Family Therapy UK

Dealing With Tantrum behaviour in Children


Almost all young children throw tantrums from time to time.  At certain ages tantrum behaviour is part of a child's normal development.  Common sayings such as "the terrible two's" reflect how common they are.  In young children tantrums often result from frustrated feelings.  Very young children are ego-centric.  This means that they think the world revolves around them. As they get older children need to adjust to the fact that things are not necessarily centred around them. This can be a difficult adjustment for some children. Most children grow through this stage and become more accepting and reasonably behaved.

In some children tantrum behaviour carries on for longer than normal. This can cause stresses and strains for all involved.  Tantrum behaviour is when the child's reaction to not getting what they want is over-the-top.  They can become destructive, defiant, rude, threaten to harm themselves and hurt other people.  It can be very distressing for parents and very embarrassing in public situations such as when shopping or when friends and relations visit.

Tantrum behaviour can be seen as a battle for control.  It can feel like the child does not want a parent to be in charge. Parents feel that life with their child has become a daily battle. At times, it feels easier to give in and let the child have what they want.

Arguments and confrontations include at least two people.  You can stop arguments and confrontations by keeping calm, ignoring them or by not responding.  Try to appreciate that however difficult your child is, that they are the child and you are the adult.  Difficult behaviour in children can make you feel inadequate. You can begin to believe your child is more powerful you. When a child is behaving in a difficult and defiant way, it can place a strain on spousal relationships.  It is not uncommon for parents to fall out over the best way to deal with a child, particularly if the child behaves better for one parent than the other.

As an adult you need to meet your own needs as well as the children's.   Do you feel supported by your partner?  If you don't feel supported, talk to them about it.  As parents, do you work consistently in handling the children?  Do you agree on rules around what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the children?  If not, discuss this with your partner.  Parenting in a consistent and reasonable way is one of the most effective ways of getting your children to behave well. 

How is your psychological and physical health?  If you are ill, over-tired or suffering from depression, handling the children will be much more difficult.  It will also be more difficult to relax and enjoy yourself with the children.  You need to seek help if you are ill or depressed.  This can be from family, GP or other health and social services.

Think about why your child may be acting this way, particularly if this behaviour is new or unusual.  Maybe their behaviour became worse after an event?  Significant events such as a bereavement, divorce/separation of parents, starting a new school, moving house, the arrival of a new baby or foster child can all cause distress and upset in children.  If there are arguments in the house between the parents, or violence, this will upset children and can lead to acting out behaviour.  Check out how your child is coping in nursery or school and whether they are being bullied or feel isolated there.  Ask your child about this from time to time.  If there are problems at school talk to their class teacher.

Think about the quality of your relationship with your child.  If it feels like a constant battle, make some space for improving your relationship.  This can be very hard to do if your relationship with them is tense.  If you don't have some good times with your child they will only experience negative attention. Negative attention is far better than no attention at all to young children.  One theory about why children behave in a difficult way is to do with the amount of attention they get when being naughty.  It is far better to give children more attention for good, rather than bad behaviour.  This sounds like common sense, but when you are stressed it is easy to end up giving more attention to bad behaviour.  Praise your child when they are behaving well. Describe what you like about their good behaviour and share the positive feelings it creates in you towards them. Try not to give attention when they misbehave or throw a tantrum.

Children act up because they are not feeling safe.  'Safe' refers to their feelings of psychological and physical security.  At times, children will test out a rules. They will test out rules to see if their parents are strong enough to contain their behaviour and feelings.  Research has shown that children who feel secure and happy come from homes where the rules around acceptable behaviour are clear, where parents work together in their handling of the children, where parents act in a clear and consistent way, and where family members feel appreciated and valued.

Children can fight against rules because they are not actually good rules or have become inappropriate as they have grown older.  Try to ensure your family rules are sensible and appropriate to the age of the child.  You can check this out with your partner, friends or other family members.

The sooner you tackle difficult behaviour in your children, the easier it will be to regain control.  When children get older their behaviour becomes more difficult to change.

So what can you do?

When your child is throwing a tantrum:

Stay calm. Getting upset yourself and losing your temper will not calm things down.  You have to keep calm to deal with a tantrum.  You don't want to end up having a tantrum yourself!  Pre-plan how you will deal with tantrums using the information  included in this leaflet as a starting point.

Pay more attention to good behaviour rather than bad behaviour

If you pay too much attention to children throwing tantrums, then they will get attention in the wrong way.  Remember bad attention is still attention.  If you pay them too much attention when they misbehave, then they will remember that this type of behaviour gets them attention.  If you ignore them, they will learn that this type of behaviour does not get them the attention or things they want.

When a child is banging their head or being destructive, it can be difficult to ignore them. Usually, children will not hurt themselves too much and often make empty threats. If you feel they are in danger, or present a danger to others, find a way of dealing with this that does not give them too much attention.  For instance, if a tantrum throwing child tries to hit another child, remove the other child and withdraw yourself. You could try removing your child to a place where they can be safely left alone. You may have to restrain your child if their behaviour is dangerous. Try not to restrain children by hitting or hurting them.  If you have to restrain your child, try and get someone to help you. If you have to resort to such measures, do not make-up with them too quickly afterwards.

Don’t argue back and justify your decisions

Try very hard not to get into arguments or having to justify yourself to angry and defiant children.  State your case clearly and calmly and leave it at that. Speak quietly, but firmly.  If it is safe to do so, you can leave the room, or carry on doing whatever you were doing before.  It's a waste of time trying to reason with a very young child when they are having a tantrum.

After the Tantrum is over

When a child has thrown a tantrum give them some space to calm down afterwards.  Don't fall into the trap of making up too soon.  This can become a pattern where a child acts up in order to enjoy the making up afterwards.

