What is a temper tantrum?

A temper tantrum is an unplanned outburst of anger and frustration. A tantrum can be a physical or verbal outburst, or both, and can involve such things as acting out, being disruptive, and displaying undesirable behaviors because the child needs or wants something.

Tantrums are normal for children to experience as they learn to become more independent. Tantrums are most common between the ages of one and four, then decrease when children start school.

A tantrum usually lasts between two and 15 minutes. If your child is having violent tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes, it may be a sign of a more serious problem, and you should discuss your child’s tantrums with your pediatrician.

What are the signs of a temper tantrum?

Signs of a temper tantrum include:

  • Whining
  • Crying
  • Kicking
  • Hitting
  • Breath holding
  • Pinching
  • Shouting
  • Tensing the body
  • Flailing arms and legs

What should I do if my child has a temper tantrum?

  • Stay calm. Do not threaten, lecture, or argue with your child; this will only make the situation worse. You can talk to your child about his or her behavior at a later time during quiet play.
  • Ignore the tantrum. By ignoring the bad behavior, you will show your child that throwing a temper tantrum is unacceptable and ineffective.

If you are in a public place when a tantrum occurs, always stay within your child’s sight. If you feel that your child may harm him- or herself or others, remove your child from the environment until he or she calms down. Remove any dangerous objects from the environment. You may want to hold your child in order to prevent injury. If your child is completely out of control at home, take him or her to a safe room until he or she calms down.

  • Praise your child for calming down. Reinforce positive behavior and good choices. Your child will recognize that he or she is being rewarded for good behavior. Be specific in your praise; don’t say, "Thank you for being good." Instead, try, "You did a nice job of using your indoor voice and not screaming in the store." That way, your child knows exactly what behaviors are expected.
  • If needed, use a time out. This will allow time for your child to calm down. The time out should be spent away from distractions such as television or the computer.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Let your child know that you understand his or her frustration, and offer to help. Acknowledgement may sometimes ease the situation, because some children are looking for attention.
  • Help your child learn to identify and label his or her emotions. Children feel anger, frustration, and disappointment, but don’t have words to describe the emotions. They use tantrums as a way to express these feelings. Help them to label these feelings. You may say, “I can tell you are feeling angry right now. You are shouting, your face is red, you are crying.” This will help your child acquire the words to describe their feelings rather than have a tantrum.
  • Teach your child how to handle anger and frustration. Once children learn how to deal with problems without getting upset, they will learn that they can resolve some issues on their own, and will learn how to be more independent in the process.
  • Set a good example. Your child looks up to you and watches your behavior at all times. If you show that you can handle yourself when you are angry and frustrated, your child will begin to copy your behavior.

How do I prevent a child's temper tantrum?

Give your child choices. If you include him or her on some decisions, you will reduce the number of temper tantrums.

For example, let your child choose between two outfits to wear, or two snacks at snack time. This helps your child feel that he or she has some control. You should only let your child choose between options that you already approve of; don’t give your child false hope.

Some tantrums may be caused by irritability. Make sure that your child is eating healthy foods and getting adequate sleep.

Some children have a difficult time adjusting during periods of transition. If transitions tend to be a time that your child has a tantrum, try to prepare him or her in advance.

When should I talk to my doctor about my child’s temper tantrums?

You may want to contact your pediatrician if:

  • The tantrums persist or worsen after age four.
  • Your child injures him or herself, another person, or destroys property during the tantrum.
  • Your child holds his or her breath during a tantrum (especially if he or she faints).
  • Your child gets headaches, stomach aches, or anxiety.
  • You are getting frustrated and feel uncertain how to handle your child’s tantrums safely.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/10/2017.

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