Temper tantrums are unpleasant and disruptive behaviors or emotional outbursts. They often occur in response to unmet needs or desires. Tantrums are more likely to occur in younger children or others who cannot express their needs or control their emotions when they are frustrated.
Temper tantrums or "acting-out" behaviors are natural during early childhood. It is normal for children to want to be independent as they learn they are separate persons from their parents.
This desire for control often shows up as saying "no" often and having tantrums. Tantrums are worsened by the fact that the child may not have the vocabulary to express his or her feelings.
Tantrums usually begin around in children 12 to 18 months old. They get worse between age 2 to 3, then decrease until age 4. After age 4, they rarely occur. Being tired, hungry, or sick, can make tantrums worse or more frequent.
WHEN YOUR CHILD HAS A TANTRUM
When your child has a temper tantrum, it is important that you stay calm. It helps to remember that tantrums are normal. They are not your fault. You are not a bad parent, and your son or daughter is not a bad child. Shouting at or hitting your child will only make the situation worse. A quiet, peaceful response and atmosphere, without "giving in" or breaking the rules that you set, reduces stress and make both of you feel better.
You can also try gentle distraction, switching to activities your child enjoys or making a funny face. If your child has a tantrum away from home, lead your child to a quiet place, such as the car or a rest room. Keep your child safe until the tantrum has ended.
Temper tantrums are an attention-seeking behavior. One strategy to minimize the length and severity of the tantrum is to ignore the behavior. If your child is safe and not being destructive, going to another room in the house may shorten the episode because now the drama has no audience. Your child may follow and continue the tantrum. If so, do not talk or react until the behavior stops. Then, calmly discuss the issue and offer alternatives without giving in to your child's demand.
PREVENTING TEMPER TANTRUMS
Make sure that your child eats and sleeps at his or her usual times. If your child no longer takes a nap, ensure that he or she still has some quiet time. Lying down for 15 to 20 minutes or resting while you read stories together at regular times of the day can help prevent tantrums.
Other methods to prevent tantrums include:
Use an upbeat tone when asking your child to do something. Make it sound like an invitation, not an order. For example, "If you put your mittens and hat on, we'll be able to go to your play group."
Do not battle over unimportant things like which shoes your child wears or whether he or she sits in the high-chair or booster seat. Safety is what matters, such as not touching a hot stove, keeping the car seat buckled, and not playing in the street.
Offer choices when possible. For example, let your child pick what clothes to wear and what stories to read. A child who feels independent in many areas will be more likely to follow rules when it is a must. Do not offer a choice if one does not truly exist.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
If temper tantrums are getting worse and you do not think you can manage them, seek the advice of your health care provider. Also get help if you are not able to control your anger and shouting or if you are worried that you may react to your child's behavior with physical punishment.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you call your pediatrician or family physician if:
Tantrums get worse after age 4
Your child injures himself or herself or others, or destroys property during tantrums
Your child holds his or her breath during tantrums, especially if he or she faints
Your child also has nightmares, reversal of toilet training, headaches, stomachaches, anxiety, refuses to eat or go to bed, or clings to you
Daniels E. Assessment, management, and prevention of childhood temper tantrums. J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2012;24:569-573.
Walter HJ, DeMaso DR. Disruptive behavioral disorders. In: In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 27.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.