What is a Tantrum in Childhood?
A tantrum in childhood is a behavior displayed by crying, yelling, and showing signs of extreme distress. The child may also throw objects, throw oneself to the ground, physically shake, or make threats to others.
Symptoms of Temper Tantrums in Children
- Throwing fits: yelling, screaming, throwing oneself to the ground
- Has a temper like a house of cards: getting upset quickly over minor events
- Having long tantrums: having a tantrum that lasts for 30 minutes or more
- Challenging to soothe: having a hard time calming down, even with a caring adult present
- Unexpected tantrums: having tantrums that are more sudden and longer than expected for a child this age
- Fussy baby: having a history as a fussy baby who needed constant holding or could not sleep through the night without frequent waking and crying
- Intense or unsafe: appearing unsafe or hurting themselves or others during tantrums. Might kick, hit, or break items while having a tantrum
Other signs that your child is having tantrums
How it might look when your child has tantrums: You and your child are walking along while you check out the game section at the county fair. Your daughter decided that she was not leaving the fair without that giant giraffe toy she wanted to win. She throws herself to the ground, screaming and crying. Your inconsolable child carries on for a half-hour, refusing to move an inch without getting what she wants.
Frequent fits: You may feel that your child is ‘throwing down’ on a regular basis. You may notice that they get so mad so often that you are scratching your head, thinking, “what is wrong with my child?” It may be that transition times, like bedtime, mealtime, or time to get off the video game, are a real challenge.
It is normal for children to argue or resist sometimes when required to drop a preferred activity to take part in a non-preferred activity. But, if tantrums last over an hour or occur more than a couple of times per week, your child may have an issue worthy of clinical attention.
Challenging child: Some children are just more challenging to raise. You might notice that your child has always been difficult to soothe. Children with big tempers can be challenging. You may feel like your house is a war zone.
Hard to soothe: Most typically developing children will get upset or throw a tantrum occasionally. Children should generally be able to be soothed by love and comfort from caregivers. A child who is in upper elementary school should calm down quickly and should not be throwing tantrums more than once a week. If your child is still crying, screaming, and losing their temper, over the age of 8, a significant problem could be present.
Tantrums at different ages
Tantrums in toddlers: Temper tantrums are somewhat common in toddlers and preschoolers. Generally, toddlers will tantrum when they are unable to express what they want by communicating. As a child learns to regulate emotions and to express wants and needs appropriately, the frequency of tantrums should drop down.
When to seek help for a toddler who has temper tantrums: If tantrums or tirades are a concern, you will notice they last more than a few minutes, occur many times a day, and interfere with the daily life of the family.
Tantrums in children: As children become verbal, they begin to learn how to recognize feelings, use feeling words, and ask for their needs to be met. As children enter school age, they should very rarely have a temper tantrum.
When to seek help for a school-age child who has tantrums: Children who cry, scream, or berate others for 20 minutes or more, over 1-2 times per week after the age of 8 – 10, are demonstrating a concerning behavior. It is especially important to get help if the child is getting in trouble at school often or disrupting the family’s life on a daily or weekly basis.
Tantrums in teens and young adults: Teens and adults should manage their tempers. Lengthy verbal tantrums or tirades are a concern. Some adults do not outgrow such tirades and need therapy to learn to regulate strong emotions.
When to seek help for a teen or young adult who has tantrums: A teen or adult who is yelling and screaming or posturing in an aggressive way more than once per month should see a professional. This is especially important if the teen or adult is getting in trouble at school or at work or disrupting the family’s life.
Physical aggression toward family members by a teen or adult is never okay. Caregivers or family members need to reach out to therapeutic support or law enforcement to keep the family safe.
Causes of Tantrums
Could I be causing my child’s tantrums? Sometimes, tantrums are reinforced by accident by parents or other well-meaning adults. A child screams, and a parent provides the desired item to achieve peace and quiet. For example, Johnny throws himself on the floor and screams, and mom says, “If you stop crying, you can have a treat.” The parent’s intentions may be good, but the child may tantrum even more the next time they want something.
