling well,” or “I’m tired,” children will let you know that things are not alright by having a meltdown.  When your child is hungry, I bet they get whiny and grumpy.  They don’t have any other way to explain to you that they down’t feel well.

When I’ve got a tantrum that I can’t immediately pinpoint a cause of, I’ll start to look for physical reasons why my child may be upset.  The main ones are:

  • Tired
  • Hungry
  • Sick
  • Teething pain
  • Over stimulated
  • Bored, or under stimulated

If you don’t believe that any of these are the issue at hand, here is another:

2. Attempting to Gain Access

Tantrums usually fall into one of four categories.

This is the tantrum we all think of.  When little Johnny wants to buy a racecar at the dollar store, and you won’t let him, so he ends up throwing the contents of your basket across the store before you escort him out to the car to cool off.

Again, because young children do not have the language yet to express their feelings of frustration and disappointment, they’ll let you know that they’re upset that they cannot have what they want through tantrums.  They don’t realize yet that behaving this way gets them farther and farther away from getting what they’re hoping for.  Some main things my toddler wants:

  • Access to a toy or exciting object
  • To try out a fun activity
  • A special food
  • A favorite book read for the millionth time

3. Attempting to Avoid

Tantrums to avoid activities are usually preceded by other behaviors.

This is sort of the opposite of #2.  There are things that our little ones do NOT want to do, so they’ll use tantrums to express that.  These are the tantrums that have you carrying your child into the doctor’s office, hanging upside down over your arms and screaming at the top of her voice like she’s possessed by a demon.

It’s important to realize, too, that before your child’s behavior erupts into a full blown tantrum, you may start to see some behaviors that indicate your child is uncomfortable with an event, person, or activity.  You may see behaviors that will usually land your child in time-out, such as hitting a sibling or throwing a ball at the TV.  For some things, your child will find time-out preferable to the activity that’s planned, so they’ll land themselves there on purpose.

However, if those little behavioral upsets don’t do the trick, your child’s behavior will likely escalate until, in his mind, you MUST relent and keep him from the dreaded activity.  There are a lot of things that you can do to calm your child and support them through undesired activities, which we’ll talk about in another post.

4. The Language Barrier

Difficulty communicating is often a cause of tantrums.

Before children become fluent language users, there are a lot of things that they can’t express.  They can let you know that they’re happy, sad, angry, and more, but they can rarely express why.  So we, as parents, sometimes dismiss a child’s feelings because we can see no good reason for them.

Here’s an example:

When my older sister was 3 years old, she was trying to cut her own sandwich.  She was working hard, and wanted to cut it straight across, down the middle.  She had put a good start into it, and an onlooker could clearly see where she had been trying to cut it.  However, when she asked her grandmother for help, she cut it on the diagonal.  Cue horrific tantrum.

This tantrum didn’t arise because my sister was a spoiled child.  It didn’t come because her food was now inedible.  It came because of the frustration she felt from not being able to communicate how her sandwich should be cut, and then not being able to communicate how upset she felt about her grandmother’s inappropriate cutting.

Frustration from lack of communication builds.  It’s like a snowball effect.  One thing latches onto another, and another, until the frustration your child feels morphs into rage and then they bring the world crashing down around you.  Again, there are many ways to help your child to communicate, which we’ll address in a future post.  Today, we’re just addressing why children have tantrums to begin with.

So what does this all mean?

The reason we are discussing the causes of tantrums today is because in order to appropriately respond to a behavioral problem, you need to know what it’s end goal is.  Is your child sick?  Perhaps he is trying to get something he wants?  Is he trying to avoid something?  Or is he frustrated from not being able to communicate?  How you respond to each of these types of tantrums will be completely different, and to treat them all as the same behavior will not necessarily work.

All behavior is communication – that’s one of our mottos in Special Education.  Every time your child acts out, it’s because she is trying to tell you something.  Have a look at what’s happening around each tantrum, and see if you can figure out what’s causing it!

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