What Causes Tantrums?

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today, I’d like to talk about something that’s been on my mind an awful lot lately and that’s WHY YOUR CHILD IS HAVING CHRONIC TANTRUMS.

Tantrums are the #1 reason parents join my Facebook group- the Parenting Posse. It had slipped to the #2 spot briefly a little while ago to Not Listening… but it’s back up there loud and proud.

And here’s the back story- last June- which seems like forever ago now- I was chatting with a client form my OLD coaching program which I just shut down… and we were talking about her child’s tantrums and she was explaining some events from their past weeks and I was taking notes the whole time and then I was like “Okay- so it’s very clear to me what the root of the tantrums are so let’s start by…” and I was about to launch into giving her strategies and she was like “STOP! Allana how on earth do you know that?” And I was like “Well you said he was doing this, this, and this…” and she was like “yeah.” and I was like “so….that’s a pretty clear indication that this is the problem.” and she was like “Okay but HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?!” And I realized after having that conversation that I have a running checklist in my head all the time where I’m auto-categorizing behaviors and then tallying them so that I can tell what is ACTUALLY CAUSING THE BEHAVIOR. Because- and if you aren’t sick of hearing me say this yet, God bless you- Parents usually are SO FOCUSED on individual instances of behavior that they forget to step back and look at the bigger picture and figure out what the golden thread is that links all these individual instances together. We’re so focused on the fact that he was freaking out because he didn’t get the right flavor of yogurt for snack or because the kid at playgroup stole his toy that we forget that those are just surface symptoms and that there’s a REAL PROBLEM under the surface and that THAT is the key to our child’s tantrums.

So anyways… I had that conversation that was kind of a lightbulb moment for me… and I created something I called the Is it Behaviour or Is it Sensory Tantrum Decoding workbook. And my clients loved it. MOST of the people who’ve used it were like ALLANA– this is great but the checklist isn’t enough. I need MORE HELP.” So I’ve been worrying and waiting over it and back in November I finally kind of got my head on straight and figured out how I was going to provide that in this new program… but we’ll talk more on that later.

So I want to tell you WHY your child is having chronic tantrums. Because so many parents just can’t seem to figure it out.

There are MANY schools of thought on “How many types of tantrums there are” and- much like executive functions you can really break them down into smaller categories our you can lump them together more… but these are the categories I find most useful, and useful to my clients.

The first category is BEHAVIORAL.

These are the tantrums that are attention-seeking, they’re socially unacceptable, they might be harmful to themselves or others, they’re often destructive to people’s property, and they’re usually the most disruptive. These are the ones where they’re like a Tasmanian Devil crossed with a hurricane crossed with an IED. They’re messy, they’re loud, and they’re designed to be as invasive as possible. THIS IS WHAT ALL PARENTS THINK ALL TANTRUMS ARE. But- it’s quite rare for tantrums to be TOTALLY behavioral. Usually, this category is almost even with one of the other two, or if it’s the dominant one there’s a significant runner up. These are the ones where you REALLY have to remember that kids do well if they can. These tantrums are REALLY a symptom of “I don’t know how to get what I want or need. So I’m going to hit the ceiling.”

Second category is COMMUNICATION.

And I know- this seems pretty obvious- there’s something they need or want and they don’t feel heard, right? But it would amaze you how many parents conflate communication and behavior based tantrums. I’ve had so many parents say to me “Well no there’s no way it’s a communication problem- she can talk just fine.” People tend to think that communication based tantrums can only be for like- 18 month olds who can’t string two words together yet, but they’re not. Communication goes SO FAR beyond just talking. Hands up in the comments- drop me a hands up emoji or type an i in the comments if you would say that your communication with your spouse is less than ideal. I’ll put my hand up for that. Give me a hands up emoji or an i in the comments if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone and while YOU think you’re being really clear- they’re not getting the message you intend to put out. I’ll raise my hand for that again. Why do we think that we must be communicating perfectly with our children all the time? If we have communication difficulties with other people in our lives- why is it unthinkable that maybe- JUST MAYBE- the communication between you and your child might not be on point either? So when you stop to think about it- it makes TOTAL SENSE that a lot of tantrums would be communication based! Communication isn’t just about their speech. It goes way further than that.

The third is SENSORY.

They’re either receiving TOO MUCH or too little stimulation. Something either feels good or it feels really bad. And again- parents tend to think this is impossible. Every time I tell a parent “Oh that’s totally rooted in sensory seeking (or avoidance)” they’re TOTALLY flabbergasted. What?! My child doesn’t have any sensory problems! And your child doesn’t have to have like- Sensory Processing Disorder in order to have sensory based tantrums! The most common type of sensory based tantrums are when they’re OVER TIRED. When you’re tired you get overstimulated VERY QUICKLY and that leads to HUGE nuclear level meltdowns and the ONLY CURE for those tantrums is sleep, right? Drop me an ear emoji or an exclamation mark in the comments if you’ve ever been SO TOUCHED OUT that you swear the next person who paws at you is going to lose their teeth. ME! I’ll own it. I had an adult meltdown one night where I was so touched out from the day with little kids all over me and then my husband came to like- give me hug and I had to leave the house because if one more human being touched me that night I was going to lose my mind. That’s a sensory tantrum. Or show of hands- whose purposefully just gone for a solo drive- no music on- just to hear silence. Moi. Now that’s not a sensory tantrum but it could easily escalate to one if I don’t get the break I need to regulate. But kids are still learning to regulate. And they often don’t have control of the environments they’re in. And because they’re still learning- they often don’t know when hitting their limit, or they don’t understand yet that they can say to us “I’m hitting my limit.” And on our part- we’re shit at listening to them! We often tell our kids- oh just do this or oh I’m just going to do this first, then we’ll leave. Or on the flip side- if they’re seeking- how often don’t we warn them that this VERY regulating thing is coming to an end? So again- not so out in left field that a LOT of tantrums have a sensory root- even if there’s no disorder involved.

So that’s it. Your child is melting down for one of those three reasons.

As I said- pretty much nobody agrees on the number or type of categories in the behaviorism space. You can break those down further. But those 3 are what I use. And I’m usually right. Because as I said- no parent thinks that their child is having sensory or communication based tantrums. Everybody assumes it’s behavioral and it so rarely is. There’s usually a behavioral component- yeah. But RARELY do I see pure behavior-based tantrums. Everyone keeps looking at the surface and taking it at face value… but I want you to step back and dig a little deeper.


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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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