Is my child’s “tantrums” normal or do I need to worry?

I so often hear mothers speak about feeling lost or helpless when it comes to their child’s tantrums and behaviour and as a mother myself I know how incredible difficult a tantrum can be to deal with, not to mention being smacked or bitten.

The first few years of a child’s life, is such an important time in their “whole” development and this includes their emotional development. Early Childhood is the time when a child is establishing strong emotional ties with the world around them, with the people in their lives and with “things” that are most important to them. Early Childhood is also a time of exploration and self discovery and for most children their “feelings” just become overwhelming.

Most parents focus all their attention only on the “physical milestones” a child needs to reach. Crawling, sitting, sleeping through the night, eating solids and talking seem to be on the forefront but parents in general pay very little attention to the child’s “emotional / personality development”.

Here is a guideline in respect of emotional / personality development milestones for early childhood. Knowing what your child should and should not be doing will help you identify what “normal” behaviour patterns look like versus tantrums/meltdowns relating to sensory integration challenges or development delays.

Please remember to allow for a few months leeway as each child develops at their own individual pace.

Birth – 6 months

  • Learning to develop trust in carers
  • Smile, grasp, cling-to and makes eye contact when they seek attention from carers
  • Cry’s lesson when held or cuddles (feeling secure)
  • From 6 month babies will be emotionally stronger and will be able to be left alone for slightly longer period of time
  • Smiles
  • Friendly with strangers
  • Laughs when he/she sees other babies
  • Anticipates when he/she will be picked up
  • By 6 month will hold out arm to be picked up
  • Stops crying when being spoken to
  • Smiles when he/she sees mirror image

6 to 18 months

  • Very attached to 1 person
  • Very alert at surrounding
  • Very interested in what is going on around him/her
  • Gain great pleasure from exploring their immediate world (touching, holding and putting things in their mounth)
  • Enjoys looking at people
  • Starting to make connection between facial expressions and tone of voice (makes connection)
  • Often self soothing will kick in by sucking own thumb
  • Unhappy when toys are removed
  • Scared of strangers (around 10-12 months)
  • Sense of humour is emerging
  • Will start doing opposite of what is being asked of them
  • Starting to imitate other children
  • Gives hugs spontaneously
  • Starting to show an interest in other children and his/her surroundings
  • Not able to share with others at 18 months
  • Will respond when name is called
  • Becoming very independent (wants to do things for self)
  • Biting is a common occurrence at 18 months
  • Head-banging is a common behaviour at 18 months

2 years  – 3 years

  • Age 2 – very possessive about possessions
  • Wants their own way and will show extremes in their behaviour from very independent to dependent, aggressive to calm, helpful to stubborn. 
  • They only have 1 viewpoint and that is their own
  • Love testing boundaries
  • Tantrums and other reactions are common in toddlers
  • Loves getting attention and very lovable
  • Creativity starts to develop
  • Able to be away from “mommy’ for longer periods of time
  • Age 3 disobedient behaviour visible, almost stubborn and anxious at times
  • Is able to express some emotions in words
  • Want approval for his/her actions
  • Very self-centred and “acting” like
  • Often will have a few nasty habits such as kicking, biting and hitting
  • The concept of “cause and effect” are starting to settle in

3 years to 5 years

  • Socially the child is reaching out to friends and he/she is spending more time playing in groups
  • 4 is often called the “wild and wonderful” year because it is the year our children are very busy but also very confident, bragging, boasting little people
  • Lying starts to emerge.  Children start twisting the trust to suite their own agenda.
  • Temper-tantrums are still present but they do not last nearly as long as they used to
  • Slightly unpredictable, more motivated and handles frustrations better by age 5 years
  • Understands feeling and can identify other people’s feeling
  • Literal thinkers
  • Magical thinkers that believe wishes come true
  • Whilst testing boundaries the child is very eager to please and help out
  • “Embarrassed” feelings start to surface

5 years to 6 years ++

  • Child requires allot of attention, slightly moody at times and tends to ‘hesitate” when asked to do new things
  • Makes friends easily
  • Trusts and like people in general
  • Shares and waits turn with no difficulties
  • Great group participation skills
  • Is able to work without making a huge mess
  • More in control of his/her emotions
  • Can regulate easily
  • Enjoys doing things for other people
  • Can express emotions with ease
  • By 6 can become a little oppositional
  • Have huge amounts of self confidence
  • Behaves in socially acceptable manner
  • Can say precisely how he/he feels

A tantrum of a child with a development delay, sensory integration disorder (SPD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is very different to that of the neurotypical child.  A child with an SPD or ASD can start screaming when they are totally alone in a room.  Our children will often scream for what seems like an eternity and a parent can clearly see that the child in in-capable of stopping.  These can start for no clear reason and can relate to environment stimuli, temper, anxiety, frustration to name but a few.  

Know and understand that our children are going to behave badly.  Know and understand that they are going to hit, kick, bite and fight.  Know that they are going to push our every button BUT more importantly know when it is time to seek professional help for your child that can’t regulate, that battles with an anxiety disorder or that has development delays in the area of “social/personality milestons”.

Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.