What causes temper tantrums?

What causes temper tantrums?

What is behind your child’s tantrums and Meltdowns?


We have all seen it. In a grocery store, a bank or even on the road. Young children experiencing emotional meltdowns, throwing tantrums, crying and screaming. Embarrassed parents are forced to discipline their young child to help them to stay calm. What we don’t see is the underlying cause of this emotional outburst.

Perhaps you have heard of the ‘terrible twos’ and the age bracket defined by bad habits in young children. Tantrums are common during the second year of life when language skills are starting to develop. Because toddlers can’t yet say what they want, feel, or need, a frustrating experience may cause a tantrum. As language skills improve, tantrums tend to decrease. A parent’s ability to understand whether these tantrums, no matter the child’s years of age, are a result of environmentally independent variable or sensory processing disorders.

When a child is experiencing an emotional meltdown this is the symptom of their nervous system being prepped and absorbing varying amounts of stress. When children don’t develop social and emotional regulation as part of normal development, or they feel like they are not in control of their environment, they lash out over the smallest of things. It can be as simple as just saying a plain no and it will present itself as something so stressful and threatening to them that they can’t cope with it.

“I was speaking to someone the other day whose daughter has to have two spoons in her bowl every morning. Never uses the two spoons, but has to have it every morning. And you know, they’re the sorts of things that you get is this controlling behaviour is, you know, it has to be this way and I won’t give into it. Or if you say no, then you know, that’s where I’ve just lost control and that will set me over the edge there.” – Amanda Parson

Majority of us are born with the capacity to receive sensory information and organize it effortlessly into appropriate behavioural and physiological responses. The inability to process sensory information leads to sensory processing difficulties. And if not addressed early, these will manifest into more serious emotional mental health disorders. The biggest reason behind all this is stress and how the child’s brain starts to prepare itself in response to stress. More information starts to alert over responses that wouldn’t normally exist. This is where we get attention deficit disorder and anxiety disorders starting to emerge.

“56% of primary school age children now have diagnosed internal mental health disorders in Australia. 72% of high school students are diagnosed with depression. That’s not even an external mental health disorder. That’s just the internal ones.” – Amanda Parson

What’s the best way to determine if there are underlying sensory processing disorders?

“The best way is obviously to start with behavioural observations. Start to notice those things are there in a kid’s setting or your own kids at home. Fill out a sensory profile questionnaire. If you don’t have access to one, just give us a call and we’ll email you on. It just has five columns: always, frequently, occasionally, seldom or never. You just tick those and to answer different behavioural questions like how his hands are over his ears for loud noises that are acceptable for us, for example. And how, whether you see that frequently, occasionally, seldom or never or always. You’ll start to see ticks alive in different sensory areas. It’s broken into the different sensory categories of like visual, auditory and proprioceptive.” – Amanda Parson

There are 3 main types of sensory processing disorders: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD), Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD), and Sensory Discrimination Disorder. These basically describe the difficulty processing sensory information into appropriate responses, difficulty controlling their movements and difficulty distinguishing between sensations respectively.

A few indicators of Sensory Processing Disorder are heightened response to sound, touch or movement, under-reactivity to certain sensations e.g. not noticing name being called, being touched, and high pain threshold, seeking increased amounts of auditory, tactile or movement input e.g. making noises to self, constantly touching objects and people, and being hyperactive, appearing to be in own world and difficulty regulating own behavioural and emotional responses; increased tantrums, emotional reactive, need for control, impulsive behaviours.

This diagnosis comes as a relief to most parents who have been confused by the behaviour of their children but not all confusing behaviour is related to sensory disorders and some behaviours are actually behavioural issues independent of sensory needs. Sensory processing issues should only be diagnosed by a qualified professional.












Avoiding Tantrums in children not affected by Sensory Processing Disorders:

Try to prevent tantrums from happening in the first place, whenever possible. Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Give plenty of positive attention. Get in the habit of catching your child being good. Reward your child with praise and attention for positive behaviour.
  • Try to give toddlers some control over little things. Offer minor choices such as “Do you want orange juice or apple juice?” or “Do you want to brush your teeth before or after taking a bath?” This way, you aren’t asking “Do you want to brush your teeth now?” — which inevitably will be answered “no.”
  • Keep off-limits objects out of sight and out of reach (ice cream is a repeat offender). This makes struggles less likely. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, especially outside of the home where the environment can’t be controlled.
  • Distract your child. Take advantage of your little one’s short attention span by offering something else in place of what they can’t have. Start a new activity to replace the frustrating or forbidden one. Or simply change the environment. Take your toddler outside or inside or move to a different room.
  • Help your child learn new skills and succeed. Help kids learn to do things. Praise them to help them feel proud of what they can do. Also, start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
  • Consider the request carefully when your child wants something. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn’t. Choose your battles.
  • Know your child’s limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it’s not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand if you want to prevent temper tantrums.

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