By the time your child is 3, you may be a pro at this temper tantrum thing. After all, tantrums can strike whether you’re at home or out and about, and sometimes when you least expect them. It’s natural to be on guard in the early years.
As your child gets older, though, you might wonder how long tantrums last and — more importantly — if your child’s behavior is still considered normal.
Age 3 is still prime tantrum time, but you can start to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Here’s more about tantrums at this age — what they look like, how you can deal with them, and when you might want to make an appointment with your pediatrician.
Your preschooler has lots of big feelings and opinions, as well as a growing desire for independence.
Tantrums happen when they don’t know how to fully express themselves or when they don’t know how to do something they desperately want to do. You may also notice outbursts when your child is particularly tired, hungry, or sick.
Kids may start having tantrums around their first birthdays, and it’s common for tantrums to continue until age 2 or 3 — sometimes longer. Still, you may worry that your little one seems out of control or that the tantrums might result in harm. You may even be concerned that your 3-year-old’s tantrums are a sign that something else is going on.
For the most part, tantrums are a completely normal part of life for young kids. They should fade once your child is able to better communicate their feelings and needs.
It’s helpful to gain an understanding of different types of tantrums so you can decode what your child is trying to tell you.
Barton Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child is Sick!,” categorizes them as follows:
- Frustration tantrums may happen at points throughout the day when your child is, well, frustrated that they can’t do something. Think of it this way — 3-year-olds are tiny people with big ideas. When they can’t express themselves adequately through speech or writing — or can’t finish a task they want to complete — it can be extremely upsetting. Result: Tantrum!
- Fatigue tantrums, as the name implies, have everything to do with your child’s rest levels. Your little one may be particularly prone to tantrums if they’re tired and cranky. Being tired — or hungry, sick, etc., for that matter — may play into any type of other tantrum.
- Attention-seeking tantrums happen when your child wants to get their own way in a situation. These may also be described as demand-type tantrums because your child may whine, cry, or slam doors when they want what they want. Examples: wanting to play outdoors despite a thunderstorm or wanting to go with you to work versus staying home with their child care provider.
- Avoidance tantrums are born out of your child’s refusal to do something — whether it’s important, like brushing their teeth, or not, like eating a snack.
- Disruptive tantrums are intended to get your attention at all costs. They might include clinging to you or hitting you or others, damaging surroundings in some way, or throwing things. Your child may scream or yell for long periods of time. And, of course, this may all happen in a public space, like a restaurant or store.
- Rage tantrums may be the most upsetting for both you and your child. Features include a loss of control, screaming, and possible self-harm (for example, if your little one suddenly throws themselves backward and hits the ground head-first).
It may be difficult to decode a tantrum just by looking at one. Over time, though, you may notice patterns in timing (before bedtime or between meals) or situations (going to preschool or at a toy store) that will help clue you in.
Before anything else, you’ll want to make sure your child is safe. Particularly when it comes to rage tantrums, this may mean physically removing your child from the area where they’re having their tantrum.
And if injury is a concern, you may want to hold your child in your arms.
One of the best ways to deal with a tantrum is to stay calm and ignore the behavior. If your child is throwing a tantrum to get your attention, ignoring it takes away their audience. At the same time, you’ll want to “ignore” while still paying attention to make sure your child is safe.
If you catch a tantrum early enough, you might be able to redirect your child’s attention to another task or activity. This works well with frustration tantrums.
If you notice your child is having trouble with a toy, consider directing their attention to another age-appropriate toy, puzzle, or game. If you’re in public, you might also try changing your location to get away from an environment, like a swing set, that’s triggering tantrums.
Model verbal expression of feelings
Three-year-olds have an advantage over younger tots in that you can start teaching them ways to cope with their very big emotions. After your child calms down a bit, try saying something like: “Temper tantrums are not the way to get mommy’s attention. Let’s try to use our words to share how we feel.”
