No. 136; October 2021
Temper tantrums are brief episodes of vocal and sometimes physical outbursts in children in response to frustration, anger, or distress. Young children may have tantrums when they are tired, hungry, in pain, or developing a mild illness. Temper tantrums are normal for young children and are equally common in boys and girls. They can look different depending on the age of the child:
TODDLERS (18 months-3 years)
In toddlers, temper tantrums typically can last anywhere from two to 15 minutes. The tantrum may include screaming and crying, as well as throwing oneself on the ground, hitting, kicking, or biting. All toddlers have temper tantrums, and many have at least one per day.
PRESCHOOLERS (3 years – 5 years)
Temper tantrums are still quite common in this age group but daily temper tantrums are less common after age 3. Preschoolers’ tantrums rarely last more than 15 minutes and may not happen every day. Breath holding, which can accompany temper tantrums in younger children, is generally gone by the time children reach 5 years of age.
SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN (6-13 years)
Temper tantrums are much less common in this age group when compared to younger children, and recurrent or severe tantrums are a reason to seek help. Most school age children who have the occasional tantrum are not angry and sad in between outbursts. There are, however, some children this age who spend most of their time in an irritable, angry, or sad mood. A qualified mental health professional can help determine if a school age child’s tantrums are a cause for concern.
ADOLESCENTS (13- 16 years)
Moodiness can be a normal part of the adolescent years, but severe mood swings and outbursts involving physical aggression should be evaluated. Rates of anxiety and depression increase in this age group and can sometimes appear as outbursts resembling the temper tantrums younger children have.
The following tips can help when a child is having a tantrum:
- Remain calm. You are modeling how to handle a stressful situation.
- Encourage your child to use words rather than unsafe actions to express their needs and their feelings.
- Distract the child from whatever is upsetting them.
- Help your child find other ways to express their emotions other than yelling or hitting.
- State in a calm voice which behaviors (typically aggressive behaviors like kicking or biting) the child needs to stop and what will happen next if they do or do not stop the behaviors.
- During a tantrum, never respond back with physically aggressive behaviors. When should parents seek help?
Parents should seek help when a child’s tantrums include aggression that causes danger to the child or others or if the tantrums are getting in the way of your child’s life at school or with their friends Parents should also seek help if their child’s tantrums are very frequent and last longer than expected for their age Tantrums that involve aggression, harming oneself on purpose, not being able to calm down or that last longer than 25 minutes may be a sign of an underlying psychiatric disorder and should be assessed by a qualified mental health professional. If you have concerns about your child's irritability and are worried that your child's tantrums seem extreme in severity and frequency, you should talk with your child's pediatrician or a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
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