Tantrums happen when children get overwhelmed by their feelings and consequently lose control of their emotions and behaviour; they can make life extremely challenging for the bewildered parents!
Tantrums typically appear at about 18 months of age and start to decline when the child reaches 4 years old – hence the name “toddler tantrums”. It’s normal for healthy preschool kids to have extreme tantrums sometimes, and to lash out at people or things on occasion.
Paying attention to tantrum styles rather than individual tantrums may help sort out what’s healthy and what’s not, and how to respond.
In one study, Potegal et al. (2003) found that:
- 87% of 18-24 months old throw temper tantrums;
- 91% of 30-36 months old throw tantrums;
- 59% of 42-48 months old throw tantrums.
What causes Toddler Tantrums?
There are many possible causes for your child to throw a tantrum, including:
- feeling scared, jealous, upset, angry, frustrated, hungry or tired;
- being criticised or made fun of;
- not getting enough attention from their parents;
- being asked to stop what they are doing;
- inconsistent discipline;
- not being able to do something they want to do;
- having difficulties in expressing their feelings in words;
- parents being used to rewarding tantrums.
What’s your Child’s Tantrum Style?
Belden et al. (2008) found five different types of tantrums that may require the input of a mental health professional.
- Aggressive tantrums. If a child shows aggression toward a parent, caregiver or tries to destroy toys or other objects during most tantrums.
- Self-injurious tantrums. By the time a child reaches age 3, a pattern of trying to hurt themselves during a tantrum may be a sign of major depression and should always be evaluated. At this age, tantrums that include self-inflicting behaviours such as scratching till the skin bleeds, head-banging, or biting are red flags.
- Frequent tantrums. Tantrums at home are more common than tantrums in daycare or school. Having 10 separate tantrums on a single day at home may just be a bad day, but if it happens more than once in a 30 day period, there is a greater risk of a clinical problem. The same goes for more than 5 separate tantrums a day on multiple days at school.
- Prolonged tantrums. A normal tantrum should average about 11 minutes. According to Belden et al, tantrums should not last more than 25 minutes.
- Tantrums requiring external help. Kids who usually require extra help from a caregiver to recover from a tantrum were at higher risk for ADHD, no matter how frequent the tantrums were or how long they lasted. If you find you cannot stop a tantrum without giving in or offering a bribe, pay attention. By age 3, kids should be learning how to calm down by themselves.
Your Child’s Temperament
All children are different and it may be interesting to know more about their temperament before looking at how they react to frustration. Here is a list of nine different types of temperaments in children, from a study by Chess and Thomas (5):
- Hyperactive temperament predisposes the child to respond with fine- or gross-motor activity.
- Distractible temperament predisposes the child to pay more attention to his or her surroundings than to the caregiver.
- High intensity level temperament moves the child to yell, scream, or hit hard when feeling threatened.
- Irregular temperament moves the child to escape the source of stress by needing to eat, drink, sleep, or use the bathroom at irregular times when he or she does not really have the need.
- Negative persistent temperament is seen when the child seems stuck in his or her whining and complaining.
- Low sensory threshold temperament is evident when the child complains about tight clothes and people staring and refuses to be touched by others.
- Initial withdrawal temperament is found when children get clingy, shy, and unresponsive in new situations and around unfamiliar people.
- Poor adaptability temperament shows itself when children resist, shut down, and become passive-aggressive when asked to change activities.
- Negative mood temperament is found when children appear lethargic, sad, and lack the energy to perform a task.
Tips for Parents to Prevent Tantrums
- Notice your child’s good behavior; compliment and reward them. During situations when they are prone to temper tantrums, catch them when they are being good and say such things as, “Nice job sharing with your friend.”
- Make sure that your child is not tired or hungry or both.
- Give children control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the child can stave off the big power struggles later on. “Which do you want to do first, brush your teeth or put on your pyjamas?”
- Keep off-limit objects out of sight and therefore out of mind. In an art activity keep the scissors out of reach, if children are not ready to use them safely.
- Distract and redirect your child to another activity when they have a tantrum over something they should not do or cannot have. Say, “Let’s read a book together.”
- Change environments, thus removing the child from the source of the temper tantrum. Say, “Let’s go for a walk.”
