A temper tantrum is a sudden, unplanned display of anger or other emotions. It is not just an act to get attention. During a temper tantrum, children often cry, yell, and swing their arms and legs. Temper tantrums usually last 30 seconds to 2 minutes and are most intense at the start.
Sometimes temper tantrums last longer and are more severe. The child may hit, bite, and pinch. These violent tantrums, in which children harm themselves or others, may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Temper tantrums are most common in children ages 1 to 4 years. But anyone can have a tantrum—even an adult.
Temper tantrums are common. Most children ages 1 to 4 have temper tantrums. Some children have tantrums every day.1
A tantrum is a normal response when something blocks a young child from gaining independence or learning a skill. The child may not yet have the skills to express anger and frustration in other ways. For example, a temper tantrum may happen when a child becomes frustrated while trying to button a shirt or is told it's time for bed when he or she wants to stay up.
Some children are more likely to have temper tantrums than other children. Things that might make a tantrum more likely are:
Parents' behavior also matters. A child may be more likely to have temper tantrums if parents react too strongly to poor behavior or give in to the child's demands.
Ignoring the tantrums and helping a young child learn how to deal with anger and frustration are often good ways to deal with tantrums. Pay attention to what starts the tantrums. Knowing what triggers the tantrums can help you act before your child's emotions get past the point where he or she can control them.
You may want to use time-outs if your child age 2 or older has a lot of tantrums. A time-out takes the child out of the situation and gives him or her time to calm down. It also teaches the child that having a temper tantrum is not acceptable behavior. Time-out works best for children who understand why it is being used.
Most children will grow out of having temper tantrums. With time, most children learn healthy ways to handle the strong emotions that can lead to temper tantrums.
Children who still have tantrums after the age of 4 may need help learning to deal with their emotions. If tantrums continue or start during the school years, they may be a sign of other issues, such as learning problems or trouble getting along with other children.
Talk with a doctor if:
Learning about temper tantrums:
Living with temper tantrums:
Usually, temper tantrums last 30 seconds to 2 minutes and are most intense during the first 30 seconds. During a tantrum, a child may:
Temper tantrums are most likely to occur when a child is afraid, overtired, or uncomfortable. Breath-holding spells may sometimes occur with tantrums.
Difficult behavior that frequently lasts longer than 15 minutes, occurs more than 3 times a day, or is more aggressive may mean that a child has a medical, emotional, or social problem that needs attention. These are not considered typical temper tantrums. Difficult behaviors may include:
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your child's temper tantrums or other difficult behavior. A doctor can assess your child's behavior based on:
To eliminate other behavioral or emotional problems as the cause, the doctor may also ask you to complete a behavior assessment questionnaire. Sometimes the child's care provider or school teacher is asked to complete a similar form. Preteens and teens may be asked to complete a questionnaire about their perception of their own behaviors. The doctor can use the completed questionnaires to determine whether the child needs professional help and whether you need help dealing with the child's behavior.
If a doctor suspects that your child's temper tantrums are a sign of another disorder, he or she may order tests to check for other illnesses or conditions, such as seizures, learning problems, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Most children learn other ways to deal with their anger and other strong emotions as they grow older and do not need medical treatment for temper tantrums. Ignoring the tantrum behavior and helping a young child learn how to handle his or her feelings is most often all that is needed.
Parenting workshops can be helpful for parents of a child who has temper tantrums. These types of programs often help parents become familiar with growth and developmental stages and provide strategies on how to handle difficult behavior.
Medical treatment for temper tantrums may be recommended for children who:
Talk with a doctor if:
Expect your 1- or 2-year-old to have temper tantrums. In this age group tantrums are a normal part of learning independence and mastery. If your young child has temper tantrums, try the following:
During a tantrum, you can help your child by:
Do not be alarmed if the child holds his or her breath. Children often hold their breath during a temper tantrum. They will breathe again automatically, even if they pass out. For more information, see the topic Breath-Holding Spells.
There are some things you can do to help prevent some temper tantrums. You may be able to:
In general, parents who know what to expect from their child at different ages are better able to help their child grow and develop in a healthy way. Talk with your doctor about how to help your child gain a sense of independence, boost his or her self-confidence, and handle frustration and anger.
If your child harms himself or herself or others during temper tantrums, talk with your doctor about ways to stop these behaviors. Your doctor may suggest that your child be evaluated for a behavior problem.
If your child continues to have temper tantrums, you may want to use time-outs. Time-out works best for children who understand why it is being used. A time-out removes the child from the situation, allows him or her time to calm down, and teaches the child that having a temper tantrum is not acceptable behavior.
If you need to use time-out, it will be important for you to also take time to be with your child (time-in). Time-in may help reduce your child's frustration and lead to fewer temper tantrums. Time-in is making frequent, brief contact with your child when he or she is behaving as expected. For example, you can pat your child on the head while he or she is playing quietly. This physical touch shows the child that you approve of his or her behavior. Or you can make a comment such as, "I like it when you sit quietly and look at your books when I am on the phone."
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- Stein MT (2011). Difficult behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph’s Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 335–338. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Other Works Consulted
- Albrecht SJ, et al. (2003). Common behavioral dilemmas of the school-aged child. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 50: 841–857.
- American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Behavior. In SP Shelov, RE Hannemann, eds., Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, 4th ed., chap. 18, pp. 565–586. New York: Bantam.
- Goldson E, Reynolds A (2011). Child development and behavior. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 20th ed., pp. 64–103 New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Walter HJ, DeMaso DR (2011). Disruptive behavior disorders. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 96–100. Philadelphia: Saunders.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MD, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics|
|Last Revised||March 20, 2012|
Last Revised: March 20, 2012
Author: Healthwise Staff
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