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 anyone else who cannot express their needs or control their emotions when they are frustrated.
Temper tantrums or "acting-out" behaviors are natural during early childhood development. Children have a normal and natural tendency to assert their independence as they learn they are separate beings from their parents.
This desire for control often shows up as saying "no" often and having tantrums. These are worsened by the fact that the child may not have the vocabulary to express his or her feelings.
Tantrums usually begin around age 12 - 18 months. They get worse between 2 and 3 years, then decrease rapidly until age 4. After age 4, they should 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 rule that you just set, will reduce 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 you are not at home during a tantrum, try to carry your child to a quiet place, such as the car or a rest room. Keep the 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. As long as the child is safe and not being destructive, walking away to another room in the house may shorten the episode because now the drama has no audience. Sometimes the child will follow and continue the tantrum. Do not talk or react until the behavior stops. Then, calmly discuss the issue and offer alternatives without giving in to the 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, it is still important to have some quiet time. Lying down for 15-20 minutes or resting with you while you read stories together at regular times of the day can help prevent tantrums.
Other methods to try 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."
Don't 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. As the American Academy of Pediatrics experts put it, "while [your toddler or preschooler] will be saying 'no' to everything..., you should be saying 'no' only the few times a day when it is absolutely necessary."
Offer choices whenever 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 doesn't 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 find yourself becoming angry and yelling, 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
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.