Please be aware that these ideas are not intended to criticize you as a parent or make you feel bad about your child’s behavior. Of course, you want your child to be well-behaved. Of course, you are trying to raise a happy and successful child. These are mistakes most parents make due to a societal lack of knowledge about what truly motivates behavior in children.
Top 8 things parents do that make their children’s tantrums worse
Unknowingly, parents are often the cause of an increase in their child’s tantrum behavior. In behavior terms, ‘reinforcement’ is anything that increases the frequency of a behavior. Often, well-meaning parents unintentionally reward a child’s tantrums. Here’s how…
1. Giving attention to the behavior you don’t want. Imagine your child is trying to get your attention and you are busy doing something else. Your child calmly says, “Mom?” and you don’t answer. Then, your child calls out “M—–om” and you still don’t answer. Next, your child screams out “MOM!!!” and begins kicking the wall. Then, you answer.
You may kindly come over to your child and ask them to use their words, but it is too late. You have reinforced that the way to get your attention is by screaming and kicking.
2. Giving the ‘prize’ right after the tantrum: Let’s pretend your child wants a popsicle, but you want her to wait until after dinner. She says, ‘please,’ and you say no. She then proceeds to throw herself on the ground and cry. You still say no. But then, she sobs uncontrollably and asks you nicely, once more, for the popsicle. Then you give her the popsicle.
Everyone might feel better for now, but that child has learned that a tantrum is what it took to get that popsicle. A better way to show empathy for your child’s upset is to listen and understand her concerns without giving her the reward.
3. Failing to follow through: Imagine the scenario above, but this time your child throws the fit, and you continue to stick with your decision. She cries for the popsicle, and you say no. She screams for the popsicle, and you say no. Then, she runs into the garage and gets the popsicle out of the freezer. You see her take the popsicle, but you are busy making dinner. You decide you are not going to fight with her right now. Then, you let her have the popsicle.
This child received the reward without doing the expected behavior. Unfortunately, the child is learning that the best way to negotiate with you is to wait until you aren’t paying attention.
4. Letting them off the hook: Let’s pretend that your child does not want to do math homework. You ask for them to get started but they don’t. You ask them repeatedly, even offering up rewards, if they will just do some work. Then, the child throws a fit, yelling and throwing the math book on the floor. At that point, you let them skip homework tonight.
To show sympathy to your frustrated child, you dropped your request. It might have been a good time to take a break, grab a glass of water and regroup before starting again. Allowing your child to stop the work right after throwing a fit will increase that behavior in the future.
5. Not waiting it out: Let’s pretend that you are trying to get ready to go out the door for school. Your child is refusing to get dressed. He throws himself to the floor, saying, “I don’t want to get dressed.” He yells, “I hate everyone in this house” and still refuses. You say, “that’s not okay to talk like that.” You don’t have the patience or time to wait. Instead, you go in and dress the child yourself.
It is possible that if you had sat quietly nearby your child would have gotten dressed on his own. But, in this case, he has learned that yelling at you will get you to do his work for him.
6. Making a deal to avoid a scene: Let’s imagine for a minute that your child throws a fit at the grocery store, chucking groceries out of the cart. You cringe as your child’s voice escalates and turns to a shrill scream. Your child begins slamming their body into the racks of groceries. People walking around the store start giving you looks or making comments. You make your child a deal that if they stop screaming, you will let them buy a toy.
Although it is good to see that you did not lose your cool and were able to diffuse the situation, you have now effectively rewarded your child for throwing a fit.
7. Berating, criticizing, and shaming: Let’s pretend that your child displays some very poor behavior that is clearly not acceptable. Perhaps, she breaks an expensive item in your home or gets into serious trouble at school. Many parents’ natural inclination would be to make comments like, “Shame on you” or “You are a disappointment.” Sometimes, the comments are more benign like, “If you keep this up, you will have to work at the gas station when you grow up.”
