Tantrums in young children are something that psychologists get asked to help out with quite a lot.  This post, gives a quick overview of a few ideas that can help you in taming the tantrums.


Firstly, it is important to rule out a couple of things.  In all of my years working with families of children with behaviour problems, I have learned that there is no amount of good parenting that can overcome some fundamental problems: Sleep, Routine? and Diet.


Is your child getting enough sleep?  Overtired kids are grumpy kids and they are likely to respond emotionally to even the smallest provocation.  If your child is still having a day nap, make sure it is not so long that they aren’t sleeping at night.   If they no longer need a day nap, check that they are going to bed promptly and falling asleep readily.  If the problem is not enough sleep, then behaviour management strategies are wasting everyone’s time.


Secondly, how is your child’s diet?  Kids who don’t eat enough are often easy to anger and some children can be particularly sensitive to low blood sugars.  Do you need to build some regular snacks into their routine?  On the other side of diet, far too much effort is put into elimination of the esoterics: gluten, salicilates, nitrates and all the other nasties.  It is true that for some kids, these particular allergens can cause major problems, but for most kids the problematic foods are far more everyday – sugar and caffeine.  If your child has just drunk a 600ml bottle of coke, personally I would advise just backing off and letting them burn it off (preferably outside).


But presuming that sleep is ok, diet is ok, the child isn’t sick and there is nothing major happening in their life that would cause disruption, then we are talking about good old fashioned bad behaviour.


Basically, we have a choice – change the behaviour with reward or change the behaviour with punishment.  Punishment strategies include removal of priviledges, time-out, naughty corner and a range of others.  The problem with punishment, is that after a while the kids just get desensitised to it.  How many of us have heard from our parents about how they broke the wooden spoon over the backside of one of their children and they barely flinched.  So for punishments to be effective, it needs to be used sparingly.


The second thing is ignoring.  Just because a child is having a tantrum it doesn’t mean you have to have one too.  For the most part tantrums are about attention.  Sometimes children need attention if they are genuinely distressed, in pain or have a need they can’t meet for themselves.  But most of the time, tantrums are just a way they have learned to get you to pay attention to them.  If you are busy doing something else, there is a better than fair chance that what your child would like is for you to be busy with them.  Throwing a tantrum and having you yell at them gets them what they want.  We have to learn to ignore attention-seeking tantrums.  This is a younger child, but it’s a great example of how to handle the attention-seeking tantrum.



Which brings us to reward.  It’s too easy to focus on the bad behaviour that we want to see less of.  Another way to think about it is ‘can we make the good behaviour go for longer?’.  If good behaviour lasts longer, then there is simply less time for bad behaviour.  So the starting point to managing any bad behaviour is simply to catch the child when they aren’t behaving badly.  The most effective form of reward is your time and affection.  It might seem like an odd conversation to have with your child when you get up really close to them, look them in the eye, use their name and say “Mum is so proud of how well behaved you have been for the past 15 minutes” while giving a gentle pat on the back or a ruffle of the hair.  BUT, lots of attention for good behaviour, with lots of praise and attention will reduce bad behaviour more than any number of broken wooden spoons, or parental meltdowns will ever achieve.  Of course, for older children, more sophisticated reward strategies such as reward charts can also be highly effective.  But even with older children, the most powerful reward is your time affection and attention



Not only is the use of praise and reward more effective, it’s also much nicer for both the child and yourself.  Try to stick this method out for two weeks and you should have a better behaved child, and a more harmonious household all round.  If this still still isn’t working, contact your GP, there is a lot of individual tailoring that can be done to improve children’s behaviour, and your GP will be able to point you toward the right person to help further.  Remember, it is much easier to manage behaviour problems in a 5 year old than in a 15 year old, so lets get on top of them early.


For those interested in learning more about behaviour management in children, Benchmark Psychology is offering an intensive Triple-P course for parents.  Triple-P is a world renowned program demonstrated to help parents struggling with behavioural problems in children.  Click here to learn more



Written by

Dr Aaron Frost

Clinical Psychologist

Director, Benchmark Psychology