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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.
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Tantrums are very common in young children – one American study found that 87% of children aged 18-24 months throw tantrums.
 

Tantrums: the basics

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 disorganised 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.

The causes of tantrums include:

  • temperament. This can influence how emotional children become when they feel frustrated. Some children just have more tantrums than others
  • stress, hunger, tiredness and overstimulation
  • situations that children just can’t cope with – for example, when an older child takes a toy away.

You’ll see fewer tantrums as your child gets older and better at handling bad 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.

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.

The low-key approach to dealing with tantrums

This approach is suitable for very young children (1-2 years), or for children whose tantrums do not occur very frequently or very severely.

  • Reduce stress . Tired, hungry and overstimulated children are more likely to throw tantrums.
  • 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.
  • 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 behave 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. If you need to speak at all, 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’s too late for reasoning or distraction. Your child won’t 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 get out of the bath), gently insist that she does (pick her up out of the bath). If the tantrum occurs because your child wants something, 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.
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Dealing with persistent or severe tantrums

You can use the following approach if your child is older than two and:

  • tantrums are severe and very disruptive to family life
  • tantrums are causing you and your child significant distress
  • you find it difficult to ignore tantrums
  • you worry that you might become angry and hurt your child when he tantrums.
The steps in the following approach have been tested and found to be useful over many years of scientific research into helping parents manage difficult child behaviour.
  1. Keep a diary of your child’s tantrums for 7–10 days. Draw up a chart with four columns. Record the day of the tantrum, where it happened, what happened just before it, and what happened right afterwards.
  2. Identify the situations that make tantrums more likely to happen (for example, tiredness, going shopping, mealtimes). Plan ways of avoiding those situations or making them less stressful for your child.
  3. Identify the triggers for your child’s tantrums. Common triggers include being told ‘no’ or being asked to do something. Look for ways of reducing or avoiding tantrum triggers. The table below has some ideas.
    TriggerPrevention
    Being told ‘no’ 
    • Put attractive but fragile items out of reach (have older children put their favourite toys out of reach).
    • Say ‘yes’ whenever it’s reasonable.
    • Offer choices.
    • Distract your child with another activity.
    Being asked or told to do something
    • Give fewer instructions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling children what to do all the time.
    • Check that your instructions are reasonable. Tantrums are more likely if your child can’t do what he is being asked to do.
    • Let your child know in advance when you have to do something. This way, she knows her activity is about to change.
    • Offer choices where possible.
    Frustration with an object or activity (for example, making a toy work)
    • Provide help before the tantrum.
    • Put frustrating toys or activities out of reach.
    • Spend some time teaching your child how to use the object.
  4. Identify the consequences of the tantrum. Can you see ways tantrums are being accidentally rewarded by what you do when or after it happens?
  5. Establish a reward system to give your child extra encouragement for staying calm. You could use a star chart, or random rewards of small things your child likes – for example, toy cars.
  6. Help your older child learn and practise coping skills in situations where he’d normally have a tantrum. For example, ‘Michael, in five minutes I’m going to ask you to turn off the Xbox. This is a chance for you to show me how calm and grown-up you can be. How are you going to handle it?’ Or, ‘Sonia, take a deep breath and stay calm. I want you to stay calm after you have my answer. Can you do that?’
  7. Here are two possible options when your child throws a tantrum:
  • Ignore the tantrum. Turn away from your child, and don’t look at or speak to her while she tantrums. It might help to walk away from your child, if you can do it safely.
  • Use time-out: this is an effective strategy if the tantrums are particularly severe or you find it impossible to ignore tantrums.
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Tips on staying tantrum-free yourself

Dealing with tantrums can be enormously draining and stressful for parents. Here are some ideas for staying calm and keeping things in perspective.

  • Develop a strategy. Have a clear plan for how you’ll handle a tantrum in whatever situation you’re in. Concentrate on implementing your plan when the tantrum occurs.
  • Accept that you can’t control your child’s emotions or behaviours directly. You can only keep your child safe and do what you need to do so tantrums will be less likely to occur in the future.
  • Accept that it will take time for change to occur. Your child has a lot of growing up to do before tantrums become a thing of the past.
  • Beware of thoughts that your child is doing it on purpose or is trying to get you. Children don’t deliberately scheme to throw tantrums – they’re stuck in a bad habit or just don’t have the skills right now to cope with the situation.
  • Keep your sense of humour. Try to see the funny side of the human blowfly on the supermarket floor. But don’t laugh at the tantrum – if you do, it might reward your child with attention. It might also upset him even more if he thinks you’re laughing at him.
  • If other people give you dirty looks, ignore them. They’ve either never had children or it’s been so long since they had a young child they’ve forgotten what it’s like.
Don’t judge yourself as a parent based on how many tantrums your child has. Remember that all children have tantrums. Instead, focus on how you respond. Even then, give yourself plenty of leeway to be human and make mistakes.

Getting help
There’s no sense in putting up with high levels of stress on your own. It’s a good idea to get professional help if you’re:

  • finding it hard to keep tantrums in perspective, and they’re becoming more than just an annoyance
  • having trouble controlling your own emotions and are finding yourself getting angry and losing your own temper
  • starting to restrict your own activities and the rest of your family’s because of one child’s tantrums.

Tantrum statistics

If your child throws tantrums, you’re not alone. Researchers in the United States asked over 1200 parents about their children’s tantrums. This is what they found.

Age of child Percentage of children who throw temper tantrums
18-24 months 87%
30-36 months 91%
42-48 months 59%

From Potegal & Davidson (2003)

How often do most kids tantrum? And how long do tantrums generally last? The parents in this study reported that, on average, tantrums lasted for:

  • two minutes in one-year-olds
  • four minutes in children aged 2-3
  • five minutes in four-year-olds.

The tantrums occurred:

  • eight times a week for one-year-olds
  • nine times a week for two-year-olds
  • six times a week for three-year-olds
  • five times a week for four-year-olds.
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  • Last Updated 14-10-2011
  • Last Reviewed 22-08-2011
  • Giesbrecht, G. F., Miller, M.R., & Muller, U. (2010). The Anger-distress model of temper tantrums: Associations with emotional reactivity and emotional competence. Infant and Child Development, 19, 478-497.

    Potegal, M. & Davidson, R. J. (2003). Temper tantrums in young children: 1. Behavioural composition. Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics, 24, 140-148.