All of these statements basically amount to name-calling. Although you want to teach your child better behavior, you will find that the assault on the child’s self-esteem will only make the behavior worse.
8. Threats: Imagine for a minute that your child will not pick up their things off the floor as you asked. You have reminded them 100 times, and they still aren’t doing it. The parent’s next step is often a statement that starts like, “If you don’t ____, then you won’t ____.” For example, “If you don’t clean your room, you won’t get your car keys back.” It is a step in the right direction in that you are laying out the terms for rewarding their behavior. But, there are two big problems with this approach. First, you are starting off assuming the child is not going to do what you asked when you say, “If you don’t.” Next, you are resorting to taking something away as a threat for their bad behavior.
Instead, you will want to start your statement with, “When you do____. Then you can ____.” For example, “When your room is clean, you can have your car keys.” The ‘consequence’ of the behavior might be the same, but the approach is quite different. You are teaching your child to do a positive behavior to achieve a positive outcome, rather than resorting to threats.
Although well-meaning parents make these mistakes all the time in an attempt to help their children, these tactics simply don’t work. It is important to recognize that it is extremely hard to help your child through tantrums. It sometimes works against every instinct that we have. You need to avoid rewarding or threatening your child with punishments during a tantrum. All these approaches will actually make things worse over the long run.
But there’s good news! All these common mistakes can be corrected with a little practice. There are suggestions at the end of this article. We have many more throughout this site to guide you in dealing with tantrums effectively.
Some children, even with the most effective parent in the world, will have tantrums. Before we talk about how to help them, know that there are other causes that can be outside of your control as a parent. Some factors are internal to the child. They will impact the effectiveness of any intervention.
- Emotion regulation: is a child’s ability to regulate and contain emotional outbursts. Sometimes children with poor emotional understanding or awareness, have a hard time managing their emotions. They may throw fits as a way to communicate their upset. Children with emotional or behavioral disorders are highly prone to emotional regulation challenges. They need support from professionals and therapists to learn how to manage their feelings effectively.
- Temperament: is our innate level of activity or negative emotionality. Some children are not born to be easy-going. They just don’t go-with-the-flow. Their grandparents may say, “that child is wound tighter than a spring.” Research shows that a child’s temperament is somewhat of a lifelong feature of personality. However, your ‘temperamental’ child can be taught good behavior and these tantrums can be reduced or eliminated.
- Anxiety: Some very anxious children will throw fits because they become overwhelmed. They may have an ominous feeling that bad things are happening. Anxious children can generally learn coping skills and strategies. These tools can lessen the level of the tantrums.
- Early stressors & medical factors: Children with extreme emotions may have problems in the brain’s Limbic System, including the Amygdala, a brain structure responsible for emotion processing. Early stressors, such as prenatal alcohol or drug exposure, birth trauma, or maternal illness may have affected your child’s development. Tantrums could be related to a medical condition, anxiety, or a history of exposure to trauma. Children with a medical or neurological reason for their tantrum behaviors are challenging to parent and may need clinical support and intervention.
- Situational mental health factors: Some children and teens will go through a rough patch in life. After the death of a loved one, the loss of a best friend, or a move across the country, this child may be in distress. In this case, if your child is typically developing, lots of love and nurturing will likely get your child into a healthier place. The most important thing a parent can do is LISTEN and find out why your child is upset. Listening and showing empathy is absolutely not the same as reinforcing a tantrum. Rather, your ability to stay calm and loving toward your child, without giving into their demands, can often bring an end to tantrum behaviors.
- Persistent mental health issues: there may be what psychologists call ‘an organic’ cause for your child’s tantrums. Some children are born with an irritable or depressive nature. There may also be a trauma history in your child’s past, impacting their mental health. In either case, LISTEN to your child and provide therapy as needed.
What to Do About Tantrums
Temper tantrums can be challenging and embarrassing for a parent. Perhaps in public people give you dirty looks or try to offer advice. You just want your child to stop screaming so you can finish grocery shopping. As hard as it is, it is very important not to reinforce temper tantrums accidentally. Earlier, we learned what not to do about your child’s tantrums. Here’s what TO DO, as a parent, when your child has a tantrum.
