News & Media

22 January 2018

Kids, tantrums and keeping your cool

Every parent has been there. You know that place, where your child’s behaviour triggers a cool combination of fear, confusion and humiliation deep within you? It often happens in public – down a supermarket aisle or in a busy shopping centre or at the beach where people are trying to relax and have fun. Yep, the dreaded temper tantrum. We’ve asked our Family Support Worker, Sharon Axten, to tell us a little bit about tantrums; why kids have them and how we should respond.

Kids, tantrums and keeping your cool

What are tantrums?

Tantrums are a child’s way of expressing their big feelings. Tantrums come in all shapes and sizes – kicking, screaming, wailing, crying – and are usually triggered when the child is stressed, tired, hungry, upset or overwhelmed.

It’s important to remember tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development, particularly between the ages of one and three years old. At that age, children are only just beginning to learn how to express their emotions and manage their feelings.

Can we prevent tantrums?

Children learn acceptable and unacceptable behaviour from the adults they know and trust – you. By nurturing your child; by teaching them to communicate how they are feeling through body language or words; and by expressing your own feelings in a calm and measured way, your child will learn how to manage their feelings, especially the big ones.

This can take time. As your child develops their emotional and social skills, tantrums may become few and far between. In the meantime, it can be worth talking with your little one about where you’re going and what they can expect to help avoid emotional outbursts. For example, let them know ‘we’re off to the supermarket, but we’re getting something for dinner only’ or, ‘we are at the swimming pool now – your big brother will be learning how to swim and you’re going to watch with me… one day it will be your turn’.

What do I do in the middle of an outburst?

As a parent, you’re probably used to hearing a lot about what not to do. Don’t yell, don’t smack, don’t give in… sound familiar?

Here are some tips about what you can do.

If your little one is throwing a mighty big performance, try to stay calm. Acknowledge their feelings. Encourage them to use their words. If they are too emotional to speak, try to distract them. If it’s safe to do so, give your child a little time and space so they can calm down.

Once your child has calmed down*, talk about their feelings with them. Talk about other ways they could have responded to the situation. Move on with your day.

*It can sometimes take a day for a child to be calm enough to revisit their episode and talk about it. Instead of focusing on the tantrum itself, talk about what can be helpful next time – there will be a next time. Once strategies are in place and your little one learns to self-regulate and understand their emotions, their tantrums will lessen. Keep the chat short and always end it with a hug.

Managing your child’s behaviour in the long run

Every child needs discipline to feel safe and secure. This is especially true when the child is learning about themselves and their world.

Many parents feel they are not allowed to discipline their children. And we often hear from parents that their strategies or rules around punishment “do not work”. It’s important to remember discipline and punishment are not the same thing.

The aim of discipline is to help children take responsibility for their own behaviour by teaching them acceptable ways to respond to situations. Children are then able to self-regulate their behaviour.

On the other hand, punishment is reactive and focused on penalising unacceptable behaviour. Children rarely learn correct or acceptable behaviour when they are punished.

If your child understands how to behave in difficult situations, they will develop self-discipline. A child’s ability to self-discipline grows when adults teach and nurture their confidence. A healthy relationship between you and your child is key to the success of this.

Kids, tantrums and keeping your cool

What if it’s more common than not?

Tantrums are different to meltdowns. Children have tantrums to gauge a certain response and will learn other ways to express their feelings soon enough. This comes through discipline and self-regulation.

On the other hand, children have meltdowns when they feel overwhelmed. Meltdowns are a child’s response to sensory overload – something they cannot control.

Parents can often tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

If you are concerned about the frequency or severity of your child’s tantrums – or if you’re worried about how they cope with different sensory experiences –  speak to your GP or maternal and child health nurse.

Some helpful resources


Better Health Channel

Kids Count

Raising Children Network


Phone numbers

Maternal and Child Health Line: 13 22 29

Parentline Victoria: 13 22 89

Latrobe Community Health Service: 1800 242 696

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