About Temper Tantrums

Almost every parent on the planet is familiar with the classic toddler temper tantrum. It may be as simple as tears and a refusal to move or as jarring as ear-splitting screams, flailing on the floor and kicking everyone in sight. Parents should be reassured that tantrums are a normal step in a young child's development and that there are tantrum triggers parents can avoid to lessen their frequency.

  1. Types

    • Between the ages of 1 to 3 years old, children engage in various types of tantrums. The classic tantrum begins with whining and then can quickly escalate into a screaming fit. Kicking and hitting are common elements. Tantrums can get scary if the child attempts to hold his breath. Some children descend into tantrums at the moment of frustration or tiredness, while others have only rare, isolated tantrums. A typical tantrum lasts a matter of minutes, though the aftereffects can go on longer than the tantrum itself.


    • Temper tantrums serve a purpose for toddlers who are learning to experience the world in new ways. Their new language skills cannot capture their full intent and meaning, and sometimes emotions take over. Exhaustion, hunger and discomfort are other common triggers. Tempter tantrums can be the result of a 2-year-old not understanding the concept of delayed gratification and wanting that box of grape juice immediately, in the middle of the grocery store aisle. Tantrums also serve as a way for a toddler to grapple with the baffling challenges of independence and the conflicting desires to stay a baby while also experiencing autonomy.


    • Preventing tantrums is not always possible, but there are some strategies that make a child less likely to have a temper tantrum. Be sure to give positive reinforcement and attention rather than waiting for your child to do something wrong to get noticed. Offer simple choices, such as whether the toddler prefers cranberry or grape juice with snack. Put temptations that are off-limits out of sight to avoid battles. Change the child's environment at the onset of a tantrum or find another way to distract him. Provide predictable, enjoyable routines for your toddler, such as a nightly story followed by a warm bath. Give your toddler a chance to complete simple tasks independently and successfully and praise him for it. Finally, do not push a toddler beyond his energy level.

    Expert Insight

    • Dr. Jay L. Hoecker has written about temper tantrums (see Resources below) and has a key recommendation. When a temper tantrum attacks, keep a cool head. Responding with anger or frustration can escalate and prolong the tantrum. He warns, "If you lose your cool or give in to your child's demands, you've only taught your child that tantrums are effective." As the adult, you must set the example for your child by responding maturely.


    • Temper tantrums are a normal aspect of development, but there are certain warning signs that merit consulting with a pediatrician. If the tantrums seem too frequent, long or intense, it's worth mentioning. If your responses to the tantrums worry you, consult with the doctor. If your toddler is repeatedly causing injury to himself or to others, this is a warning sign. If your child shows tendencies toward destructiveness, negativity, depression, insecurity or constant dependence, it should be mentioned. Certain physical conditions, such as chronic illness, learning delays, developmental delays, language problems, hearing impairment and vision impairment can result in tantrums.

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