Make sure the child is okay: You must be sure that your child is not hurt or sick or crying for a significant reason. If the child is wet, hungry, or tired, provide the needed support.
Be okay with making a scene: You will need to notice your own level of embarrassment and work to let that go. Note how you are feeling when your child is having a meltdown in the store or at the park. If you feel upset because you feel other parents are watching and judging, things will get worse.
Stay calm and present: If you are prepared to handle a meltdown, be clear and calm in your communication. Say, “no, you cannot have that toy today.” If the child throws that tantrum, you will probably want to leave the public place. Gently pick the child up; do not use words, and leave your groceries where they are.
Once you are in a place you feel your child is safe, put them down, and say, “Let me help you calm down.”
If your child keeps screaming, turn your body away, but stay present. Model your own quiet, calm demeanor. Any signs of calming or good behavior should be praised. Say, “nice job using your quiet voice” or “good job breathing.” As your child begins to calm down, provide comfort and empathy.
Resist the urge to argue: Stay calm yourself, and never engage in a dialogue with a screaming child. Older kids who tantrum can be even harder because they are bigger and louder. Don’t answer, just remain calm, and say you’ll be happy to have the discussion when they can speak in a kind voice.
Do not place demands you aren’t prepared to enforce: If you aren’t ready to endure a tantrum when your child asks for a toy, and you can afford to get it, say, “sure.” You must respond this way before a tantrum begins, though, or giving in will reinforce the undesired behavior. Yes, you are offering the child what they want. However, you are not letting their behavior dictate the rules. You are setting out the terms in advance and sticking to what you said.
Only provide reinforcement for positive behavior: If they ask nicely, you can give them the toy. If they are screaming and crying, gently say, “I will wait until you can ask nicely.” Or “When you are calm, we can finish shopping and go to the park.” Then, stay present, and do not provide attention for the tantrum.
Teach your child to manage strong feelings: A good book for a child having temper tantrums is “Soda Pop Head.”  The story describes a child who is always about to ‘blow his lid’ over incidents with peers and siblings. He learns to use strategies like the ‘push, pull, dangle’ muscle relaxation strategy to calm down. As he calms down, he lets a little pressure out of the ‘bottle’ so he does not blow his lid. This book, and the accompanying workbook, can help ‘externalize’ the blame and help your child learn effective calming techniques .
When to Seek Help
Get help if your child is really struggling: Research shows that tantrums respond well to behavioral intervention. Do not feel required to tackle tantrums alone; look into ABA therapy provided in your home to address these behaviors. Behaviors need to be addressed in the moment with providers who have or are supervised by a clinician who has a Board Certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA).
Consider meeting with a psychologist to determine if your child has underlying emotional symptoms. Don’t hesitate to seek parent consultation therapy as well; tantrum behaviors are hard, and you may need support.
Further Resources on Tantrums
- ABA therapist: to assess and treat behavior; may conduct a functional analysis and develop a behavior plan that can guide treatment
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and help with social skills training and organization
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and to look at other symptoms in mental health and/or behavioral context
- Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication
- School psychologist: to develop and provide behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP) if your child qualifies
References on Tantrums in Childhood
Baker, Jed is a psychologist and author whose books address temper tantrums and social skills. His recent book Preparing for Life is a great resource.
Cook, Julia (2011). Soda pop head.
Cook, Julia (2011). Soda Pop Head: Activity and Idea Book.
Hentges, R. F., Davies, P. T., Cicchetti, D. Temperament and Interparental Conflict: The Role of Negative Emotionality in Predicting Child Behavioral Problems Child Dev. 2015 Sep-Oct; 86(5):1333-50.
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Meiners, Cheri J. (2010). Cool Down and Work Through Anger (Learning to Get Along).
Mulcahy, William (2012). Zach Gets Frustrated (Zach rules series).
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind.
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