The Trouble with ‘Tantrums’:

Why Parents Should Move Away from This Terminology

Parenting a young child can often mean you’re navigating the entire spectrum of emotions in one day. One minute, your child can be a happy bundle of joy, and the next, they're on the floor screaming blue murder without so much as a warning. For many years, these emotional outbursts have been referred to as 'tantrums,' a label that carries a rather negative connotation and been thought of as - or related to – ‘misbehaviour’. But with modern neuroscience research and the latest information gathered on early years development, we now understand more than ever about how babies and young children learn and grow. As such, it's important to update and reframe the way we think (and talk) about their behaviour and developmental journey.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of reframing the word ‘tantrum’ and instead, using your child’s big emotions as opportunities for them to learn about and regulate their feelings. This shift in perspective can have a profound impact on how you support your child’s emotional wellbeing and development.

Understanding Your Child’s Emotional Behaviour

Children's emotional behaviours are often misunderstood. The term 'tantrum' is loaded with negative connotations, implying that the child is being difficult or manipulative. This perspective can lead to frustration and punitive responses from parents and carers, which might exacerbate the situation rather than resolve it.

Young children are navigating a world that is often overwhelming. They are experiencing new emotions, sensations, and frustrations daily. These emotional outbursts are not premeditated acts of defiance but spontaneous expressions of feelings they do not yet know how to manage. By labelling these moments as ‘tantrums,’ we risk overlooking the developmental and emotional needs behind the behaviour.

Our Wellbeing and Early Help Specialist, Melanie Fisher, explains that in understanding 'tantrums,' it's helpful to distinguish between the two types of emotional behaviours: emotional outbursts (control tantrums) and emotional meltdowns.





Emotional Outbursts

Loud (shouting/screaming), using words, stamping feet

Aimed at getting a need met; child is usually aware of their impact on others

The adult should hold boundaries, remain close, calm, and firm. The child's cortex (thinking brain) is in control, allowing them to return to a regulated state quickly once the need is met.

Emotional Meltdowns

Noisy, hot, 'wet' (crying), child looks distressed

Originates from overwhelm; behaviour is out of their control, with no awareness of impact on others

The adult should offer love and connection with limited language and as much physical contact as the child will tolerate. The child's lower brain (focused on survival) is in control, making it difficult to return to a regulated state without co-regulation.

Sometimes, an emotional outburst can escalate into an emotional meltdown if the child's strategy to get their need met fails. It's crucial for adults to recognise this shift and adjust their response accordingly.

Both types of 'tantrums' highlight the child's need for adult connection and validation of their big emotions. Proper responses help children learn that adults support and understand their emotional needs, fostering emotional regulation skills. Developmentally, meltdowns occur from birth through age 5, while outbursts develop around ages 2-3 as children begin to realise they can influence others' behaviour.

The Bright Horizons Nurture Approach: A Pathway to Emotional Wellbeing

At Bright Horizons, our bespoke Nurture Approach (based off the latest neuroscience studies and years of research and expertise) emphasises the importance of recognising and supporting children’s emotional and psychological needs as integral to their holistic development. When children express big emotions, it's a sign that they need empathy and guidance in understanding and managing these feelings so they can begin to learn how to self-regulate. This approach encourages us as parents, carers and educators to see these moments not as disruptions but as opportunities for growth and learning.

The Importance of Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is an important skill that your child needs to develop. After all, it’s one of those skills that will serve them well into their childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. It involves recognising, understanding, and managing their emotions. For babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, this process is very much in its early stages. They need guidance and support from adults to help them navigate their feelings effectively and in a healthy manner. By meeting them where they’re at, helping them understand their emotions, and providing them with the tools to manage them, you can support their overall emotional wellbeing and development.

Reframing Emotional Outbursts

Reframing how you view and respond to your child’s emotional outbursts can make a significant difference. Here are some tips to help reframe 'tantrums' and support your child's emotional and wellbeing development:

  1. Recognise the Emotion
    Instead of seeing the outburst as undesirable behaviour, recognise it as an expression of a valid emotion. Whether it’s frustration, sadness, or anger, acknowledge that your child is feeling something intensely.
  1. Stay Calm and Patient
    As you may have already experienced, your reaction to your child’s outburst can either escalate or de-escalate the situation. Try to stay calm and patient. This not only helps to soothe your child but also models the behaviour you want them to learn.
  1. Validate Their Feelings
    Let your child know that it’s okay to feel upset. Use phrases like, "I see you're really angry right now," or "It’s okay to feel sad." Validation helps children feel understood and less alone in their emotions and experiences of life.
  1. Teach Emotional Vocabulary
    Help your child learn the words to express their feelings. The goal being that eventually instead of screaming, they can say, "I’m frustrated because..." This helps empower them to communicate more effectively and reduces the need for dramatic outbursts.
  1. Provide Coping Strategies
    Teach your child ways to calm down. This could include deep breathing, counting to ten, or having a quiet space where they can retreat until they feel better. Practice these strategies together when your child is calm so they can use them during moments of distress.
  1. Reflect on the Experience
    After the outburst has passed, talk to your child about what happened. Discuss what they were feeling and what they can do next time they feel that way. This reflection helps reinforce the learning experience.

Long-Term Benefits

Moving away from the term 'tantrum' and adopting a more supportive approach can have many positive long-term benefits for your child. They will develop better emotional regulation skills, which are crucial for their mental health, wellbeing, and relationships throughout their life. A happy, resilient, and well-regulated child is also more open to learning and new experiences.

Moreover, this approach nurtures a stronger parent-child relationship. When your child feels understood and supported, they are more likely to trust you and communicate openly.