- Avoid boredom. Involve your child in what you are doing, propose activities, have fun.
- Create a safe environment that children can explore without getting into trouble. Childproof your home so children can explore safely.
- Establish routines and traditions that add structure.
- Signal children before you reach the end of an activity so that they can get prepared for the transition. Say, “When the timer goes off 5 minutes from now it will be time to turn off the TV and go to bed.”
- Give positive attention rather than negative attention.
- When visiting new places or unfamiliar people, explain to the child beforehand what to expect.
- Help your child recognise their emotions and understand how they are feeling.
- Have rules and be consistent with them. Rules should not change.
- Do not give a choice to your child when there is clearly no choice. Do not say, “Do you want to eat?’’, rather say “It is lunchtime”.
- Keep a sense of humor to divert the child’s attention and surprise the child out of the tantrum.
- Stay calm and do not escalate the situation.
(Adapted from NASP)
Typical toddler tantrum behaviour may include: kicking, biting, crying, rolling on the floor, banging their head, clenching their fists, screaming and yelling.
How to handle Tantrums
There are a number of ways to handle a temper tantrum. Strategies include the following:
- Remain calm and do not argue with the child. Before you manage the child, you must manage your own behavior. Smacking or yelling at the child will make the tantrum worse.
- Try to intervene before the child is out of control. Get down at the child’s eye level.
- You can positively distract the child by getting the child focused on something else that is an acceptable activity. For example, you might remove the unsafe item and replace with an age-appropriate toy.
- You can place the child in time-out. Time-out is a quiet place where the child goes to calm down, think about what he or she needs to do, and, with your help, make a plan to change the behaviour.
- If your child is safe, you can decide to ignore the tantrum. Once the child calms down, give the attention that is desired.
- Hold the child who is out of control and is going to hurt him or herself or someone else. Let the child know that you will let him or her go as soon as he or she calms down. Reassure the child that everything will be all right, and help the child calm down. Parents may need to hug their child who is crying, and say they will always love him or her no matter what, but that the behaviour has to change. This reassurance can be comforting for a child who may be afraid because he or she lost control.
- If the child has escalated the tantrum to the point where you are not able to intervene in the ways described above, then you may need to direct the child to time-out. If you are in a public place, carry your child outside or to the car. Tell the child that you will go home unless they calm down.
- Try to help your child solve the problem. For the future, teach the child new skills to help avoid temper tantrums such as how to ask for help and how to signal a parent that they know they need to go to “time-out” to “stop, think, and make a plan.”
- Help your child express their feelings with words, instead of hitting and screaming.
(Adapted from NASP)
- Never, under any circumstances, give in to a tantrum. That response will only increase the number and frequency of the tantrums. Your child will realise that tantrums will get them what they want.
- Explain to the child that there are better ways to get what they want.
- Do not reward the child for calming down after a tantrum, as they may learn that a temper tantrum is a good way to get a treat later.
If your child is having regular tantrums, keep your calm, remember that you are not alone; many families have to deal with tantrums! And please feel free to book an appointment with me in order to discuss your concerns and together, we can explore some possible strategies.
Author: Meggy Delaunay, PG Dip Psych Practice, PG Dip Dev Psych, M Genetic Psych, B Psych, MAPS.
Meggy Delaunay is a psychologist who mostly works with children, adolescents and young adults. She is a registered Psychologist in Australia, New Zealand and France, and can provide therapy sessions in English and French.
Please call 1800 877 924 to make an appointment or book Meggy Delaunay online now!
Please note: Meggy Delaunay is currently not practising.
Here are some books, articles and websites that you may find useful.
- Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child. New York: Harper Collins. ASIN: 0060175346.
- MacKenzie, R. (2001). Setting limits with your strongwilled child. New York: Prima. ISBN: 0761521364.
- Potegal, M. & Davidson, R.J. (2003). Temper tantrums in young children: Behavioural composition. Journal of developmental and behavioural pediatrics, 24, 140-148.
- Belden, AC, Thomson NR, Luby JL. (2008). Temper tantrums in health versus depressed and disruptive preschoolers: defining tantrum behaviors associated with clinical problems. Journal of Pediatrics, 152(1), 117-122.