What is temper tantrums?

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Tantrums in children: Overview

A tantrum is a way for your child to show frustration. Your child may not yet have the skills to express strong emotions in other ways. This is part of normal child development. Tantrums are more common when a child is afraid, very tired, or uncomfortable.

During a tantrum, children can cry, yell, and swing their arms and legs. Tantrums usually last 30 seconds to 2 minutes and are strongest at the start. Sometimes tantrums last longer and involve hitting, biting, or pinching. Some children can hurt themselves by banging their head against a wall or the floor. If this type of tantrum becomes common, you may need more help from your doctor. Tantrums are most common in children between the ages of 1 and 4 years.

You can learn how to handle your child's tantrums by taking the simple steps below. Parenting classes are also helpful in dealing with the challenges of raising a toddler.

Temper tantrum

A temper tantrum is a sudden, unplanned display of anger or other emotions. Temper tantrums are usually a response to extreme frustration. They are most common in children ages 1 to 4 years.

As children grow older, they learn healthier ways to handle their emotions. Children who continue to have tantrums after the age of 4 may need help learning to deal with their emotions.

Can you prevent temper tantrums?

You may be able to prevent some temper tantrums or at least reduce how often they happen.

  • Keep a regular schedule that includes set meal times and enough hours of sleep. Having a routine can help your child to feel in control and stay positive.
  • Let your child make simple choices. For example, ask, "Would you like to wear the blue shirt or the green one?" Being able to make choices can help reduce frustration and build self-confidence.
  • Set fair, firm limits on behavior. Say "no" when you mean "no." Don't change your mind and give in to the child's wishes. This confuses children. It teaches them that "no" sometimes means "yes."
  • Put breakable or valuable items out of your child's reach. You'll need to say "no" to your child less often.
  • Know what to expect from your child based on your child's age and abilities. Children are more likely to get frustrated if their parents expect too much of them or correct them too much.
  • Praise your child for good behavior and for doing things that you would expect from a child that age.

How can you deal with temper tantrums?

If you sense that a tantrum is coming, you may be able to stop it.

  • Distract your child. For example, if your child doesn't like to go to bed, talk about something fun that is going to happen the next day.
  • Encourage your child to take a break from a frustrating activity. Or get your child to focus on something they already know how to do.
  • Remove your child from a situation that is likely to cause tantrums. Situations such as a large family dinner or the lights and noise of a carnival may be too much for a young child to handle.

After a tantrum starts, ignoring it may work best. Try the following:

  • Walk away. But stay where the child can see you, especially if your child is very young.
  • Keep doing what you were doing. You can observe without focusing all of your attention on your child.
  • Don't talk to the child, if possible. If you do speak, use a neutral tone of voice.

After a tantrum is over:

  • Praise your child for calming down.
  • Acknowledge your child's feelings. You might say something like, "I know that you were upset because you couldn't tie your shoes."
  • Comfort your child without giving in to their demands.
  • Never punish or make fun of a child who has a temper tantrum. Don't use words like "bad girl" or "bad boy" to describe your child.
  • Teach other ways to handle anger and frustration. For example, encourage your child to use words to express feelings. Or set up a safe place in the home where your child can go to calm down.
  • Be a good role model. Children learn by watching their parents, so let your child see that you can handle your own strong emotions calmly.

If your child has a lot of tantrums, time-out may be an option. Time-out works best for children who can understand why it is being used. This is usually around age 2 or 3 years.

For a time-out, you send or put your child someplace safe, such as a chair in a hallway, for a few minutes. This gives the child time to calm down. It also teaches the child that having a temper tantrum is not acceptable behavior.

How can you keep a record of your child's temper tantrums?

Your doctor may ask you to keep a record of your child's temper tantrums before you bring your child in for a physical exam. It's a good idea to include the following information.

  • How often does your child have tantrums?
  • What usually leads up to your child having a temper tantrum?
  • Does your child have temper tantrums more often around certain people?
  • Where do your child's tantrums usually occur? Do they ever occur at school?
  • What does your child do during a temper tantrum? How intense is the behavior?
  • How long does a tantrum last?
  • What do you do during a tantrum? How do you feel when your child is having a temper tantrum?
  • Do you give in to your child after a tantrum? Do you ever punish your child for having a tantrum?
  • How do your child's temper tantrums affect the family?

These answers can help your doctor get a clearer picture of what motivates your child and how your child behaves. They may also reveal patterns, such as what triggers the tantrums. This information can help a doctor learn more about your family and advise you on how to manage your child's behavior.

Your doctor may recommend further exams or tests if your child often has temper tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes or occur more than 3 times a day.

What are temper tantrums?

If you have a young child, you probably know what temper tantrums are. Experts define them as sudden, unplanned displays of anger or other emotions. During a tantrum, children often whine, cry, or scream. They may also swing their arms and legs wildly or hold their breath.

Anyone can have temper tantrums. But they are most common in children ages 1 to 4 years.

Dealing with tantrums may be unpleasant or embarrassing. But remember, tantrums are most intense at the start, and they usually last only 2 minutes or less. And most children stop having tantrums by age 4 or 5, when they learn healthy ways to handle strong emotions.

Why do children have temper tantrums?

A tantrum is a normal response when something blocks a young child from gaining independence or learning a skill. The child may not yet have the skills to express strong emotions in other ways. For example, a temper tantrum may happen when a child gets frustrated because they can't button a shirt. Or a child may get upset when they are told it's time for bed, but they want to stay up.

Children are more likely to have tantrums when they are afraid, overtired, or uncomfortable.

As a parent, your behavior matters too. Your child is more likely to have temper tantrums if you react too strongly to poor behavior or give in to the child's demands.

Should you see a doctor about your child's temper tantrums?

Children who still have tantrums after the age of 4 may need help learning to deal with their emotions. Tantrums that continue or start during the school years may be a sign of learning problems or other issues that the child may need help with.

Some children have temper tantrums that last longer and are more severe than normal. They may destroy things or hurt themselves or other people. This violent behavior may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Talk with a doctor if:

  • You are worried about your child's temper tantrums.
  • Your child is older than 4 and still has temper tantrums often.
  • Your child gets violent or destroys things during tantrums.
  • You have problems handling your child's behavior, especially if you think that you might hurt your child.

It may be helpful to keep a record of your child's behavior for a few days before your doctor visit. This will help the doctor assess your child's behavior and decide if testing is needed.

Tantrums in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have problems handling your child's behavior, especially if you worry that you might hurt your child.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child gets hurt or hurts other people or becomes violent.
  • Your child has long-lasting and frequent temper tantrums.
  • Your child regularly has temper tantrums after 4 years of age.
  • You want help with your feelings during your child's tantrums.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.