Temper tantrums are unpleasant and disruptive behaviours or emotional outbursts. They often occur in response to unmet needs or desires. Tantrums are more likely to occur in younger children or others who cannot express their needs or control their emotions when they are frustrated.
Most kids argue, be uncooperative, and disobey authority now and then. At least in some cases, it is their way of trying to learn managing big emotions. But when that anger and hostility happen often, leading to other problems with friends, at school, or at home, there may be cause for concern.
While it may be possible for parents and caregivers to ignore tantrums in toddlers and preschoolers, it's harder to handle them later in life. Aggressive older children can pose a danger to both others and themselves.
Having tantrums is a normal part of growing up; however, they are not socially acceptable behaviour. A child's tantrums can, however, challenge parents' ability to remain calm. It can also be very distressing for parents to see the child so upset and out of control.
How far can it go?
A typical tantrum can happen when a young child is tired, hungry or frustrated or during daily routines like brushing, bathing, bedtime, mealtime or while getting dressed. When the outburst comes out of nowhere or is so intense that the child becomes exhausted and cannot calm down for long periods of time and this happening regularly, that should be a red flag.
Can it be averted?
It might be difficult for a parent to stop tantrums once they are in progress, it is sometimes possible to prevent them by being alert to certain danger signs, especially fatigue, hunger, and irritability. In these cases, a change of plans to give the child the much needed rest, food or change of scene can be considered. A child who is getting cranky at an event can be taken home early. The archetypal shopping tantrum over the candy or an expensive toy can sometimes be countered by proposing an alternative treat or purchase instead of the flat denial that sends the child into a tantrum. Emotional upsets that occur when children are left with a caretaker or at kindergarten are usually a sign of separation anxiety and can be alleviated by preparing children in advance for the separation and giving them the opportunity to become familiar with the person or place, well in advance. The key remains with parents in sensing, identifying the triggers and tuning in to the emotions of the child.
Some signs that can be cause for concern:
The child may exhibit severe hostility towards people, objects, or both. It is possible for a child to feel the urge to hit or kick a person who is close to them out of frustration occasionally. But when it happens in most of the child's tantrums, there could be a problem.
Attempts to self-harm
The child may involve in biting himself, scratching, banging his head or other body parts against the wall or try to hurt his foot by kicking something; all of which needs to be addressed with caution.
Inability to calm down
The child has to be removed from the environment or given some kind of promise after nearly every tantrum to defuse it, that indeed raises a danger sign.
Too many tantrums
If the outbursts are happening at home, almost everyday in a month or if it happens five times a day on more than one day, that's cause for concern.
Long duration of outbursts
If the tantrums usually last more than 30 minutes, that could signal an underlying issue.
The major reasons detected for a child to lash out regularly are said to be:
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
A learning disability
Sensory processing issues
Disruptive Behaviour Disorder
A condition called disruptive behaviour disorder could also be the reason. This is more than a tantrum and can include a pattern of actions that interferes with daily life. The child may engage in fighting, cruelty, arguing and defiance of authority.
Two of the most common disruptive behaviour disorders are oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD).
Children with ODD may show signs of being spiteful, mean, or cruel to others. They are hostile a lot and spend a lot of time arguing or defying authority. They may be more likely to have anxiety or depression as they get older.
Children with CD may grow up to have problems in daily life with friends or at home. Their ongoing disruptive or violent actions may include bullying, using weapons, destroying property, stealing, and lying.
Managing the situation
Aside from taking any measures needed to prevent danger to children, it is advisable for parents to try ignoring the tantrum and let it run its course. It is tempting to give in to the child's wishes, if the upset has occurred over something the child has demanded and has been denied, but doing so can be harmful because it teaches children that they can get what they want by using a tantrum. Frequently, tantrums occur in public places, which is especially unsettling for parents while children may use it as an attempt to gain parental attention that is focused elsewhere. In spite of the embarrassment, it is better to treat a public tantrum in essentially the same way they treat one at home. If possible, the child should be taken, to a private space to avoid inconveniencing others and attracting any unwelcome attention, after which the tantrum could be ignored to a certain extent but by checking on the kid's safety and health. The child can also be rewarded while behaving properly.
If there are concerns about the child's behaviour, the parents need to discuss seriously with the pediatrician. A consultation with a psychiatrist or a psychologist may be sought if needed. Early treatment can help and can focus on goals like teaching the child to deal with anger and frustration, in ways that are more appropriate.
(The writer is Director, TGL Foundation and Editor of Anthropology Today)