Here are some helpful tips to handle tantrums effectively #dabblehearsyou

Before a child can write, they draw. Art is a language that can give a child a voice to express their feelings and they feel heard. They love to play with colours and naturally heal in the process of play.

Emotional Intelligence will not just help them to feel more secure as they growing up but also a skill set that will help them become secure, confident and creative adults.

This blog post answers some key questions

  1. What is a tantrum and why does it happen?
  2. What is the science behind a tantrum?
  3. As a parent, how can I help my child deal with a tantrum?
  4. How can art help as a language to help a child express?

What is a tantrum?

A tantrum is an outburst of emotions such as anger, helplessness, disappointment and deep frustration. In toddlers and young kids it manifests in the form of crying, screaming, hitting parents, pulling hair, throwing things, biting and in some severe cases holding breath, banging the head or even vomiting.

Why do tantrums happen?

Tantrums are a normal part of childhood development. So instead of labelling your child as a difficult/Cranky/ stubborn child and yourself as a bad parent, remember that it’s normal.

Try and look at the world through your babies lens – They are new to the world, and everything is new to them. They have no understanding of how things work. Their brains are developing and their understanding of new things is very limited.  When kids are having emotional temper tantrums, they are telling us that they’re in deep emotional pain and they are unable to cope on their own.

As they grow, a young child learns more and becomes more independent, they want to do more than they can physically and emotionally manage.

Here’s a simple acronym to remember what causes tantrums in toddlers and young children.

H – Hunger/ Tired – Babies love consistency and routine. If their basic security of their routine is challenged or they are over stimulated by too much happening around, it could naturally lead to emotional distress

A – Attention   Children throwing tantrums is one of very few tools they have to get attention from caregivers to meet their needs. E.g Mom has been busy for few hours with household chores and toddler is seeking a hug or comfort of being with the mom. It results in a tantrum just to get attention from the parent.

L – Lack of Language Toddlers are born with the ability to respond to survival instincts by crying but they don’t have the ability to express their emotions in words. Even older kids upto 5 may not have the language and feelings vocabulary to express their emotions and that shows up as a tantrum.

T – Testing boundaries Our babies are slowly trying to gain control of the world around them by becoming independent. Kids this age see themselves as separate beings from their parents, free to make their own decisions. So when they hear a constant “No, don’t do this’ “ No you cant have that!” they are trying to test their boundaries and gain control. Your child is also gauging what he can (and can’t) get away with.

What age do tantrums show up?

It depends on how each child reaches a developmental milestone. While one child starts having tantrums at 18 months another child can start at 3 years old. You may also see tantrums in older children upto 5 years.  Therefore, these tantrums are common between the age of 18 months to 5 years in early childhood.

What’s the science behind a tantrum?

The brain is divided into 2 parts – The neo cortex, which is the thinking brain and the emotional brain. So when an emotion like frustration, anger, hunger is triggered in the brain, the thinking brain is not at work.

When a toddler is triggered by an emotion, a little hijack happens by a part of the brain called Amygdala. When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away.

It’s similar to an example if a stray dog were to come towards you- the first emotion that’s triggered is fear and our immediate reaction is to either fight by throwing a stone or run away. That s is triggered by the amygdala in the brain.

So, in the case of a little toddler with a big worry, what he/she needs is help to be able to deal with this hijack.

How to deal with a Tantrum?

Tantrums don’t happen without warning, although sometimes it’s hard to see the triggers. Consider a pressure cooker. Fill it with water and apply heat, and the temperature will start rising, building up a head of steam. First, you hear the activity like a simmer or slow boil, but eventually, the steam will need to escape through the valve in the form of a whistle. The pressure cooker will start whistling until you remove the heat or maybe put cool water on the cooker.

Here are some ways of calming a child before, during or after a tantrum;

  1. Stay Calm during a tantrum.

Shouting or showing your own frustration will only make things worse.

  • Take a few deep breaths before reacting, or take a moment to figure out what to do.
  • Next, remove yourself from the situation by calmly taking your child by the hand — or picking them up if necessary. Even if you walk just a few feet away and go off to the side, it’s enough to change the scene and give you both a moment to pause.
  • Stay close to your child and without saying much. Your calming presence and lack of reaction will help your child calm down.
  • Remember, it is only a development challenge and also an opportunity to teach your child how to respond. Don’t take it personally or judge yourself!
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotion and need.

