Two Types of Tantrums

When dealing with children’s upsets, it’s helpful to think of two different types of tantrums: manipulative and temperament related.

The classic manipulative tantrum is the toddler who screams for a cookie or the preschooler who demands a toy at the store.  We all know that giving in today assures another tantrum next time.  So we hold the line, repeatedly when necessary.

On the other hand, temperament tantrums (which some parents call “meltdowns”) are about a child in a state of overwhelm—too much stimulation, too many changes, too much time pressure and so forth.  I talked with a mother whose 3-year-old screamed and kicked every morning while she dressed him for preschool.

“Were there tantrums on the weekends too?” I asked.  “No,” she replied. “What was different?”  On school days he wore the cute little Levis his grandparents had given him for school.  On weekends he wore soft sweat pants.  To this sensitive little boy’s tender skin, the Levis felt stiff and scratchy and the snap poked his tummy.  His body rebelled.  What’s the solution?  “Give-in!”  Let him wear the clothes he is comfortable in so he has more energy to deal with the rest of his day.  Ask the grandparents to give sweat pants, not Levis.

Parents agree that tantrums are more likely when children are tired or hungry.  You’ve been out unusually late and arrive home just after bedtime.  Stressed by being tired, Melanie starts to cry and pull away as you head toward the bathroom to brush teeth.  It may now be better for everyone to skip tooth brushing this evening.  Sleep will likely come more quickly and smoothly without a fight in the bathroom.  (A few intense, routine-oriented children may then demand to skip tooth brushing the next night, the next, and the next.  So for some such children it’s not helpful to alter the standard plan.  For most youngsters, however, the readjustment is not a problem.)

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re looking at a manipulative or temperament tantrum.  Today you pick up Jeremy after childcare, but you forgot to bring the usual crackers for a snack in the car.  Now Jeremy is tired, hungry, and insists on a piece of candy when you get home.  Do you give in?  No.  You offer a healthy snack instead.  If there is a full-blown tantrum, you chalk it up as another hard day.

Thus the general concept is to hold the line with manipulative tantrums each and every time.  For temperament tantrums, give some slack, and look for ways to avoid the next one.

Which types of tantrums have you seen recently?

Helen F. Neville, BS, RN

Author of Temperament Tools, and Is This a Phase, and


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