Both Margot Sunderland (The Science of Parenting) and Diane Levy (Of Course I Love You…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM!) and probably lots of other people too, have identified that there are two different kinds of tantrums.
The first sort identified are Power Tantrums. These are the ones some highly-nurturing parents often struggle with and will give in to, or use bribery to avoid, because they cannot manage their child’s apparent distress.
The words, ‘why’ or ‘why should I’ and, whinging and whining will often come before the Power Tantrum. A full-blown Power Tantrum is when there are no tears and the child is able to speak.These are the ones which emerge when we begin to say “no” to our children – whether that’s the 20 month old who wants to go and look at the stars each time they wake up at night; the three year-old who wants a new toy every time they enter a shop; or the 13 year-old who wants to go to a party of predominantly 17 year olds. These are very noisy tantrums and often the child tantruming uses power strategies (threat of anger or violence) to try and win us over. Some, more sophisticated, children will try reasoning or charm, but they still want us to give in to them. These are the ones where we need to set boundaries and stick to our guns. These are the ones we ignore as we walk around the supermarket despite the stares and glances of others, and these are the ones which will largely disappear if managed well…over time. For more about Power Tantrums check out this post: Dealing with Power Tantrums. And Power Tantrums can turn quickly into Distress Tantrums where children need Boring Cuddles.
But most tantrums are not Power Tantrums.
While Mrs Levy and Ms Sunderland both identify a different kind of tantrum called a Distress Tantrum, not all Distress Tantrums are created equal. The following are all Distress Tantrums, but they need different strategies in order to manage them.
With Low-Blood Sugar Tantrums, children are not easily able to control their ferocious behaviours. These children need to be fed and quickly. For more about Low-Blood Sugar Tantrums go here Hell Hour: You don’t have to have them. Nope. Not at all.
The same can be said for children with Sleep-Deprivation Tantrums. I have yet to write a full post on these yet, but in brief: children who are sleep deprived find it difficult to use the glucose in their blood to feed their brain properly. Cutting down on anything which is interfering with sleep (could be: cola;tv; academics; extra-curricula activities;play time with parents; etc) and putting children to bed early (and I mean seriously early: 6.30 pm for children younger than the age of 7 or even 8 ) each night will combat these.
Disconnection Tantrums are possibly the most distressing for parents. At their worst, these are where the child takes their aggression out on their parents. They might run away and hide when their parent comes to pick them up. At their most common, they are the sound of escalating trouble when we have been on the phone for ‘too long’. To find out more about these you could check out this post Attention Seeking is a Big Fat Lie.
Frustration Tantrums happen when pre-verbal children cannot communicate their needs to us. To combat these check out this post: Prevent Frustration Tantrums – It’s Easy.
Physiological Tantrums are a form of Frustration Tantrum, but in an older child. These happen when a the brain of our child is not wired properly. It can happen in a child who has crawled. It can happen in any family in any socio-economic group. Signs that our child isn’t wired properly include problems with Reading and Writing despite being articulate; inability to skip after the age of seven; not using their arms when they run or walk; and for a child who has tried their hardest and yet still can’t manage school – tantrums. To learn a great trick to fix this, check out this post Reading Problems? Try this.
Environmental Tantrums happen and there isn’t a lot we can do about these except manage them. These happen when children are exposed to high-winds and for some children with the full moon. Ask any teacher about what happens to their students when the wind is high or people who deal with psychiatric patients or criminals and they will often confirm that ‘something’ happens, especially to those people who are both highly-sensitive and highly-adventurous by nature.
Challenge Tantrums happen when children are faced with a somewhat difficult new task. These are the ones parents and teachers often misinterpret as naughtiness or even laziness during piano practise or when asking a child to speak in front of the class, not realising their child is actually emotionally overwhelmed. Different temperaments react in different ways: Hares will threaten anger or violence; Owls will become stubborn; Butterflies will use charm and reasoning; and Tortoises will agree with you completely and procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate. By creating a way for our children to manage tasks in smaller…sometimes minute…increments, these can be managed and often avoided. Sometimes these are the times when we need to let them have a break.
Ouch/Sad/Worried Tantrums are what Ms Sunderland and Mrs Levy mean when they talk about Distress Tantrums. These are where our children cannot speak and have real tears. These are the ones where the strategy of Boring Cuddles works well. (See this post: Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing)
By understanding that each kind of tantrum has a different underlying cause, we can help our children to better manage their bodies and their emotional states – by treating each one differently. Not by using punishment or consequences unnecessarily – but also knowing when it’s a good time to set the boundary.
For more about tantrums I have a whole tantrum file!
(29th May, 2013 – I have now identified over 30 different kinds of tantrum and changed the labels to Reaction Tantrums and Processing Tantrums. )
For more innovative and science based ideas about tantrums buy my book,