Temper tantrums are emotional outbursts of anger and frustration.
Tantrums typically begin at about 12-18 months and reach their peak during the “terrible twos.” This is the period in child development when children start to gain a sense of self and assert their independence from their parents. It is also a time when children can’t yet speak well enough to make their needs known. This combination is a “perfect storm” for tantrums. Fatigue, hunger, and illness can make tantrums worse or more frequent. In most cases, tantrums begin to wane over time and usually disappear by age four.
When your child is throwing a tantrum, you may be tempted to think it’s your fault. It isn’t. Tantrums are a normal part of childhood development, and they don’t occur because you’ve been a bad parent or because you’ve done something wrong.
Your child may display one or more of the following behaviors during a tantrum:
- crying, screaming, and yelling
- kicking and hitting
- holding their breath
- tensing and thrashing the body
- Stay calm. It’s important to remain composed. If possible, don’t let the tantrum interrupt what you’re doing, and don’t react with threats or anger. This lets your child know that tantrums are not an effective means of getting your attention or getting what he or she wants. Wait for a quiet time after the tantrum has subsided to discuss your child’s behavior.
- Ignore the tantrum. If possible, pretend that nothing’s happening. If your child is in a safe place and you are finding it difficult to ignore him or her, leave the room. However, certain behaviors should not be ignored, such as kicking or hitting others, throwing objects that could cause damage or injury, or screaming for extended periods of time. In these situations, remove your child from the environment, along with any objects that could be dangerous, and verbally reinforce that such behaviors are unacceptable.
- Remove your child from the situation. If you’re home and your child will not calm down, try a time-out. Take them to another room and remove anything that might distract him or her. If you’re out in public, ignore the tantrum unless your child is in danger of hurting himself or herself, or someone else. In that case, the best response is stop what you’re doing, take your child, and leave.
- Try distractions. Sometimes it works to offer your child another activity or object, such as a book or toy, or to make a silly face.
- Acknowledge your child’s frustration. Letting your child know that you understand his or her emotions can sometimes help the child calm down, especially if he or she is looking for attention.
- Show approval when your child behaves well. This will reinforce good behavior.
The following strategies may help prevent tantrums:
- Establish a routine. A consistent routine or schedule lets your child know what to expect and gives them a sense of security.
- Be a role model. Children look up to their parents and are constantly observing their behavior. If your child sees you handling your anger and frustration calmly, they will be more likely to mimic your behavior when experiencing these feelings.
- Give your child choices. When appropriate, give your child several options and allow them to make choices. This will give them the feeling that they have some control over their circumstances.
- Make sure your child is eating right and getting enough sleep. This will help prevent tantrums caused by fatigue and irritability.
- Pick your battles. Don’t fight over trivial or unimportant things, such as which clothes your child prefers to wear. Try to limit the number of times you say the word “no.”
- Watch your tone of voice. If you want your child to do something, make it sound like an invitation, rather than a demand.
Tantrums are a normal part of growing up and they will most likely go away with time. However, if temper tantrums get worse or you feel that you are unable to manage them, you may want to talk to your doctor.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you consult your child’s pediatrician if:
- tantrums get worse after age four
- tantrums are violent enough to injure your child or someone else
- your child routinely destroys property
- your child holds his or her breath and faints
- your child complains of a stomach ache or headache or becomes anxious
- you are frustrated and unsure of how to handle your child’s tantrums or you fear you may discipline your child too harshly or harm your child (AAP)