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Temper Tantrums


preschool girl after a temper tantrum


Tantrums are extremely common in toddlers and preschoolers. They’re how young children deal with difficult feelings. It helps to avoid situations that trigger your child’s tantrums, and to have a plan for managing them. Hang in there – tantrums tend to tail off after children turn four.

Tantrums are extremely common among children aged 18-36 months.

They come in all shapes and sizes. They can involve spectacular explosions of anger, frustration and chaotic behaviour (when your child "loses it"). You might see crying, screaming, stiffening limbs, an arched back, kicking, falling down, flailing about or running away. In some cases, children hold their breath, vomit, break things or get aggressive as part of a tantrum.

Causes of tantrums include:

  • a child’s general nature or temperament. Some children just have more tantrums than others
  • stress, hunger, tiredness and overstimulation
  • situations that children just can’t cope with – like, when an older child takes a toy away.

You’ll see fewer tantrums as your child gets older and better at handling feelings. Your child will also get better at communicating his wants and needs using words. But tantrums can go on – even into adulthood – if they become a reliable way for your child to get what he wants.

Tip: You can do a lot to make it less likely that tantrums will continue into the school-age years. The most important thing is to make sure you don’t accidentally reward your child’s tantrums.

Dealing with tantrums

Try not to feel embarrassed. Remember that all children are likely to have a tantrum at some point. And parents everywhere are wondering how to cope.

Some suggestions for dealing with tantrums:

  • Reduce stress. Tired, hungry and overstimulated children are more likely to have a tantrum.
  • Be aware of how your child is feeling. If you can see a tantrum brewing, step in and try distracting your child with another activity.
  • Quiet time. Scheduling quiet time throughout the day can help children cope with the stimulating world around them and avoid tantrums.
  • Identify tantrum triggers. Certain situations – shopping, visiting or mealtimes – might frequently involve temper tantrums. Think of ways to make these events easier on your child. For example, you could time the situations so your child isn’t tired, eats before you go out, or doesn’t need to sit still for too long.
  • When a tantrum occurs, stay calm (or pretend to!). If you get angry, it will make the situation worse and harder for both of you. Keep your voice calm and level, and act deliberately and slowly.
  • Wait out the tantrum. Ignore the behaviour until it stops. Once a temper tantrum is in full swing, it may be too late for reasoning or distraction. Your child may not be in the mood to listen. You also run the risk of teaching your child that tantrums get your full involvement and attention.
  • Make sure there’s no pay-off for the tantrum. If the tantrum occurs because your child doesn’t want to do something (such as leave the playground), gently insist that she does and pick her up, if necessary. If the tantrum occurs because your child wants something that she shouldn’t have, don’t give her what she wants.
  • Be consistent and calm in your approach. If you sometimes give your child what he wants when he tantrums and sometimes don’t, the problem could become worse.
  • Reward good behaviour. Enthusiastically praise your child when she manages frustration well.

"Children often start to have a tantrum because they don’t feel heard", points out Dr Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies. Experts agree that when you listen it’s important to accept, rather than dismiss, your child’s feelings – even if they’re hard to take.

It’s natural for kids to sometimes have big feelings. You haven’t done something wrong if your child has an occasional tantrum or blow up. Parents should only worry if a child is chronically, constantly unhappy, or if tantrums are their only tool for getting what they want.

Tip: The information provided here gives advice for parents dealing with a child who experiences upsets in the normal course of growing up. If your situation is particularly challenging, or you have a child who has chronic tantrums, you might want to seek professional help.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Temper Tantrums 



Last Updated: November 30, 2014