What are the key indicators that help us distinguish between a tantrum and a display of strong will in children?

Tantrums typically follow a pattern of a beginning resistance, followed by an intensification of the “behaviour”, sometimes becoming violent – then the crying/tantrum peaks.  This peak is usually followed by a change in the crying. In the beginning stage, the crying is usually very angry, there are angry-sounding vocalisations/words and, as mentioned, sometimes violent behaviour.  Following the peak, the crying sounds sad/sorrowful; this is when the child needs some consoling.  When consoling we can say how sorry we are that the child is so upset, that we can understand their emotions (anger, sadness, etc.) but the situation remains the same.  The child cannot have her way in the situation.

A child having a temper tantrum usually cannot be talked out of the situation, and cannot be persuaded to “change course” whereas a strong-willed child sometimes can.  If the strong-willed child is accustomed to “getting their way” via whatever kind of behaviour they exhibit, this has created a pattern of a antisocial behaviour being rewarded.  This strong-willed child needs to become engaged, given lots of choices between two activities; when offered choices frequently ask, “Would you like to do A or B or is there something else you would like to work with?”  A strong-willed child most often wants to have their way but we must be open to the fact that perhaps they need to have more independence in their choices – within reason and limits.

Either behaviour is a symptom of an unmet need and we may not, as teachers, be able to satisfy the need but we can work with the parents to discuss a unified tactic to help the child with either behaviour issue.  There must be a unified approach between the family and the community.

Angry young child with arms crossed