 Tantrum is a result a child’s unmet need resulting in a emotion

Acknowledge your child’s strong feelings. For example, ‘It makes you disappointed when you can’t go to the park right now and you want to go out and play?’ This can help prevent behaviour getting more out of control and gives your child a chance to reset emotions. You can also explore a possible choice – we can’t go to the park right now, it’s dark and unsafe but we can play in the bath tub.

Give your toddler a little bit of control. E.g Let your child choose which outfit he can wear, a pants or shorts. These little choices won’t make much of a difference to you, but they’ll make your child feel as though they have at least some control over their own life.

  • Prepare the child in advance if there is change in a child’s routine or you expect something

Communicate with your toddler. Do not underestimate their ability to understand what you are saying. Tell them the plan for the day and stick to your routine to minimize any surprises. Let’s say you are going to a mall, and the last time you went your child threw a tantrum for a toy, this time let your child know well in advance that you are going to the mall and you are only going to buy some groceries and clothes. We will not be visiting a toy shop and buying a toy. Last time we went to the mall, you seemed to get upset since you wanted a toy, this time if you ask for a toy, we will leave the mall immediately. So when you make your expectations clear, your child knows what to expect. Dragging your child to the store when she’s hungry, tired, or restless is setting her up for failure.

  •  Don’t give in

Don’t give in to the tantrum. When parents give in, children learn to use inappropriate behavior to get their way. Be consistent in your responses to tantrums.

If a child hits you, you can suggest permissible alternatives to bad behaviors, like giving him a pillow to hit instead. You can say… its okay to be angry but you cannot hit me, it hurts me, you can hit this pillow. This way your child can take out the frustration in a healthy way and learn not to hurt someone.

  • Teach your child the feelings vocabulary

Art gives a voice to the unspoken feelings and thoughts, allowing young children to explore, discover and experiment even before they can attach words or meaning to what they have created. Through images, you can not only teach children feelings such as happy, sad, angry which is a normal part of their emotional development. When they are able to express how they are feeling, they are less likely to throw a tantrum as they are able to share what’s going on.

5 ART activities to help children with emotional expression and calm a tantrum

Art can provide a very natural and safe way for children to express themselves especially when they have not developed the language to express in words. They can play, experiment, create stories, make a mess use images to represent feelings, externalise their feelings by creating characters and share their art with others.

1. Feelings Cards: Toddlers and young children need help to understand emotions. Images speak 1000 times louder than words. As a parent you can make feeling cards of everyday feelings which a toddler/ child is likely to feel – happy, sad, angry, scared, hungry, tired. During the day you can use the cards to express how you are feeling. Eg mama is feeling tired after standing for a long time in the kitchen, I need some rest. Also, help your toddler to identify how he/she is feeling with the feelings card. When you consistently do this, you will notice how your child is able to express better and feel much more in control.

2. Feelings check

If you child is 2.5 +, you can also do a feelings check during the day, ideally in the morning Can you pick up a colour and show me on the paper how you are feeling? The purpose of this exercise is not to come up with the most beautiful picture of representation but just to express. They may choose to just to scribble or create whatever they like. You do it too and then speak about your feeling and encourage your child to speak as well.

3. Finger painting

Finger painting can be very calming and therapeutic for a child. The focus here is on the process of painting and not the end result. Just play, get messy, mix colours and let go. If you are worried about mess, choose a space in the balcony or an area in your house specifically designated for art.  Also, Dabble finger paints wash off easily from the floor and skin so that makes it stress free.

  • Painting to Music

The combination of music and colours is a great way to release any unexpressed emotions. Choose instrumental music or any other music that’s soothing and play it… it brings a joy and calms a child down. It is also a great way to bond with your child and can be healing in your relationship.  

  • Crayons walk

Crayons can be a great way to express feelings such as frustration and anger. Ask your child to pick a colour they like and colour. Your child might may feel the need to scribble hard or maybe not do much… whatever is the case… allow your child to just be. Dabble crayons are toxin free, easy to grip and colour which makes it a smooth and safe experience. The Dabble crayon characters can also be used to express feelings and speak to each other. Example.. how is the dinosaur feeling, is he feeling angry or sad?

When is professional help needed?

As your child’s self-control and emotional expression improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children begin to have fewer tantrums by 4. If your child is causing harm to self or others,  holds breath during tantrums to the point of fainting, or has worsening tantrums after age 4, do not hesitate to reach out to a therapist or a doctor.

I hope this blog post will be helpful in your journey as a parent, to understand your child better and build a loving bond with your little one. These are truly precious years and may you cherish every moment and create memories for a lifetime. Stay blessed!

Please share your comments/ questions in the comments below.


Karen Saldanha

Co Founder & Chief Dabbler

Dabble Playart