Tantrums: Different Kinds need different Strategies

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,



About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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23 Responses to Tantrums: Different Kinds need different Strategies

  1. Laura Weldon says:

    Fantastic and deeply empathetic post. I’m wending my way through the links to your previous posts, finding “aha” moments in each one.

  2. Wow Karyn, I have not thought of all these reasons for tantrum! But I do try to find the root cause and usually think of food or sleep issues. C is more emotional lately and I think he is not eating regularly enough. Both my boys will pick at food one meal and chow down the next. I need some one on one time with my sweet youngest. You have an excellent blog Karyn. Thanks for caring enough to write about it. 🙂

    • Thanks, Cori. Food and sleep issues tend to be our biggest contributors to meltdowns, too. (Although with our nine year-old Hare anything which contributes in the slightest to overstimulation can do it too…sigh.) I’m only to happy to share what I have learned, especially now that I know it’s helping others out. 🙂

  3. adhdwith3 says:

    Wow. I had no idea although a lot of it makes sense. I have a boy that falls apart a lot when he is tired or hungry.

  4. Li-ling says:

    Karyn, Thank you for all those details. I must say, the environmental one made me smile, we (i’m not sure if it’s Chinese or just Malaysian Chinese) have a reference to ‘wind’ when we can’t find an explanation or reason for the things other people do.
    Thinking about tantrums some more, it’s a bit like decoding a baby’s cry isn’t it?

  5. Julie says:

    hi Karyn,

    Very interesting breakdown – thanks for this. I’m sure there is something on your site which explains the different temperaments – Owl, Hare, etc – that you refer to but I couldn’t seem to find it. Could you point me in the right direction?

    cheers, Julie

  6. Asta Burrows says:

    Do you think a 15 month old can have a tantrum? So he was a bit tired, but still, I haven´t seen anything like it before… it was trying to carry two books around, but they were big and heavy… he didn´t want any help, he just screamed his head off… We tried to help him carry the books, and tried to read them to him, but no matter what we did it didn´t help, and he just seemed to get to the stage where nothing would help and he started throwing the books around. After half an hour of this we put him in his bed, he cried for a few minutes, then sat quietly for half an hour, and then he was fine again!

    • Yes Asta, that sounds like a tantrum. And it sounds like a Power Tantrum too. It is hard to know at first which is which. We often go through the list in our heads or try different approaches before we realise what’s going on. Stay calm but firm with your decisions and this will be a stage…(that lasts until about age 4!) 😉

      • Just a thought, Asta. Separation anxiety is at its peak between 15 and 18 months too…just something to look out for and manage as best you can. 🙂

        • Asta Burrows says:

          oh yes, I recognise that – recently he has been getting worse when one of us leaves the room… And I can’t remember what it is like to go to the bathroom without having a little one outside banging on the door! Having a shower isn’t as relaxing as it used to be! 🙂

          • It’s an intense stage for everyone. I’ve resorted to having evening showers now and have given up on having the toilet door closed. And muttering: this too will pass…this too will pass…this too…
            Thanks for the RT on Twitter too. It’s all a bit confusing over there for me!

      • Asta Burrows says:

        Until he is 4? Oh dear… 🙂

  7. QueenArtLady says:


    I am making my way through your recent posts. I need to subscribe to get the latest post by e-mail, so excuse me for making a late comment.

    My instinct led me to believe that there was more than 2 types of tantrums although I have never classified it as eloquently as you have done.

    Our son has a dairy intolerance and when he has some dairy (it seems especially cheese) his behavior is like a full blown tantrum, he just can’t help himself. Although food intolerance/ allergies might not be a tantrum ‘category’ I thought it worth mentioning in case somebody is struggling with a lot of tantrums. We went through a rough time with R and people kept on telling us it is just part of the Terrible Twos. I finally took him to a homeopath and she suggested taking him of dairy, within days his behavior improved dramatically.

    I am also looking forward to the website. I thought R was an owl but his challenge tantrum would be more like a Hare and he is very sensitive to overstimulate.

    My little girl get environmental tantrums – especially when the wind blows. Not good if you live in the windy Wellington area 😉

    Thanks for all the info.

    • It’s great that you mention food intolerances. It’s one of those things we have had to deal with too, but we got mucous (from wheat even though everyone kept telling us it was dairy)…I can’t imagine living in Wellington with children – our kids react to the wind here too, but we tend to only get equinox winds in Sept/Oct which cause them real problems. Thanks for reading *and* commenting – I don’t mind how late you are…I still get a buzz when I see a new comment. 🙂

  8. Steph says:

    I would LOVE to use this as a guest post on my blog babycentered.blogspot.com. When you have time can you email me. I would love to use it as a segway for other mothers to find your information. SO GOOD!

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