Tantrums and how to manage them

Many parents have experienced situations where a trip to the supermarket turns into a battleground. You’re about to pay for your groceries when your child spots a gleaming candy bar on the shelves and carefully places it in the shopping cart, crossing their fingers that you won’t notice. But you did!  When you deny their request, it quickly escalates into a power struggle, and they’re seconds away from weeping their hearts out and writhing about on the floor.

For most parents, the triggers to these behaviours are often clear-cut. It’s not a mystery that little Abu got upset because he couldn’t sink his teeth into the deliciousness that he was craving for all week, which led to his outburst. But for parents of a child with autism, it’s often harder to pinpoint the root cause of a particular behaviour. As children with autism are highly sensitive towards the different kinds of input in their environment, parents are pushed to be hypervigilant at all times. 

In this write up, I’ll provide some insight on how to recognise and distinguish between an autism tantrum and autism meltdown, as well as strategies to assist parents in managing these situations.

What is a tantrum?


A  temper tantrum essentially manifests when a child’s needs or wants are denied, delayed or disturbed. I call it the triple Ds. These temper tantrums are usually observed during the infamous ‘’terrible twos’’, which is a stage that typically extends to the age of 4. 

During their first few years of life, children’s brains develop rapidly, as does their capacity to learn essential social and emotional skills. Toddlers of this age group start to assert dominance through a process called ‘’limit testing’’, which is when a child constantly tests boundaries and develops teasing to see how parents or caregivers would react to forbidden actions.  As maddening as this defiance may be, it is actually a sign that your child is developmentally on-track. 

When we dig deeper as to why these temper tantrums occur, it is important to consider typical development and understand why toddlers are ticking time bombs: 


  • Separation anxiety! Toddlers are constantly demanding their parent’s or carer’s attention. They cling tightly in affection, fatigue or fear. Ignoring, defying or modifying their wishes would surely come off as a threat. 
  • The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s centre responsible for emotional regulation and social behaviour, has not fully matured – hence they lack the ability to self-regulate and are dependent on parents or caregivers to calm them down. 
  • They have a growing desire to become independent, but their undeveloped motor skills and cognitive skills make it impossible to actually BE independent.
  • Still-developing speech and language skills make communicating wants/needs challenging. They get frustrated trying to make themselves understood.
  • Growing up in an unfamiliar world, toddlers are constantly exploring and developing an increased understanding and tolerance of their world. It is not an easy feat having to feel large emotions in a small body, it’s often anxiety-inducing and overwhelming. This anxiety and lack of control often leads to tantrums when it all gets to be too much to manage.

A tantrum’s defining characteristic is that the child’s behaviour will usually remain when they receive attention for it, but will go away if they realise they are being ignored. When children throw tantrums, they maintain a level of control over their behaviour and readily alter the intensity of their tantrum based on feedback from people around them. The tantrums subside when the child either gets what they want, or when they realise that no amount of kicking and screaming will result in them getting their way. 

It is important for parents to uphold a level of assertiveness when faced with an outburst of this nature. Typically, when parents “give in” to their child’s outburst, in exchange for a quieter evening, these children are more likely to repeat the behaviour the next time they hear the word ‘’no’’, making it a learned behaviour that is usually harder to manage. 

Children who exhibit frequent tantrum outbursts often have difficulty regulating their own emotions associated with anxiety and anger. They can be impulsive in their reactions and if not addressed appropriately and in a timely manner, persistent outbursts can result in social-emotional difficulties in the long run

Managing tantrums


Identify the purpose of the tantrum 

What is the intrinsic motivation that drives your child to resort to an outburst? 

  • to get attention
  • to get what he wants/needs
  • denial of want/need
  • delayed access to what he wants/needs

Once you identify WHY your child is tantruming, you can respond more appropriately. Recognise your child’s needs in the moment, without giving in to them. 

Let’s try to resolve Abu’s predicament at the grocery store. Abu really wanted that scrumptious candy bar, but he has already maxed out his daily allowance of sweet treats. When he’s told no, he proceeds to roll on the floor, causing a scene down at your local supermarket (tantrum AND purpose of behaviour). 

You have two choices here: give in before all hell breaks loose, or turn it into a learning experience by explaining what sweet snacks will do to his teeth. I know as a parent you might be itching to nip it in the bud to stop the tantrum, but take some deep breaths and follow these 4 steps.

Step 1: Validate their feelings

Calmly, concisely respond with ‘’Abu I’m so sorry that you’re upset. I can see that you’re very unhappy about not getting that candy bar. It’s okay to feel sad.’’

Step 2: Offer a choice or redirect 

Give them a choice to calm down. 

Say ‘’Do you need mommy to hug you and breathe with you to help you calm down,” or “Do you need some alone time? Either way I’m right here if you need me”. 

You can also try redirecting them to a healthier alternative. 

Say ‘’Would you like yoghurt instead? I think it will be just as yummy!’’ or ‘’This seems like a more suitable option for you, maybe you want to try this?’’

Step 3: Give them space

If your child is already too distraught, what you say isn’t going to get through to them, and they’re probably not even listening. Walk away, and give them space. Don’t stick around and give your child an audience, wait till it subsides.

Say ‘’Okay, I’m going to give you some space to calm down now. When you’re calm, we’ll talk about it’’. 

Step 4: Reconnect when they are calmer

When they are ready, reconnect with them. Hug them and make it a learning opportunity to teach them the reasoning behind your decisions. In Abu’s case, it’s to do with what is suitable for him, what isn’t and why that is.

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