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temper tantrums in children

Alternative Names

Temper tantrums are fits of anger that are usually caused by frustration. When a child has a tantrum, he or she loses control of feelings and talks and acts in a negative way. Temper tantrums consist of out-of-control behaviour, including:
  • crying
  • yelling
  • kicking
  • hitting
  • throwing
Tantrums can be followed by prolonged crying.

What is the information for this topic?
Temper tantrums are very common in children between the ages of 1 and 4 years. By the time a child is 4 years old, he or she should be having fewer tantrums.

Tantrums occur most often in toddlers because during this time children are going through several very important stages. These include:
  • learning to manage their environment
  • becoming independent
  • developing language skills
Tantrums are mainly a physical expression of a child's bad mood. Toddlers have more tantrums than older children because they haven't learned how to control their moods. The limited language skills of the young child add to his or her frustration.

Tantrums vary in intensity and frequency. Children are born with certain traits that make up their temperament, or the "style" or "flavour" of their behaviour. Parents often take the blame if their toddlers seem out of control. But intense, negative toddlers do not choose to be that way. Their behaviour reflects the temperament they were born with and other people's response to it. It is not totally under their conscious control.

Parents and others need to understand that temper tantrums are a normal part of early child development. Toddlers who have tantrums are not "bad." They are just trying in their own, limited way to sort out the rules of their social environment.

Temper tantrums in children between the ages of 1 and 4 are normal. Tantrums that go beyond this age, especially if they are frequent, severe, and associated with aggressive behaviour, are a sign of a larger behavioural problem. These children are at risk for having more serious behavioural problems later in life. Children older than 4 who have such tantrums should be evaluated by a professional.

There are some things parents and other caregivers can do to deal with a child's temper tantrums. These include:
  • making sure the child is well rested. Toddlers will be in a better mood and have fewer tantrums if they get plenty of sleep.
  • setting reasonable limits on what a child can and cannot do. Parents should choose which situations call for limits and which can be overlooked. It should be clear to the child what these limits are.
  • making sure the child is not overly frustrated. Over the long term this may mean helping the child develop her language skills. Or it may involve something simple, such as having a cupboard in the kitchen full of old pots and pans that a toddler can safely play in and be redirected to if he or she gets into areas of the kitchen that are off limits.
  • letting the child know the consequences of his inappropriate behaviour. This may mean warning the child that if the behaviour continues, he will be put in a time out until he has regained control. Afterwards, the parent should compliment the child for having calmed down. Then they should talk about the situation.
  • reinforcing a child's good behaviour. Parents should try to catch their children doing something good and compliment them several times a day. The ratio of compliments to scoldings should be about 5 to 1.
  • avoiding physical punishment, such as hitting or spanking. This sends the message that it is okay to use physical force to solve problems.
  • avoiding yelling and angry outbursts. This is a sign that the parent has lost control and is now at the same emotional level as the child. If a parent is becoming angry and losing control, it is appropriate for both the parent and the child to go into a time out. This can give the parent time to regain composure. Again, they should talk about the situation afterwards.
Many community organisations, such as schools or churches, offer courses to help parents deal with their children's tantrums and misbehaviour.

Author: John Wegmann, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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