Give in or Punish Kids for Tantrums or Outbursts

If you are a parent or a caregiver, chances are you would have witnessed your kids either throwing a tantrum for no reason, or having an outburst out of the blue at some point on another. While the tantrums and flaring tempers may seem completely irrational to us and might seem annoying or difficult to manage, it is always good to remind ourselves that there is a reason why our young children act out.

The primary reason why young children act out their big feelings through their behaviour is surprisingly related to human physiology. Our brains aren’t fully developed until our mid-twenties; the last part that develops in a human body is the frontal lobe - this part helps us to think before we act and thereby problem-solve. Because toddlers/young children/teenagers do not have a fully developed frontal lobe, they do not have the cognitive thinking ability to express themselves in a rational way or calm themselves on their own when agitated. 

For some kids, stress and anxiety can also be a trigger for throwing tantrums or acting out. For instance, kids who are struggling with learning a particular subject (let’s say Mathematics) and are ashamed to admit it, may start throwing a tantrum to avoid Mathematics homework. Below are some of the other common triggers that may spark big feelings/tantrums in our younger ones.

  • Hunger
  • Tiredness
  • Lack of language skills to express/communicate one’s needs
  • Being physically sick
  • Feeling of being hurt / ashamed (mocking of the child by a peer or parent)
  • Overstimulation in the environment (loud noises, fighting parents or siblings)
  • Feeling of being unsafe physically

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario of a young child screaming and slamming the door of her room when she is offered a meal that’s not to her liking. She wants her fried food right now and nothing else. She feels betrayed, hurt or misunderstood and feels she has no voice / say to make her own decisions.

You may either lean towards raising your voice and scolding the child for such a behaviour or on the other hand, you might be tempted to give in to her demand for an unhealthy meal to quickly calm her down.  Either of these scenarios won’t help the child manage their big feelings constructively in the long run. You will either regret the bad words you use while you try to ‘discipline’ your child or you will reinforce a bad behaviour; the child might think “Mom doesn’t always give me fried food when I scream, but I know it happens sometimes.  I better scream louder and louder until she does!”

So, what should you do? Give in to their demands or punish them. Experts suggest neither. We have compiled below several ways you can help your child to cope with these outbursts.

Prior to Tantrums or Outbursts

  • Set clear expectations - Help your children understand what is acceptable behaviour and what us not. Best way to do is to praise your child when they are at their best behaviour; don’t forget to highlight what it is they are doing that is considered good behaviour.
  • Avoid trickery - Don’t rely on lies such as “the toy store is now closed, that dress is no longer in stock.” While it may allow you some respite in the short run, it’s not a great long-term strategy. Let your kids see you set limits in an open and clear way and make sure you stick to those limits yourselves.
  • Be mindful of usual triggers - You can prevent plenty of outbursts and meltdowns if only you can pre-identify some of the common signs. For instance, if they stem from hunger, tiredness or boredom, you can offer what the child needs before things go south.
  • Teach ahead - Train your child on self-regulation strategies. You could teach them things like how to do mindful slow breathing or encourage them to go sit with their favourite book / musical instrument /blanket, basically anything that might calm them down.  Encourage your children to experiment with what helps them most and supports them in finding relief.

During or Post Outbursts

  • Be calm - Children model their parents day in and day out. It is important to stay calm and not get agitated by the child’s behaviour. Let your matter-of-fact response teach them that explosive anger is not the way to deal with their frustration. And this strategy reinforces that anger won’t get them what they want.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings - Do not use invalidating reactions like “oh, come on, not again”, “it’s not a big deal”, “there’s nothing to get upset about” or “oh, you are being ridiculous”. No one, be it a young child or grown-up likes to feel invalidated. The more you use these phrases, the more the child is bound to feel upset or angry. However, if parents simply help label their feeling or describe the circumstance at hand, e.g., “you were working so hard and then your brother came over and ruined it; I would feel mad too if it happened to me”, they feel their emotions are heard and understood by their parents and feel no longer the need to demonstrate their distress with louder screaming.
  • Offer reassurance - Designate a calm area that kids know they can visit if needed when they are overstimulated or frustrated. It takes trial and error to know if your child wants physical distance or a reassuring hug. But keeping your composure is helpful in either case. Make sure your child knows you’re there to help them through this.
  • Do not rush the “Talk” - Avoid talking to the child right after an outburst. The child may feel embarrassed or ashamed right after; allow some space for the nerves to settle down.  Thereafter, it is advisable to talk and enable the child to introspect; if it’s an older kid, hold them accountable for the wrongdoing. For instance, have them apologize to the person they might have wronged or make them shell out money from their allowance if they have destroyed something. For younger kids, you can ask them to draw an ‘I am sorry’ card and give it to whosoever they may have hurt unintentionally. Before you close the talk, make sure you ask the child “How are you going to handle this differently next time?” Answering this question will help your child better understand their triggers and learn to respond differently the next time they get angry or frustrated. 

To conclude 

Managing meltdowns and taming tantrums takes practice. It’s a process unique to you and you will eventually figure out the best method forward through a series of trials and errors. But once you have a handle on it, you would have taught your child one of the most important life skills - how to deal with their anger and emotions, and this surely will be well worth the effort!