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The Early Years: Making sense of your child’s tantrums

In typically developing toddlers, when autonomy and independence begin to develop, it can lead to a refusal to comply with instructions. Anxieties about changes in routine can lead to mild aggression as well.

toddler tantrums, early childhoodUnderstand your child's tantrums and learn to manage them. (Source: Getty Image)

By Abha Ranjan Khanna

Toddlerhood (between 12 to 36 months old), in particular, is a time for children to learn the bounds of acceptable behaviour. This is demanding for parents, because the criteria for what is acceptable vary across cultures and families. Even within a single family, it’s common for caregivers to disagree about which behaviours are appropriate, and to have different ideas about the best way to manage challenging behaviour.

All children benefit from having their social-emotional development supported through positive and responsive relationships with their parents and primary caregivers. Therefore, the foundation for positive behaviour is responsive and supportive care-giving and parenting practices. However, some children need intervention that is beyond positive relationships and supportive environments to address their delayed or atypical social-emotional skills.

Following are a few examples of causes of challenging behaviour and strategies for managing them:

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In typically developing toddlers, when autonomy and independence begin to develop, it can lead to refusal to comply with instructions; tantrums or crying for no apparent reason and saying “no” to every offer, even those he/she wants. Typical toddlers may have anxieties about new experiences and changes in routine which can lead to mild aggression towards other children and familiar adults.

A few strategies to manage these behaviours include ignoring tantrums or undesirable behaviour and rewarding positive behaviour. For example, pay focussed and mindful attention to your toddler when he/she is engaged in appropriate behaviour such as looking at books, playing pleasantly with other children or following instructions. You could say “you love reading! That’s great!” or “You really play nicely with your friends and are great at sharing your toys!” or “Thank you! You are a great listener!”

There can be several environmental triggers that may lead to disconcerting behaviours. For example, too many choices leading to overstimulation or distraction, lack of opportunities for age-appropriate exploration, sensitivity to particular noises (e.g. mixer grinder), temperature, crowds, itchy clothing, visually “busy” environments. These can show up as tantrums for no discernible reason and/ or screaming or crying for no other reason, inattention to other people, acting without regard to personal safety, withdrawing to another environment and/or hyperactivity.


Strategies that can effectively address these behaviours include identifying environmental factors that might cause discomfort and ensuring those triggers are avoided and distracting the child towards a more positive activity/stimulus that she/he enjoys.

Children with developmental delays may become easily frustrated due to an inability to use skills (such as words to indicate wants, or to move across the room to get a toy), parent’s difficulties to understand the child’s nonverbal cues, which may differ from those of typical children and/or parental expectations for the child to have the skills of a typically-developing child. These can lead to tantrums and aggression. Once parents understand the roots of their child’s frustration they can teach their child “compensatory skills” (e.g. signs if the child’s words are unintelligible). Parents can also learn to understand their child’s cues that the child is becoming frustrated, is hungry, etc., to prevent the undesirable behaviour.

Watch out for The Early Years space in the coming weeks, as it will include other important causes of challenging behaviour and the skills that caregivers can develop to address them.

(The writer is an occupational therapist.)

First published on: 22-02-2019 at 11:22:37 am
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