Temper Tantrums

  • Medical Author:
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Temper tantrums facts

  • Temper tantrums are a common behavior in children 2 to 4 years of age. While exasperating to parents, they reflect the toddler's normal desire for independence coupled with the neurological immaturity (such as expressive language skills) found in this age range.
  • Parents can effectively manage temper tantrums by remaining calm and objective and not rewarding the child's behavior. Walking away from the child during the temper tantrum teaches the child that their approach is unsuccessful. Timeout is also an effective tool parents can successfully utilize.
  • Strategies exist to help prevent temper tantrums. Realistic behavioral expectations, letting the child make some choices in day-to-day activities, and searching out and rewarding good behavior choices are all effective techniques.
  • Extremely frequent and excessively long-lasting (greater than five minutes) tantrums involving violence (especially directed at younger siblings or other children) or parental sense of "loss of control" warrant an appointment with the child's pediatrician.

What are temper tantrums?

Temper tantrums are emotional and physical "meltdowns" common among children in the 2- to 4-year-old age range. The toddler may demonstrate a number of characteristic behaviors, including screaming, kicking, lying on the floor, and occasionally holding his breath (rarely to the point of passing out). As a child matures, these manifestations of emotional, developmental, and physical immaturity gradually extinguish themselves. Studies indicate that 23%-85% of children between 2 and 4 years of age will commonly have temper tantrums.

What causes temper tantrum in toddlers?

A toddler's view of the world is egocentric; "I want what I want, when I want it!" This narcissistic view of their world is coupled with an incomplete and unbalanced development of expressive language skills when compared with their more complete receptive language skills. The receptive language of a 2-year-old child is numbered in the thousands, while the expressive skill generally is 150-200 words. Perhaps more frustrating for the toddler is the receptive ability to understand complex sentence structure while only able to express his thoughts in two- to three-word phrases.

The toddler world is full of exploration and discovery. The toddler has many skills and little judgement. Young children learn by observation and repetitive trials. When a parent's desire for safety and limiting chaos clashes with the young child's fierce struggle for autonomy and the child's limited language capabilities, the temper tantrum is almost inevitable.

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Temper Tantrums Prevention

Positive Parenting of Toddlers 2-3 Years of Age

Because of your child's growing desire to assert her independence, this stage is often called the "terrible twos." However, this can be an exciting time for you and your toddler. He will experience huge intellectual, social, and emotional changes that will help him to explore his new world, and make sense of it.

How should parents handle temper tantrums in toddlers?

Over the years, parents and psychologists have developed a series of suggestions to help deal with temper tantrums. These include

  • Don't get sucked into the emotion of the situation. Remain calm and unemotional. If possible (for example, at home) tell the child you can't understand him when he behaves that way and leave the area. Inform him that when he calms down you will talk with him about what he wants. Feeding into the situation by trying to deal with the out of control child reinforces the behavior.
  • Try to distract or redirect the child. Many parents observe that this strategy works better in the young toddler; the older child is less likely to be "bought off."
  • Discipline should be promptly applied, brief, proportionate to the "crime," and rendered without emotion by the parent. The classic recommendation for "time-out" of one minute per year of age has well stood the test of time. A quick verbal explanation of the infraction is reasonable ("You are going into time-out because you kept pinching your brother. We don't pinch. Pinching hurts.")
  • Realize that temper tantrums are a way a child is testing your limits in addition to a way of venting frustration. If he discovers that he is more likely to succeed in a certain setting (such as at grocery-store checkout line), he will persevere in this location. Parents may be very frustrated by their toddler's temper tantrums in a public venue; take heart in the fact that almost all the other adults have similarly been the recipient of their child's wrath in a public locale.

Should children be punished for having temper tantrums?

Temper tantrums in 2- to 4-year-old children are considered an essential part of normal child development. By the time they are less frequent, children have substantially increased their expressive verbal skills. In addition, they have developed alternative and more successful techniques for achieving their goal. Such maturation requires that parents provide proper role modeling for their toddler. If parents raise their voices, throw objects, or use physical violence, the child will see this as an example of how adults handle frustration.

Can temper tantrums be prevented?

While elimination of all toddler temper tantrums is an unrealistic goal, lessening their frequency and intensity is a realistic one. Developmental pediatricians offer these suggestions:

  • Parents need to learn how to deal with their own frustrations and anger in an effective manner. Children learn by observation ("Monkey see, monkey do").
  • Have realistic expectations of childhood behavior for a given age range. Expecting a toddler to remain seated and sedate during church service or while in a fancy restaurant will only lead to frustration for both age groups.
  • Help your child find the proper verbal way of expressing their frustrations. ("I know you are mad that I won't give you the carving knife daddy just used, but you will get hurt. You will get an 'owie.'")
  • Seek out good behavior and reward it. "The carrot often works wonders when the stick commonly fails." Don't take what is commonly considered appropriate adult behavior for granted in the toddler age range. For example, "I am proud of you for waiting your turn to go on the slide. As a reward, you can go two extra times!"
  • Defuse a potentially volatile situation by advance notice. For example, "We have to leave the park after you go down the slide two more times." This gives the child the opportunity to assert some control over the situation and develop an alternative approach to a frustrating event.
  • Toddlers crave control. Allow simple choices during the day and compliment the choice (whatever it is.) For example, "Do you want some apple or banana at lunch? An appl, I like apples, too." Similarly, don't enter a battle you will lose. For example, "If you don't eat this apple, you'll have to sit at the table until you do." Almost every parent has learned that such a threat is unenforceable. Let the child win the battle; you will win the war.
  • Plan ahead and avoid known situations of conflict if possible. A trip to the market for one hour in the late afternoon is tough for both you and your toddler. Aim for the morning, with the pledge that he can go to the park if he behaves himself.

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Do children grow out of having temper tantrums?

By 4 years of age, most children have developed both self-control and language skills that will lessen the frequency and intensity of temper tantrums. If a younger child is having more than two to three major temper tantrums per week, if tantrums (at any age) seem excessively severe, last longer than five minutes, involve violence (especially directed at younger siblings or other children) or have pushed you beyond your own self-control, you should discuss the situation with your child's pediatrician. Any feelings of a need to use physical or verbal threats against a child are a red flag and must be addressed immediately. Support groups to help with parenting skills as well as addressing potentially underlying sources of frustration (such as the loss of job) are very effective.

Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics

REFERENCES:

Fetsch, R.J., and B. Jacobson. "Children's Anger and Tantrums." Colorado State University. Apr. 2007 <http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/CONSUMER/10248.html>.

Gallagher, Richard. "Temper Tantrums: How to Deal With a Meltdown." NYU Child Study Center. June 2, 2006. <http://www.aboutourkids.org/articles/temper_tantrums_how_deal_meltdown>.

Kliegman, Robert M., Richard E. Behrman, Hal B. Jenson, and Bonita M.D. Stanton. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.

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Reviewed on 7/6/2015
References
Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics

REFERENCES:

Fetsch, R.J., and B. Jacobson. "Children's Anger and Tantrums." Colorado State University. Apr. 2007 <http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/CONSUMER/10248.html>.

Gallagher, Richard. "Temper Tantrums: How to Deal With a Meltdown." NYU Child Study Center. June 2, 2006. <http://www.aboutourkids.org/articles/temper_tantrums_how_deal_meltdown>.

Kliegman, Robert M., Richard E. Behrman, Hal B. Jenson, and Bonita M.D. Stanton. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2007.

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