Temper tantrums are emotional outbursts of anger and frustration.
Tantrums typically begin around age 12 to 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’s 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 4.
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.
What Are the Signs of a Tantrum?
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 their body
What Is the Best Way to Respond to a Tantrum?
The following strategies may help you manage your child’s temper tantrums.
It’s important to remain composed. If possible, don’t let your child’s 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 they want. 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’re finding it difficult to ignore them, 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. Verbally reinforce that such behaviors are unacceptable.
Remove Your Child from the Situation
If you’re home and your child won’t calm down, try a time out. Take them to another room and remove anything that might distract them. If you’re out in public, ignore the tantrum unless your child is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. In that case, the best response is to stop what you’re doing, take your child, and leave.
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 their emotions can sometimes help them calm down, especially if they’re looking for attention.
Acknowledge Good Behavior
Show approval when your child behaves well. This will reinforce good behavior.
When Is It Appropriate to Consult Your Doctor?
Tantrums are a normal part of growing up and they will most likely go away with time. However, if your child’s temper tantrums get worse or you feel that you’re unable to manage them, you may want to talk to your doctor.
You should consult your child’s pediatrician if:
- their tantrums get worse after age 4
- their tantrums are violent enough to injure them or someone else
- your child routinely destroys property
- your child holds their breath and faints
- your child complains of a stomachache or headache, or becomes anxious
- you’re frustrated and unsure of how to handle your child’s tantrums
- you fear you may discipline your child too harshly or harm your child
What Is the Best Way to Prevent Tantrums?
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.
Over time, you will learn which strategies work best with your child.