A temper tantrum is an emotional outburst from a young child who is distressed or frustrated. They are a normal part of growing up and tend to happen most between the ages of 1 and 3.
Tools to help prevent tantrums
There are a few tools you can use to help prevent temper tantrums:
- Make your home, where your child spends most of their time, as childproof as possible. If you find yourself saying no all the time because your child is constantly getting into things they shouldn’t, rearrange things around your house so they aren’t as tempted. Being told no all the time can be frustrating to your child.
- Recognize when you have pushed your child to their limit. Whether nap time was late or snack time was skipped, try to understand why your child might be agitated.
- Try to keep your child from being overstimulated or under stimulated. When you are at a birthday party and your child has been having fun, and playing for hours, do your best to gauge when they have reached their limit and try to leave before a tantrum ensues. It is often good to give your child a five-minute warning. “In five minutes, we are going to get ready to go.” When children are surprised by an activity change, this can lead to tantrums. If you are going somewhere that you expect downtime (a restaurant where the food could take a while), try to have toys, books, etc., to keep your child busy so they don’t start to fuss. Try to avoid electronics.
- Understand the cause of tantrums. One of the prime reasons for frustration/tantrums is the inability for your child to fully communicate their feelings. Children often have more complicated feelings than they can express. If your child is having difficulty with receptive language (understanding what is said to them) or expressive language (expressing what their needs and wants are), they can become very easily frustrated. This can be more prominent in children with language delays. Check with your pediatrician if you are concerned about a language delay.
Tools to help navigate tantrums
If your child is in the middle of a tantrum, these tips might help you work your way through it:
- Do not reinforce tantrums. If you give in to your child’s tantrums, over time, they will learn that throwing a tantrum gets them what they want. Research shows that positive reinforcement works best. This means praising your child when they are behaving nicely. Be clear about the behavior you expect from your child and then reward accordingly. “You are doing such a great job sitting here quietly.” If children don’t understand what they did well, then they don’t understand what to do again. Avoid using punishments or threats. Sometimes, as parents, we make threats or offer up punishments that we know we will not follow through on thus making the entire process ineffective. For example, saying, “If you misbehave, grandpa won’t come to visit,” even though you know he is already on his way.
- Another option is to simply ignore the tantrum. If your child is in a safe place, let them continue their tantrum. You can do this in a public place too. If your child is having a tantrum, you can just stand next to them. Don’t worry, all parents have been there.
- Offer choices. Children are creatures of habit and benefit from structure. Sometimes, when their routine is disrupted, tantrums can arise. If the routine is disrupted, try to offer your children choices – two acceptable alternatives are sufficient – so they feel like they have some control over their activities. Don’t offer too many choices, though, as that can be overwhelming. As mentioned before, giving a five-minute warning before changing activities can also be helpful.
- Offer sympathy and understanding. Have sympathy for your child, who may not be able to calm themselves yet. This is a skill that will develop as they get older. If your child is upset, get down to their level, and have them take a deep breath, give them a big hug, coach them through the issue or even distract them. Try offering words as to what they may be feeling like “are you sad because …” or “are you frustrated?” Do your best to understand their temperament and their development level, meet them where they are and trust your parental instincts.
When are tantrums serious? When should I talk to a pediatrician?
Tantrums that are outside the normal range of frequency and severity may be related to a developmental problem. If you have concerns that your child’s language and ability to play with others are not developing or you have concerns about your ability to cope with your child’s tantrums, talk to your pediatrician and make sure your child’s development is on target. If there are delays, there are developmental services for children under 3 through the State of Michigan’s Early On program.
When will the tantrums stop?
Children will continue to struggle with this ability to calm themselves down and deal with frustration long after the age of 2. Over time, the tantrums change and begin to taper off around 3 years of age.
Reviewed by Sara Laule, MD
Updated May 2019