Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
Normal Part of Growing Up
Strong emotions are hard for a young child
to hold inside. When children feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed, they
often express themselves by crying, screaming, or stomping up and down. As a
parent, you may feel angry, helpless, or embarrassed. Temper tantrums are a
normal part of your child’s development as he learns self-control. In
fact, almost all children have tantrums between the ages of 1 and 3.
You’ve heard them called ‘the terrible twos.’ The good news is
that by age 4, temper tantrums usually
Why do children have
Your young child is busy
learning many things about her world. She is eager to take control. She wants to
be independent and may try to do more than her skills will allow. She wants to
make her own choices and often may not cope well with not getting her way. She
is even less able to cope when she is tired, hungry, frustrated, or frightened.
Controlling her temper may be one of the most difficult lessons to learn. Temper
tantrums are a way for your child to let off steam when she is upset.
Following are some of the reasons your
child may have a temper tantrum:
- Your child may not fully understand what you are
saying or asking, and may get confused.
- Your child may become upset when others cannot
understand what she is saying.
- Your child may not have the words to describe her
feelings and needs. After 3 years of age, most children can express their
feelings, so temper tantrums taper off. Children who are not able to express
their feelings very well with words are more likely to continue to have
- Your child has not yet learned to solve problems
on her own and gets discouraged easily.
- Your child may have an illness or other physical
problem that keeps her from expressing how she feels.
- Your child may be hungry, but may not recognize
- Your child may be tired or not getting enough
- Your child may be anxious or
- Your child may be reacting to stress or changes
- Your child may be jealous of a friend or sibling.
Children often want what other children have or the attention they
- Your child may not yet be able to do the things
she can imagine, such as walking or running, climbing down stairs or from
furniture, drawing things, or making toys
help prevent temper tantrums
parent, you can sometimes tell when tantrums are coming. Your child may seem
moody, cranky, or difficult. He may start to whine and whimper. It may seem as
if nothing will make him happy. Finally, he may start to cry, kick, scream, fall
to the ground, or hold his breath. Other times, a tantrum may come on suddenly
for no obvious reason. You should not be surprised if your child has tantrums
only in front of you. This is one way of testing your rules and limits. Many
children will not act out their feelings around others and are more cautious
with strangers. Children feel safer showing their feelings to the people they
trust. You will not be able to prevent all tantrums, but the following
suggestions may help reduce the chances of a tantrum:
- Encourage your child to use words to tell
you how he is feeling, such as ‘I’m really mad.’ Try to
understand how he is feeling and suggest words he can use to describe his
- Set reasonable limits and don’t
expect your child to be perfect. Give simple reasons for the rules you set, and
don’t change the rules.
- Keep a daily routine as much as possible,
so your child knows what to expect.
- Avoid situations that will frustrate your
child, such as playing with children or toys that are too advanced for your
- Avoid long outings or visits where your
child has to sit still or cannot play for long periods of time. If you have to
take a trip, bring along your child’s favorite book or toy to entertain
- Be prepared with healthy snacks when your
child gets hungry.
- Make sure your child is well rested,
especially before a busy day or stressful activity.
- Distract your child from activities likely
to lead to a tantrum. Suggest different activities. If possible, being silly,
playful, or making a joke can help ease a tense situation. Sometimes, something
as simple as changing locations can prevent a tantrum. For example, if you are
indoors, try taking your child outside to distract his attention.
- Be choosy about saying
‘no.’When you say no to every demand or request your child
makes, it will frustrate him. Listen carefully to requests. When a request is
not too unreasonable or inconvenient, consider saying yes. When your
child’s safety is involved, do not change your decision because of a
- Let your child choose whenever possible.
For example, if your child resists a bath, make it clear that he will be
taking a bath, but offer a simple decision he can make on his own. Instead of
saying, ‘Do you want to take a bath?’ Try saying, ‘It’s
time for your bath. Would you like to walk upstairs or have me carry
- Set a good example. Avoid arguing or
yelling in front of your
do when tantrums occur
When your child
has a temper tantrum, follow the suggestions listed
1. Distract your child by
calling his attention to something else, such as a new activity, book, or toy.
Sometimes just touching or stroking a child will calm him. You may need to
gently restrain or hold your child. Interrupt his behavior with a light comment
like, ‘Did you see what the kitty is doing?’ or ‘I think I
heard the doorbell.’ Humor or something as simple as a funny face can also
2. Try to remain calm. If you shout
or become angry, it is likely to make things worse. Remember, the more attention
you give this behavior, the more likely it is to happen
3. Minor displays of anger such as
crying, screaming, or kicking can usually be ignored. Stand nearby or hold your
child without talking until he calms down. This shows your support. If you
cannot stay calm, leave the room.
temper tantrums cannot be ignored. The following behaviors should not be ignored
and are not acceptable:
- Hitting or kicking parents or others
- Throwing things in a dangerous way
- Prolonged screaming or
Use a cooling-off
period or a ‘time-out’ to remove your child from the source of his
anger. Take your child away from the situation and hold him or give him some
time alone to calm down and regain control. For children old enough to
understand, a good rule of thumb for a time-out is 1 minute of time for every
year of your child’s age. (For example, a 4 year old would get a 4-minute
time-out.) But even 15 seconds will work. If you cannot stay calm, leave the
room. Wait a minute or two, or until his crying stops, before returning. Then
help him get interested in something else. If your child is old enough, talk
about what happened and discuss other ways to deal with it next time.
You should never punish your child for
temper tantrums. He may start to keep his anger or frustration inside, which can
be unhealthy. Your response to tantrums should be calm and understanding. As
your child grows, he will learn to deal with his strong emotions. Remember, it
is normal for children to test their parents’ rules and limits.
Many times, you will
have to tell your child ‘no’ to protect her from harm or injury. For
example, the kitchen and bathroom can be hazardous places for your child. Your
child will have trouble understanding why you will not let her play there. This
is a common cause of a tantrum. ‘Childproof’ your home and make
dangerous areas or objects off-limits. Keep an eye on your child at all times.
After telling your child ‘no,’ never leave her alone in a situation
that could be hazardous. Take away dangerous objects from your child immediately
and replace them with something safe. It is up to you to keep your child safe
and teach her how to protect herself from getting hurt. Be consistent and clear
Do not give
in by offering rewards
Do not reward
your child for stopping a tantrum. Rewards may teach your child that a temper
tantrum will help her get her way. When tantrums do not accomplish anything for
your child, they are less likely to continue. You may also feel guilty about
saying ‘no’ to your child at times. Be consistent and avoid sending
mixed signals. When parents don’t clearly enforce certain rules, it is
harder for children to understand which rules are firm and which ones are not.
Be sure you are having some fun each day with your child. Think carefully about
the rules you set and don’t set too many. Discuss with those who care for
your child which rules are really needed and be firm about them. Respond the
same way every time your child breaks the rules.
When temper tantrums are
Your child should have fewer
temper tantrums by the middle of his fourth year. Between tantrums, his behavior
should seem normal and healthy. Like every child, yours will grow and learn at
his own pace. It may take time for him to learn how to control his temper. When
the outbursts are severe or happen too often, they may be an early sign of
emotional problems. Talk to your pediatrician if your child causes harm to
himself or others during tantrums, holds his breath and faints, or if the
tantrums get worse after age 4. Your pediatrician will make sure there are no
serious physical or psychological problems causing the tantrums. He or she can
also give you advice to help you deal with these outbursts. It is important to
realize that temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Tantrums are not
easy to deal with, and they can be a little scary for you and your child. Using
a loving and understanding approach will help your child through this part of