What is a temper tantrum?

A temper tantrum is when a child has an unplanned outburst of anger and frustration. Tantrums can be physical, verbal or both. Your child may act out, be disruptive and generally display unpleasant behaviors. Usually, they’re acting like this because they want or need something they can’t express with words.

Tantrums are often disproportionate to the circumstances. In other words, children react very strongly to what is likely a mild situation. For example, you might tell your child to put away a toy or turn down their treat request. This may lead to thrashing, yelling and hitting.

When should I worry about toddler tantrums?

Tantrums are a normal part of your child’s development. They happen as a child learns to become more independent. Tantrums happen most frequently between ages 1 and 4, averaging up to one a day. They typically decrease when a child starts school. At this age, they’re talking more, so they can express their needs verbally.

Tantrums usually last between two and 15 minutes. Violent tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes may be a sign of a more serious problem. If your child has lengthy, violent outbursts, talk to your healthcare provider.

What causes kids’ temper tantrums?

Causes of temper tantrums can include:

  • Frustration.
  • Wanting attention.
  • Wanting something (such as a treat or toy).
  • Avoiding doing something (such as cleaning up or leaving the park).
  • Hunger.
  • Tiredness.

A big cause of toddler temper tantrums is the conflict they feel. They seek independence but still crave their parents’ attention. And they haven’t developed coping skills to deal with strong emotions or disappointments. They often lack the verbal skills to explain how they feel, so they lash out instead.

If my child throws a tantrum, does that mean I’m a bad parent?

A child’s temper tantrum is not a reflection of poor parenting. Tantrums happen because of a child’s personality and current situation. They’re a normal part of child development.

What are the signs of a temper tantrum?

During a temper tantrum, your kid may:

  • Whine, cry and shout.
  • Kick, hit and pinch.
  • Flail arms and legs.
  • Hold their breath.
  • Tense their body or go limp.

What should I do if my child throws a tantrum?

Try these strategies during your child’s temper tantrum:

  • Find a distraction: If you sense a tantrum starting, but it hasn’t become a full-blown outburst, try to distract your child. Point out something interesting or engage them in an activity.
  • Stay calm: Once your child is mid-tantrum, don’t threaten, lecture or argue with them. Doing so only makes the tantrum worse. Later, when your child is quiet and calm, talk to them about their earlier behavior.
  • Ignore the tantrum: This shows your child that a tantrum is unacceptable and won’t get them what they want.
  • Keep them in sight: If you’re in the middle of the store or other public place, make sure you can see your child (and they can see you) at all times. If you feel your child may hurt themselves or other people, remove them from the environment.
  • Keep them safe: Remove any dangerous objects near them. Consider holding your child, so they don’t hurt themselves. If your child is completely out of control, bring them to a safe space until they calm down. Use a “time-out” if necessary, placing them in a room away from TV and other distractions.

Also, try not to:

  • Give in or change your mind: If you do that, children learn that tantrums help them get what they want. If you’re at home and your child is safe, you can even try leaving them and going into another room.
  • Hit, bite or kick back: You may think this teaches them that these actions hurt. But the opposite often happens — your child may learn that this is acceptable behavior because a parent is doing it. Instead, make it clear that they’re doing something hurtful, which is not allowed.

What should I do after the temper tantrum?

Once the tantrum is over, you can engage your child in conversation about what happened. You can also discuss how they can stop tantrums from happening again. Try to:

  • Offer praise for calming down: Reinforce your child’s positive behavior and good choices. Children like recognition for good behavior. Be as specific as possible. Instead of, “You were so good,” say, “You did a great job using your inside voice in the store.” These statements help your child know what behaviors are expected and acceptable.
  • Acknowledge their feelings: Let your child know you understand their frustrations. Offer to help. Often, children are seeking attention, so acknowledging them can help ease their emotions.
  • Teach your child to label emotions: Children often don’t have the vocabulary they need. They can’t describe their frustration, jealousy, anger or disappointment. Tantrums are how they express their feelings. Give them the words they need to express themselves: “I see you’re angry now. You’re crying, and your face is red.”
  • Teach your child how to handle strong emotions: Help them figure out how to deal with a problem without getting upset. They’ll learn they can solve some of their problems themselves. They’ll become more independent and less prone to tantrums.
  • Set a good example: Children look up to their parents, watching their behavior. Model healthy strategies when you’re upset or frustrated. Your child will begin to copy your behavior.

How can I prevent a temper tantrum?

You most likely won’t be able to create a tantrum-free environment. Tantrums are how children communicate. It’s a natural part of development. But you can take steps to reduce the frequency and severity of tantrums:

  • Give choices: Let them choose, within reason. For example, they can choose between two outfits or two snacks. Being able to choose helps your child feel in control. Make sure to let them choose between two things you’re OK with. Don’t give them false hope.
  • Prepare for transitions: Periods of transition, such as leaving the house or the playground, can be difficult for children. Try to prepare them in advance that a transition is coming so they’re ready for it. And bigger transitions need more preparation. For example, if a new sibling is coming or you’re moving, allow plenty of time to prepare your child.
  • Check food and sleep: Sometimes, irritability can lead to tantrums. This behavior may come from lack of proper nutrition and sleep. Make sure your child eats a balanced diet and gets enough sleep.

When should I talk to my provider about my toddler’s temper tantrums?

Contact your child’s healthcare provider about temper tantrums if:

  • They persist or get worse after age 4.
  • Your child hurts themselves or someone else or damages property during a tantrum.
  • Your child holds their breath during a tantrum (and especially if they faint).
  • Your child has headaches, stomachaches and anxiety.
  • You feel frustrated and unsure of how to handle the tantrums safely.

Your provider may ask you questions about the tantrums. These questions can help them figure out if the tantrums are typical or a cause for concern:

  • When do the tantrums occur?
  • What’s usually happening right before the tantrum?
  • What does your child do during the tantrum?
  • How long does the tantrum last?
  • How do you react to the tantrum?
  • How is your child behaving between tantrums?
  • Are there changes to your home or school environment?
  • Have you recently moved?
  • Has there been a family change (such as divorce or birth of a new baby)?
  • Did something upsetting happen to your child or another family member?
  • Does your child have any other issues that may affect them, such as a sleep disorder or behavioral disorder

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Temper tantrums are a normal, if frustrating, part of child development. Toddlers throw frequent tantrums, an average of one a day. Temper tantrums often happen because children want to be independent but still seek a parent’s attention. Young children also lack the verbal skills to express their feelings in words. When temper tantrums erupt, try to stay calm. Acknowledge your child’s emotions. When your child calms down, help them label those emotions and find a better way to react to disappointment. If your child has temper tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes or are very violent, talk to a healthcare provider. And if your child is older than 4 and still having frequent tantrums, it’s also a good idea to speak to your provider.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/05/2021.

References

  • Merck Manual Consumer Version. Accessed 3/2/2021.Temper Tantrums. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/quick-facts-children-s-health-issues/behavioral-problems-in-children/temper-tantrums)
  • NHS. . Accessed 3/2/2021.Temper Tantrums (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/temper-tantrums/)
  • Sisterhen LL, Wy PAW. . [Updated 2020 Jul 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Accessed 3/2/2021.Temper Tantrums (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544286/)

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