3 Explanations And Fixes For Your Child's Uptick In Temper Tantrums

If your child is in their tantrum phase, here's three ways you can see eye-to-eye with them more easily.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 21, 2024

Few things are as frustrating to a parent as feeling like your child simply isn't listening. Whether it's refusing to follow instructions, tuning out during conversations or simply appearing disinterested, the struggle to get your child to pay attention can be both exhausting and disheartening. However, before you chalk it up to mere defiance or a lack of discipline, it's important to consider the deeper psychological reasons behind your child's behavior.

Understanding the root causes of why your child won't listen is the first step towards fostering better communication and connection within your family.

Here are three common explanations for why children, whether adolescents or toddlers, may find it challenging to pay attention, along with practical strategies to help you effectively engage with your child.

1. Your Child May Be Stressed And Overwhelmed

Children, adolescents, middle schoolers and toddlers alike, encounter stress in various forms, although they may express it differently from adults. With the ever-increasing demands of academics, the complexities of social interactions and the pervasive influence of digital media, children often find themselves grappling with overwhelming emotions. This sense of overwhelm can significantly impact their capacity to listen and focus, resulting in breakdowns in communication.

For example, a comprehensive review exploring how social media usage impacts children and adolescents revealed sleep disturbances, addiction and heightened anxiety as common issues. Additionally, the study underscored how social media exposure could provoke behavioral challenges and fuel negative body image perceptions among vulnerable youth.

So, rather than dismissing and disregarding children's stress, try the following:

  • Create an environment where they feel comfortable expressing their feelings. Instead of demanding immediate attention, encourage open communication by actively listening to their concerns without judgment. An atmosphere of trust and understanding will reassure your child that their feelings are valid and respected.
  • Engage them in relaxation and self-expression. Consider engaging in activities together if it aids your child in feeling more connected to you. Model slow breaths and turn it into a fun activity. For example, teach your toddler to blow to move a feather or pretend to blow out a candle. Stimulating their imagination will redirect and calm them at the same time.
  • Lead by example. Demonstrate the behaviors you want to see in your child. Show positivity and cooperation in your interactions, as expecting your child to cooperate while responding negatively is counterintuitive. Similarly, expecting polite communication from your child is unrealistic if your tone is harsh. Strive to be open and accepting of their reasonable requests whenever possible.

2. There Is A Lack Of Connection

Children are more likely to heed and collaborate with individuals they feel emotionally connected to. If your child consistently disregards you, it may signal a breakdown in your relationship. This disconnect could arise from busy schedules, conflicting priorities, marital discord or unresolved conflicts that have strained the bond between you and your child.

One study highlights the significant impact of parenting styles on children's psychological well-being. Harsh and aggressive parenting, characterized by punitive discipline and emotional neglect, correlates with both internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression) and externalizing (e.g., aggression, conduct problems) symptoms in children. Conversely, cooperative and supportive parenting, marked by warmth, responsiveness and effective communication, mitigates the risk of depression in adolescents and fosters positive emotional development.

To strengthen the parent-child bond, the 2022 study suggests:

  • Effortful control parenting. This approach, characterized by clear expectations, consistent guidance and the promotion of self-regulation, enhances children's cognitive development and emotional regulation. It equips children with the skills needed to manage their emotions, behaviors and impulses effectively, leading to improved overall adjustment and well-being.
  • Work on building trust. Researchers propose that trust evolves through caregivers' consistent display of sensitivity and responsiveness. Trust development is also a key element of secure attachment. Engage in activities tailored to your child's interests, showing genuine enthusiasm for their passions. Make an effort to empathize with their perspective and validate their emotions, nurturing a deeper connection and increasing your child's receptiveness to listening and cooperating.

3. Your Child Might Be Yearning For Your Attention

Children often resort to disruptive behavior as a means of seeking attention and validation from their parents. This behavior, which can include tantrums, defiance or other attention-seeking actions, is often motivated by unmet emotional needs rather than simple defiance. This reframes our perspective, moving away from viewing the child's disruptive behavior as an isolated problem and instead considering it within the broader familial context.

A study published in The Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology highlights how parents of children exhibiting elevated levels of oppositional behaviors often reported low levels of warm involvement. Moreover, physically aggressive parenting was found to be more closely associated with child aggression.

To address this issue at its core, rather than inadvertently reinforcing negative attention-seeking behavior through reprimands or punishments, try:

  • Prioritizing positively reinforcing desired actions. Take the time to acknowledge and praise your child when they listen and follow instructions, no matter how small the task may seem.
  • Dedicating one-on-one time each day to give your child the undivided attention they crave, proactively meeting their emotional needs.

Parenting through temper tantrums involves more than merely setting rules or giving commands. It demands empathy, patience and a willingness to understand the underlying psychological factors at play. By creating a nurturing environment, you naturally promote enhanced communication and cooperation within your family dynamic.

Are you children's bouts of anger too frequent to keep up with? Take the Parental Burnout Assessment to know if you need support.

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