While this won’t immediately result in your child divulging their deepest emotions in an intelligible way, you’ll begin the important work needed for them to verbally express their feelings.
Take a time-out
If a tantrum is particularly violent or disruptive, you may want to try giving your child some space through a time-out.
An appropriate range of time for time-outs at this age is between 2 and 5 minutes or around a minute per year old. You can have a designated spot or send your child to their room, provided you feel it’s a safe environment.
Model good coping skills
You may also want to look at how you handle your own troubles during the day. Your child is watching you. So, if you have frequent outbursts, try taking a step back and reacting more calmly.
While you’re at it, when your child does calm down from a tantrum, be sure to praise them for their progress (without giving in to whatever caused the tantrum in the first place).
No matter what you do, consistency is key. It can be tiring when you feel your child is constantly having tantrums, but responding in the same way will pay off in time.
Your child will eventually learn what to expect from you when they lose their cool. And if you’re employing new techniques, like encouraging words, they’ll get practice and continued reinforcement of these critical resolution skills.
While you can’t prevent all tantrums, there are some ways you can tweak your routine so that they’re much less likely to happen on a regular basis. Kids tend to have more tantrums when they’re tired, hungry, or sick, so try to give your tot some grace if you suspect any of these issues might be the cause.
Otherwise, try to:
- Prioritize sleep. Your child may be less likely to tantrum if they’re well rested. This includes naps, which can be tricky. If your 3-year-old is no longer napping, consider carving out “quiet time” in the afternoon to recharge. Quiet time activities might include reading books or playing with low-key toys (think: no batteries).
- Establish a rhythm. For example, wake up, eat breakfast, take a walk outdoors, play indoors, have lunch, take a nap, etc. Try to stick with this routine on most days. Fewer surprises throughout the day may mean fewer tantrums.
- Provide plenty of choices. Tantrums may occur when your child feels out of control. When they’re given choices throughout the day, they may feel more empowered and less frustrated. Choices don’t have to involve big things. Try asking for input on which socks or shoes they’ll wear or what snack they’ll eat.
- Calm the environment. Overstimulation and frustration are two notorious tantrum triggers. Pay attention to your child and their surroundings. If things get a bit too hectic, help them find a space to calm down.
- Tweak your activities. Kids get frustrated when they can’t do things on their own or when they can’t gain that independence they want. Find activities your child can do on their own that are age-appropriate and safe. Try letting them pick out their clothing, dress themselves, and even do some daily tasks, like pouring milk into their cereal using a small glass.
- Give friendly warnings. Before transitioning through activities during the day, try giving your little one a heads-up as to what’s next. For example, when it’s close to bedtime, try saying something like “It’s almost time for bed, so please choose one more thing to do!”
Tantrums should start to trail off once your child reaches age 3 1/2 to 4 years old.
Regardless of age, you might wonder if your child’s tantrums are particularly severe or concerning.
There are certainly some cases where either physical or psychological issues may be a factor. For example, tantrums caused by issues with communication or speaking may respond well to Early Intervention help. Other times, your child may respond well to an appointment with a psychologist.
Call your doctor if tantrums:
- happen several times a day or last for long periods of time
- involve self-harm, like hitting their head against the wall or jumping off furniture
- result in your child holding their breath
- involve destruction of property or hurting others
- cause headaches, stomach issues, or anxiety
- are lasting longer than 15 minutes, becoming more frequent, or getting more violent over time
- continue regularly after age 4–5.
And there’s really no hard-and-fast rule about contacting your doctor. If you feel that your own stress or frustration level is high or that you just don’t know how to handle the tantrums, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Parenting preschoolers is tough business. While tantrums can feel like they last an eternity, your child should start to outgrow them as their communication skills improve, and they’re able to participate more in their daily routine.
Whenever you can, respond with calming, comforting energy. Try your best to remember that tantrums are one way your little one is trying to communicate with you. And if you have concerns, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your child’s doctor for support and referral to additional resources.