When to Worry about Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up. It’s likely that your toddler or preschooler will have the occasional hissy fit between 1 1/2 years and 3 1/2 years. But when is a tantrum developmentally appropriate, and when is it a cause for worry?

What’s a normal tantrum?

A study from the Washington University School of Medicine analyzed parent reports of tantrums in 279 mostly preschool children. The researchers identified characteristics of “normal” tantrum behavior:

  • Kids generally had less than one tantrum per day, on average.
  • An average tantrum lasted 11 minutes.
  • Tantrums don’t usually involve violence toward self or other people.

Kids who had 5 tantrums on a normal day, who were violent toward themselves (for example, banging their heads or biting themselves) or others, or who had tantrums lasting longer than 20 minutes or so were more likely to provide cause for concern.

Researchers emphasize that it’s important to look at the whole pattern of tantrums rather than just one bad day. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior, and be conscious of stress that might be affecting your child.

Limiting tantrums

Tantrums may start when kids are tired, hungry, or frustrated. The “Terrible Twos” are a time when your child learns that he or she has control over some things in the world. Being able to say, “No” when she doesn’t want to be picked up or to ask for “juice” can make her feel like the master of all she surveys.

Then a few minutes later she may be unable to make herself understood.

He can open his box of crayons, choose a color, and scribble satisfyingly on paper. Next time he tries, he might not be able to open the box, or he might scribble on a wall and be stopped.

The sudden feeling of powerlessness can be deeply frustrating.

Here are steps that can help reduce tantrums:

  • Keep to a schedule so your child is less likely to feel tired or hungry when it isn’t time for a meal or a nap. A child who feels tired and hungry in the middle of grocery shopping is likely to pitch a fit.
  • Have simple, clear rules about behavior. Be consistent in enforcing those rules. You might ignore tantrums, or remove a child from the room where the family is gathered until he can compose himself.
  • Encourage your child to use words to communicate. She will naturally fail at communication often as she learns to talk, but working together to negotiate meaning can help.

Responding to tantrums

Ask your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about how to respond to tantrums.

You might choose to ignore tantrums. Restraining a child who is kicking and flailing can be helpful; kids who lose control of themselves in tantrums may scare themselves. A solid hug that restrains their arms can be comforting.

You might also put your child in time-out in response to tantrums. Congratulate a child who has been able to stop her tantrum on her own.

If your child is old enough to talk about his behavior, have that talk before or after — not during — the tantrum. Gathering around asking what the child wants can actually reinforce the behavior. Letting him overcome his tantrum and then comforting him will probably get better results.

Make sure to keep your child safe during tantrums. Remaining calm can be hard, but ignoring the behavior while making sure that your child doesn’t get hurt should be a priority.

Shouting, spanking, and giving in to demands (for example, allowing a child to stay up late because of a tantrum) usually are not effective. Fortunately, most kids have fewer tantrums after they reach the age of four or five. Your child’s pediatrician can provide support and guidance as you’re getting through this stage.