Your Child and Temper Tantrums
By Dr. Sandy Oak Lee
Has your child ever had a complete meltdown in a public place that involved crying, kicking, blood-curdling screams and writhing on the floor? If so, take heart – you are not alone. Many parents would rather remove themselves mentally and physically from the moment than endure the humiliation and embarrassment that comes with a toddler’s public meltdown. However, many parents are learning how to better handle and (eventually) prevent these unfortunate occurrences by not viewing their child’s outbursts as a disaster but, rather, taking time to build parent-child communication. Parents can achieve this by taking a few moments during a temper tantrum to empathize with their child’s emotions while at the same time learn some important coping skills along the way.
What is a Temper Tantrum?
A temper tantrum is an unplanned expression of anger or frustration, often with physical and verbal outbursts. During a temper tantrum, a child will typically cry, yell, stomp her feet, and flail her arms and legs. A tantrum usually lasts from 30 seconds to several minutes.
Temper tantrums are common in both boys and girls, and usually occur from ages 1-3 years. They can occur daily in some children, and infrequently in others. Whichever the case may be, temper tantrums are a normal part of development for children. Temper tantrums occur in about 80 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 4. About 20% of 2-year-olds and 10% of 4-year-olds have daily temper tantrums. (1)
Why Do Children Have Temper Tantrums?
A temper tantrum is a child’s way of expressing his negative emotions before he is able to voice them through verbal means. A child’s understanding of language far outstrips his ability to communicate verbally, and
subsequently, his frustrations and anger are often manifested through temper tantrums.
In other words, a temper tantrum is a child’s way of saying “I’m angry and frustrated!” And though we may feel like this too, children don’t have the same inhibitions or learned controlled behavior as we do.
Preventing Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums may occur without warning, however, parents can often tell when a child is becoming upset. Try to recognize situations where tantrums are more likely to occur, and plan accordingly. For example, adhere to routine meals and nap times (i.e. avoid having a tired and hungry child by prolonging his/her normal schedule). Avoid long outings without appropriate “play time” (i.e on long road trips, plan on longer rest stops for your child). Know your child’s limits. (i.e. if your child is tired, don’t try to squeeze in that extra errand). Help your child avoid frustrating situations (i.e. don’t take your child down the candy aisle unless you plan on purchasing candy for him/her). Be consistent about your rules and expectations
Helping Your Child Work Through a Temper Tantrum
The most important thing to remember during a temper tantrum is to keep your
cool. If you become frustrated and angry, emotions will continue to
escalate for both parties involved. Instead, take deep breaths, keep your
perspective, and stay calm. Tell your child in a calm voice that you understand his/her frustration but you cannot listen to this type of behavior and walk away from the situation. Continue your activities without paying attention to your child, but remaining within sight. Try not to cave into his demands. When parents
give in, children learn to use inappropriate behavior to get their way.
Children who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet safe place to calm down. This also applies to tantrums in public places. In older children, time-outs can be useful in these situations.
As children become more mature in understanding their emotions and better equipped to express themselves, temper tantrums become fewer and farther between. Remember that this is a stage that will eventually pass, and with the above tips, should become more manageable if not more bearable.
However, talk to your health professional if your child continues to have frequent temper tantrums after 4 years of age, if her tantrums escalate into violent behavior that result in injuries to herself or others, or if you
have difficulty handling your child’s behavior.
1. Stein MT (2003). Difficult behavior: Temper tantrums to conduct disorders. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph’s Pediatrics, 21st ed., pp. 444–450. New York: McGraw-Hill.