What are temper tantrums?
If you have a young child, you probably know what temper tantrums are. Experts define them as sudden, unplanned displays of anger or other emotions. During a tantrum, children often whine, cry, or scream. They may also swing their arms and legs wildly or hold their breath.
Anyone can have temper tantrums. But they are most common in children ages 1 to 4 years.
Dealing with tantrums may be unpleasant or embarrassing. But remember, tantrums are most intense at the start, and they usually last only 2 minutes or less. And most children stop having tantrums by age 4 or 5, when they learn healthy ways to handle strong emotions.
Why do children have temper tantrums?
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 strong emotions in other ways. For example, a temper tantrum may happen when a child gets frustrated because he can't button a shirt. Or a child may get upset when she is told it's time for bed but she wants to stay up.
Children are more likely to have tantrums when they are afraid, overtired, or uncomfortable.
As a parent, your behavior matters too. Your child is more likely to have temper tantrums if you react too strongly to poor behavior or give in to the child's demands.
How can you deal with temper tantrums?
If you sense that a tantrum is coming, you may be able to stop it.
- Distract your child. For example, if your child doesn't like to go to bed, talk about something fun that is going to happen the next day.
- Encourage your child to take a break from a frustrating activity. Or get your child to focus on something he or she already knows how to do.
- Remove your child from a situation that is likely to cause tantrums. Situations such as a large family dinner or the lights and noise of a carnival may be too much for a young child to handle.
After a tantrum starts, ignoring it may work best. Try the following:
- Walk away. But stay where the child can see you, especially if your child is very young.
- Keep doing what you were doing. You can observe without focusing all of your attention on your child.
- Don't talk to the child, if possible. If you do speak, use a neutral tone of voice.
After a tantrum is over:
- Praise your child for calming down.
- Acknowledge your child's feelings. You might say something like, "I know that you were upset because you couldn't tie your shoes."
- Comfort your child without giving in to his or her demands.
- Never punish or make fun of a child who has a temper tantrum. Don't use words like "bad girl" or "bad boy" to describe your child.
- Teach other ways to handle anger and frustration. For example, encourage your child to use words to express feelings. Or set up a safe place in the home where your child can go to calm down.
- Be a good role model. Children learn by watching their parents, so let your child see that you can handle your own strong emotions calmly.
If your child has a lot of tantrums, time-out may be an option. Time-out works best for children who can understand why it is being used. This is usually around age 2 or 3 years.
For a time-out, you send or put your child someplace safe, such as a chair in a hallway, for a few minutes. This gives the child time to calm down. It also teaches the child that having a temper tantrum is not acceptable behavior.
Can temper tantrums be prevented?
You may be able to prevent some temper tantrums or at least reduce how often they happen.
- Keep a regular schedule that includes set meal times and enough hours of sleep. Having a routine can help your child to feel in control and stay positive.
- Let your child make simple choices. For example, ask, "Would you like to wear the blue shirt or the green one?" Being able to make choices can help reduce frustration and build self-confidence.
- Set fair, firm limits on behavior. Say "no" when you mean "no." Don't change your mind and give in to the child's wishes. This confuses children. It teaches them that "no" sometimes means "yes."
- Put breakable or valuable items out of your child's reach. You'll need to say "no" to your child less often.
- Know what to expect from your child based on his or her age and abilities. Children are more likely to get frustrated if their parents expect too much of them or correct them too much.
- Praise your child for good behavior and for doing things that you would expect from a child that age.
Should you see a doctor about your child's temper tantrums?
Children who still have tantrums after the age of 4 may need help learning to deal with their emotions. Tantrums that continue or start during the school years may be a sign of learning problems or other issues that the child may need help with.
Some children have temper tantrums that last longer and are more severe than normal. They may destroy things or hurt themselves or other people. This violent behavior may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Talk with a doctor if:
- You are worried about your child's temper tantrums.
- Your child is older than 4 and still has temper tantrums often.
- Your child gets violent or destroys things during tantrums.
- You have problems handling your child's behavior, especially if you think that you might hurt your child.
It may be helpful to keep a record of your child's behavior for a few days before your doctor visit. This will help the doctor assess your child's behavior and decide if testing is needed.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics