How To Deal With Kids' Tantrums?

Image: iStock

Childhood tantrums are a part of childhood that no parent can escape.You may have every reason to lose your cool. But this is when your patience is on a test, and you need to pass it.

MomJunction helps you in dealing with temper tantrums and tells you why children throw tantrums, what they could indicate, and when you should consult a doctor.

What Are Tantrums?

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Howard Bath, tantrums are a child’s response when he or she is unable to regulate his or her emotional impulses, resulting in an apparent loss of self-control and a disregard for previously accepted behavioral norms to the point that appears out of proportion to the situation.

One must differentiate between a tantrum and a meltdown. A tantrum is used to describe milder outbursts, whereas, a meltdown is used to describe prolonged outbursts. Meltdowns are commonly seen in children with autism. A temper tantrum is oneway that children use to express their frustration in an uncontrollable way until they learn to develop methods that are socially acceptable.

Tantrums are most common in children from 18 months and start to decline by four years of age. But some may continue even after this age range (1).

Back to top

Why Do Kids Throw Tantrums?

Tantrums happen as a child tries to master his or her environment. It is a difficult journey for them to develop from a helpless toddler to a capable kid.

Let’s take a look at why children have tantrums (2).

[ Read: Ways To Deal With A Stubborn Child ]

1. An immature prefrontal cortex or PFC:

  • The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that regulates executive function, including social cognition, communicative behavior, and moral behavior (3).
  • The PFC is not fully matured in children, due to which they fail to respond or imagine rationally when something is out of their understanding. This results in tantrums.
  • The PFC starts to mature from four years of age.

2. Immature limbic system:

  • The limbic system is closely connected to the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for controlling basic human emotions like fear, frustration, anger, and joy.
  • The immature state of the limbic system often makes toddlers confused and unable to express their emotions accurately, resulting in a tantrum. And until their cortex develops a child’s only way of communicating is through expressing their feelings strongly to meet their needs (4).
  • This period of prefrontal and limbic immaturity lasts for up to four years of age.

3. Temperamental issues:

One of the causes of temper tantrums in kids is a difficult temperament. Children who are rigid, intolerant of change and expressive of their displeasures are likely to have temper tantrums more intense than other children.

4. A way of communication:

Often tantrums are the only way to communicate the toddler’s feelings to the parent, due to the lack of necessary verbal skills. They may be trying to tell you that they are hungry, disappointed, tired, feeling sick, in pain, etc.

5. Attention or needs:

The child may try to communicate their need through other cues, but when you fail to pay attention or understand them, they resort to tantrums to get your attention.

6. Very strict parents:

If you are strict and do not let your child try, learn, and make mistakes, the atmosphere at home becomes suffocating for them. They show their frustration through tantrums.

7. Frustration:

Not able to learn a new skill like tying shoelaces or organizing books can arise the feelings of helplessness, failure, and inability, and eventually a temper tantrum.

8. External factors:

Toddlers above three are expected to behave well in most situations like classrooms, outside, or among elders. After keeping up with so much, they often fall apart when they are back home.

9. Home and family:

Any situation at home that’s creating anxiety between the parents, like marital discord, divorce, or illness can also affect a child.

While one or more of these are the underlying causes, certain situations can trigger the tantrums in children.

[ Read: Tips For Dealing With Moody Children ]

Back to top

What Are The Common Triggering Factors For Tantrums?

Let us take a look at the most common triggering factors for a tantrum.

  1. Discomfort: Kids may throw tantrums when they are placed in uncomfortable or overwhelming situations such as noisy or crowded places with too many unknown faces.
  1. Confusion arising from a caregiver’s response: Children get upset when a parent doesn’t understand their cues or reacts with aggression, shouts or laughs at them. Children who have more than one caregiver struggle more as the parent and the other caregiver have a different response to their outbursts.
  1. Inability to explain their point: When the child is unable to tell you what they want, they feel helpless. They might throw a tantrum to unleash their frustration.

The best way to deal with child tantrums is to be calm. Only then will you be able to think about your next step.

Back to top

How To Deal With Child Tantrums?

With time and experience, you will learn how to control or handle your kid during a meltdown. Meanwhile, you may follow some of our tips (5):

  1. Don’t pay attention: Try to take your attention away from him/her, so that you are not tempted to react rudely. But this won’t work in certain circumstances where the child is hurting themselves or throwing the tantrum just because you have not been paying attention.
  1. Stay calm: Practice this at home, because staying calm is not easy and requires a lot of effort and patience. If the kid is throwing tantrums at a public space, take them away from that place. Offer them some options that they may like. Having choices can calm down the kids sooner than later.
  1. Keep your cool in public:How you handle your child when he/she is having a tantrum in a public space is crucial. The unknowing public may sympathize with the crying child. In such situations, remain calm, wear a smile. When you smile, it takes away their attention from you and your child. Losing your cool and slapping or shouting at the child will only make the situation worse. Just allow the child to cry and they eventually settle down.  Don’t, for example, give in to their tantrums if they want something they don’t deserve or something you cannot afford. If your children are tired and you are busy shopping, then the best thing to do is to stop your shopping and take your child home.
  1. Do not allow violence: If your kid is screaming, hitting, kicking or throwing things, stop them immediately. Make it clear that violence is not acceptable. But make sure you are not violent in the process. You may take away some privilege if they misbehave. That way, they’ll know that they are loved, but their unruly behavior will not be accepted.
  1. Try to understand the reactions: When your child is trying to communicate with you, make an effort to understand what they are saying. Ask them several questions to make it easy for them to express their idea. This will reduce their frustration and calm them down.
  1. Don’t suppress their tears: If your kid is crying, it will be painful for you to watch. But do not always stop them; crying releases the stress hormone cortisol. Once the meltdown ends, your child might get into a better mood (6).
  1. Don’t go overboard: Do not ask your child to keep it together all the time, both at home and outside. Even if your kid is having an outburst at home, it doesn’t mean that they will have it in the public too. The child should learn that home is a haven where they can express their feelings without any worries. As a parent, support that.
  1. Apologize if you overreacted: If you had lost temper, apologize by saying something like, “Mom is sorry, she really overreacted.” Your child needs to know that everyone makes mistakes and it is ok sometimes.
  1. Be firm: Apologizing or being sorry doesn’t mean that you agree to their demands. If the child is asking for something that is not to be given, be firm. Let them know that when you say no, you mean it and you won’t budge from your position.
  1. Try to bond: When kids throw tantrums, they are not trying to manipulate. Your child may actually be accepting your no, and the outburst is the expression of the way they feel about it. Therefore, don’t judge your child or keep them away for their behavior. Bond with them to ease out the tension.
  1. Give them a choice: Give some options to your child, and tell them to choose the one they like the most. You can try out the options in food, the games they want to play or the activities they want to do. This way, your child feels reassured that their choice is being considered and not scuttled.
  1. Recognize the good behavior of your child. When they see you favoring a particular action, they will understand what is expected of them. This will make it more likely for him or her to do it again.
  1. Sign language may help: Try teaching some signs to your preschooler who is yet to speak. Instead of crying for what they want, they can use the sign language to communicate with you. This simple step can prevent tantrums to a great extent. It will not be easy initially, but will pave an alternative way of communication that only gets better with time.

Tantrums in most children are manageable with some effort, patience and clarity. But what if they become too severe to handle?

[ Read: Tips To Manage A Highly Emotional Child ]

Back to top

What Do Severe Temper Tantrums Indicate?

If your child’s tantrums are severe, they could be indicating an underlying health problem.

  1. The researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have linked long, frequent, violent and/or self-destructive tantrums to some psychiatric illness (7):
  • The researchers have found that the tantrums in healthy children are shorter and less aggressive than those in children with depression and disruptive disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
  • The study has found that a tantrum in healthy children might last 10 or 11 minutes, while it averaged more than 25 minutes per tantrum in children with disruptive disorders.
  1. Previous studies have termed tantrums as the ‘early childhood version’ of ODD (8).
  1. They have also found that children who are highly aggressive are likely to be more anxious than other children.

You might find it difficult to handle such severely aggressive cases, and need to seek an expert’s help.

Back to top

When to see a doctor?

See a doctor in the below cases:

  • The child is extremely violent towards parents or caregivers, and objects like toys, during a temper tantrum.
  • IIf your child becomes unmanageable and you are constantly called in by the school or preschool teacher about your child’s disruptive and inattentive behavior.
  • Intentionally hurts himself/ herself by scratching, biting or banging the head to a wall.
  • The tantrum lasts for more than 25 minutes every time, or the child has more than five tantrums a day.
  • The child is still not able to calm down after the tantrum has passed.
  • You need to bribe them every time to calm them down.

Andrew C. Belden, PhD, first author of the Washington University School of Medicine research, says, “It’s normal for children to display excessive behavior sometimes. If a child lashes out at you, it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh my gosh! They’re doomed!’

“But if they lash out and hit you every time, there might be a problem. And if they hurt themselves intentionally, I think it’s best to consult a pediatrician or mental health professional.”

[ Read: How To Deal With Jealousy In Children ]

Back to top

Do not hesitate to see a doctor when necessary. Remember, a behavioral disorder is as normal as a physical health condition and needs attention.

On the other hand, if your toddler is just trying to grab your attention and communicate with you through their tantrums, then have patience, the phase will pass soon.

Do you have any stories on child tantrums to share? Let us know about them in the comment section below.


1. Michael Potegal and Richard J. Davidson; Temper Tantrums in Young Children: 1. Behavioral Composition; Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
2. Sue Jenkins, Charles Owen, Martin Bax, Hilary Hart; Continuities of common behaviour problems in preschool children; Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 25(1), 75-89.
3. Yusuke Moriguchi and Kazuo Hiraki; Prefrontal cortex and executive function in young children: a review of NIRS studies; Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
4. Silvia A. Bunge, Nicole M. Dudukovic, Moriah E. Thomason, Chandan J. Vaidya, and John D.E. Gabrieli; Immature Frontal Lobe Contributions to Cognitive Control in Children: Evidence from fMRI; NCBI
5. DeBord, Karen; Appropriate limits for young children: A guide for discipline, part two (FCS-456); Raleigh: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
6. Asmir Gračanin, Lauren M. Bylsma, and Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets; Is crying a self-soothing behavior? Frontiers in Psychology.
7. Andrew C. Belden, Joan L. Luby, et al. Excessive tantrums in preschoolers may indicate serious mental health problems; Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
8. Gina Mireault, Jessica Trahan, Tantrums and Anxiety in Early Childhood: A Pilot Study.
Recommended Articles: