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Tantrums Part 2: Identifying the Emotional Needs Being Expressed

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Tantrums Part 2: Identifying the Emotional Needs Being Expressed

Tantrums as communication

To finish up the conversation on tantrums, I am going to use this blog to talk a bit about the purpose of tantrums. The tantrum is used to communicate an emotional need with very big and very overwhelming feelings associated. Young children are still developing their verbal communication skills and when an emotional need is not being met they have no way of asking for what they need because often times they don’t even know themselves. When kids have “big” feelings that they don’t understand and are not able to ask for what they need, their frustration levels rise and …..Tantrums-250

I have found in most cases tantrums are a way of communicating one of

4 Emotional Needs

  1. A need for control
  2. A need for security/order
  3. A need for validation
  4. A need for attention

So let’s talk a little bit about each of the needs and how they can be met or addressed.

1. Control

  • What if you could not choose what you wore each day, what you ate, where you went and when you went there, what you did when you got there etc.? A child has a need to feel some amount of control in their life, this can be the impetus for seemingly random fits. If a child feels like they cannot choose or do anything in their life, that lack of ability or control over even the smallest of things can spark an epic fit.



An effective way to help foster a sense of control in your child’s life is to allow them to make age appropriate choices as much as possible.

What does that look like?

Taking a 2 year old into their closet and asking them to pick out their clothes is like someone asking you to solve world hunger – It’s an overwhelming and seemingly impossible task.

A better choice for a two year old would be to hold up two shirts and ask, “Would you like to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt?” a.k.a. “Would you like to work at a soup kitchen or donate canned food – this is MUCH easier to grapple with!


2. Security/Order

To a child EVERYTHING is new, most things are confusing and they have no idea what to expect next. It can be frightening and dysregulating to a child if they feel as if they have no idea what is going to happen next.

What if a clown jumped out at you sporadically throughout the day? You would probably walk around in fear that a clown could be around every corner, which would lead to a constant state of anxiety.

As mentioned in part 1, a state of anxiety can trigger a fight, flight or freeze response of the amygdala or reptilian brain. Hence, a tantrum could ensue and a lack of ability to think logically, which can ultimately hinder the way the child will learn, grow and develop.


Routine and Reliability

The need for security can be met in a few different ways:

Routine – If there is an established routine in the child’s life then they are able to have a sense of what is coming next, which will help to alleviate some of the anxiety of the unknown.

Reliability – a reliable routine can be coupled with a reliable parent. One of the best things you can do as a parent to help your child feel safe and secure is to DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE GOING TO DO and FOLLOW THROUGH. This applies to both discipline and positive reinforcement.

i.e.: You explain to your child that their continued resistance to brushing their teeth will result in not having enough time to read books before bed. They continue to refuse to brush teeth, therefore you DO NOT READ BOOKS. While this will most likely bring about a tantrum, it is important that you stick by your word.

You are teaching your child boundaries, what keeping your word looks like, giving them a sense of security in what you say and creating an opportunity to learn about logical, as well as, natural consequences. After this scenario plays out the child will brush their teeth the next time when provided with the possible consequence of not getting to read a book because they will now know they can trust what you say.

3. Validation

Everyone has feelings and they are ok. It is important that your child understands this. Often times children experience a feeling and they, not only, have no idea what it is, but also get, shamed for it.

i.e.: A child is going to a new school for the first time and they are afraid of the new atmosphere and sad to be leaving their mother, with no idea if and when they will be back. Mom is running late for work, but takes the time to introduce the child to the teacher and help the child get settled in for a few minutes. When Mom goes to leave the child starts to cry uncontrollably and won’t let go of her leg.

Frustrated response: Mom pries the child off of her, tells him he is “fine” and to stop crying because he is not a baby and needs to be a “big boy” – What did she REALLY say to her child?

  • Crying is wrong, “big” boys/men are not allowed to cry (and we wonder why men in generally tend to have a harder time expressing emotion), that fear means they are “fine” (do we really want them to think fear means they are fine? What happens when they are afraid of a stranger trying to coax them from a playground? Are they going to ignore their fear because they are supposed to be “big”)

Validating response: Mom bends down to child’s level and says,“I understand that you are scared of the new place and sad that I am leaving. I need to go to work, but I PROMISE, I WILL be back for you when I am done”.

4. Attention Seeking

CLICK HERE, this kid has perfected the attention seeking tantrum! haha

It always baffles me when adults paint “trying to get attention” in such a negative light. Attention seeking behavior is NOT “bad” behavior; it is a demonstration of a need not being sufficiently met. Babies, children, and adults NEED attention and love to survive.


In the 1920’s infections were known to spread rapidly whenever children lived in groups, as a result hospitals and orphanages in Europe went to extremes to promote sterility – particularly in infant wards. Infants were given the basic needs of food, water, and shelter. However, in an effort to prevent infection and disease these children were taken care of while virtually being untouched by human hands – there was still a %10 mortality rate and a consistent growth in psychiatric admissions.

In 1942 pediatrician Harry Bakwin went into an infant ward and replaced signs reading, “Wash hands twice before entering this ward” with signs saying, “ DO NOT enter this nursery without picking up a baby”. The skeletal infants made an almost immediate turn around – gaining weight & color while becoming more alert and responsive.

WE NEED attention and love to SURVIVE!


The KEY is to give your child extra attention before they DEMAND it with another tantrum. There are MANY ways to give your kids attention while still promoting positive behavior. It might be an interesting experiment to try and point out 3 positive things to and about your child for every 1 negative or disciplinary action.

Play WITH your child don’t just “exist” beside them. I see too many families where the kids are playing legos on the floor next to mom as she is working on the computer and they consider this spending time with them. I mean I guess in the literal sense time is passing and the parent is in the same vicinity at their child. But parents are amazed at the change in their child when the make time every day to sit down on the floor and play legos WITH their child. You don’t have to be good at it, heck it would probably be fun to pretend to be downright bad a it. Kids delight in an opportunity to “teach” their parents.

Try making a “date night” once a month with every child. This is a day/time when all our attention and focus is solely on them. Make a concrete date that they can see and write on a calendar and rely on that time. For instance – the 10th of every month or the 1st Saturday of every month is a “Daddy Daughter Date”.  And just because it is called a “date” doesn’t mean you have to spend money, I get that spending money to go to the movies or a nice dinner or even to things like the zoo can be expensive and add up quickly (especially when it costs more money for a bag of popcorn and a drink than it does for the actual movie ticket!).

It can be as simple as putting having a tea party complete with fancy hats, boas and tea sandwiches cut in little triangles. Another big hit with kids is making some homemade play dough. CLICK HERE for a great no-cook play dough recipe. Or try some other fun home craft or activity – Pinterest is full of them!

Tantrums are a normal part of child development, while frustrating at times, is nothing to be too concerned about. As parents I know you want to do everything you can to help your child succeed in life and hopefully by knowing how to approach and meet the aforementioned emotional needs you can take one step closer to doing just that!

So true!!
So true!!



Karen, R. Ph.D. (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How they Shape our Capacity to Love, New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Pg 18-20.




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