Ask yourself how difficult situation can be avoided in the future.  For instance, if a child constantly throws tantrums when you go shopping, consider going shopping without them.  If they are more prone to tantrums when they are tired, try to get them to bed earlier or give them a sleep during the day.

Talk to your child when things have calmed down. Explain that their unreasonable behaviour made you feel like not being with them for a while. Tell them how you would like them to behave and discuss how they might have dealt with a situation differently. Let them know how much more you like it when they are behaving well. 

Give them praise for behaving the way you like, not just for exceptionally good or helpful behaviour.  Don't ignore good behaviour, it needs to be encouraged. Children will enjoy the praise when they are behaving well.  If you ignore good behaviour, you may end up giving more attention to bad behaviour.

Step in sooner rather than later

If you see signs of a tantrum coming on, step in to deal with it before it gets out of hand.  For instance, you can distract children by suggesting another activity, or by taking them out to the park to burn off some energy.  Help them develop a better understanding of their feelings by talking to their feelings.  You could retort, "Stop doing that.  You are very naughty!" or more usefully "When you do that, I guess you are feeling angry (upset, cross - whatever feeling you guess it is).  I much prefer it when you behave nicely and we get along well."  Talk like this helps children connect with their feelings. They learn how their behaviour affects relationships with people around them.

Improving your relationship with your child

If your child is having a lot of tantrums or your relationship feels strained, you might like to try some of these things:

Playing together

Playing with your children is very important.  It helps strengthen your relationship. The good feelings that result from such positive time together will reduce the frequency of tantrums.  When you feel more positive you will cope better with difficult behaviour. 

When playing with your children, let them take the lead.  Don't instruct them all the time, but comment in a positive way about what they are doing. Encourage them to share their thoughts and fantasy play with you.  You can do this by playing role play games with them. Praise their ideas and creativity.  Try not to criticise them or to control the play too much.  Relax and enjoy the time together. If your relationship has been very difficult, keep these play periods short to begin with.

Praising your child

When you are not getting on together, it can be hard to praise your child.  If there is a difficulty in your relationship it can be hard to break the ice.  Praise your child when they are being good.  Praise young children immediately after or during their positive behaviour.  For instance, "Thank you so much for helping me with the cleaning up.  It feels nice when you do that!"  Don't be afraid to touch your child when praising them.  Young children love being hugged and touched by their parents.  Praising your child in front of other people is good too.  "I want you to know dad, that Sally made me so pleased today when she helped me tidy up."  If you have more than one child, be careful not to over-praise one child. If you praise some of your children more than others, resentment will grow.  You may see an increase in sibling rivalry if your children feel you treat them differently or have a favourite. You may find my information on sibling rivalry useful to read.


Praise is the best reward for children. Making rules and rewarding children for sticking to them can be fun and beneficial too.  Rewards can be things such a trip to the swimming pool or cinema for good behaviour.  It's good to say things like "I think we'll go to the cinema today because I have been so pleased with your behaviour this week." This encourages children to link good behaviour with positive rewards.  Don't over-do rewards.  Too many rewards can raise expectations in children that they should always receive a reward for behaving well. 

Rewards can be given as "treats" for a sustained effort by a child.  If you want to set up a reward system, be clear about what you expect your children to do, and do not give the reward unless they do it first!

Be consistent in your management of the children

Be consistent in what you expect of the children and in how you deal with their behaviour.  If there is more than one parent, or other adults involved in family life, try to act together and in agreement about the management of the children.  If you don’t, the children will be confused about family rules and may play one adult off against the other.

Teaching children consequences for their behaviour

Children need to learn that their behaviour has an effect on how other people feel about them.  If you are talking to a child about their behaviour be very clear with them about what that exact behaviour is.  For instance, "When you hit mummy."  Explain how it makes you feel: "It makes me feel sad and angry when you hit me. It makes me feel like we are far apart."   Let them know how you would like them to behave: "I would like you to stop hitting mummy.  If you stopped hitting me, I would not get so angry with you.  We could have a nicer time together."

If naughty behaviour continues past a warning, you can apply a consequence. "If you do not stop hitting mummy, I will have to sit you in the chair for five minutes" or "If you do not stop hitting mummy, I will not let you watch TV for ten minutes" etc.  Once you give a consequence, stick to it.  Afterwards you can say, "I am sorry you had to miss your TV programme.  When you do as I ask I don't need to switch off the TV. That would make me happier."  Once a child returns to good behaviour, praise them: "I much prefer it when we are getting on and you are not hitting me. It feels much nicer when we are being friendly with each other."

Take time out for yourself as a parent(s)

Being a parent is hard work.  You and your children will benefit if you as spouses look after your adult needs.  Parents often forget they are spouses too.  Make sure you get some adult company away from the children from time to time.  Maintain some interests outside of home. 

Getting help if things are too difficult for you to manage

If you have young children Talk to your health visitor. They will advise you on how to manage tantrums and have information on a wide range of parenting techniques.  Health visitors and primary health care workers often run parenting groups to help parents manage their children. Some social service departments run parenting groups too.  These are a useful source of help and ideas.  They offer you a chance to meet with other parents who may be experiencing similar challenges. It helps to know you are not alone.

Your parents and friends are useful sources of help too. Talk to them and see how they managed their children.

If you are depressed or ill or feel you cannot cope, seek help from your doctor who will be able to assess the situation and get you help. They can refer you to specialist services such as health visitors, primary health care workers, counselling services or a child and adolescent mental health service.

You may find other leaflets in this series helpful:

How to deal with very difficult behaviour in children

Behavioural problems in children (Conduct disorders)

Finding Help

Some books to read:

Dr John Pearce "Bad behaviour, tantrums and tempers"

Dr Christopher Green "Toddler Taming"

Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

7th September, 2009

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