Temper Tantrums: What They Are, What They Mean and How to Manage Them

Temper Tantrums. You’ve been there. A toddler is lying on his back in the middle of the store. He’s screaming at the top of his little lungs and pounding his fists when he didn’t get the Snickers bar in the candy aisle. You’ve heard that child screeching and crying hysterically a few rows back on the plane. Which isn’t great, as you’re already struggling to mentally prepare yourself for Thanksgiving with the in-laws. You’ve seen it.  You’ve heard it. And maybe even pitied the humiliated parent who was desperately trying to calm their child mid-meltdown. You might even have been that parent. How confident did you feel in your ability to handle that situation?

“The presence of tantrums does not mean that my kid is a brat, it just means that he is still learning. And I’m definitely okay with learning.” – Paula Rollo

First of all, here’s the good news. Temper tantrums are NORMAL for children between the ages of 18 months and four years old. Temper tantrums are unpleasant and disruptive behaviors that are frequently demonstrated by crying, hitting, kicking, throwing things, stomping and breath-holding that occur in any situation involving change. Though tantrums often occur at home, especially during bedtime, mealtime and bath time, tantrums are unfortunately more common in public settings such as the grocery store, the playground or during church. In the midst of a tantrum, it may feel as though eternity has passed, but the average length of a tantrum is three minutes and typically occurs once per day. Studies show the likelihood of a tantrum occurring is 87% between the ages of 18-24 months, 91% between 30-36 months and 59% between 42-48 months.

How to Deal with Temper Tantrums in Two-Year-Olds

Tantrums begin to increase in frequency at this age as your child struggles to communicate their emotions and express their physical needs. Your child is growing as an individual and is beginning to discover their likes and dislikes. Teaching them sign language for words such as “I want,” “more,” “tired,” and “drink” can be very helpful as their language skills continue to develop as being tired, hungry or sick can result in worse and more frequent tantrums.

How to Deal with Temper Tantrums at Age Three

At this age, your child might be throwing his tantrum to test your power and see how you respond to conflict. Don’t worry, this isn’t an indication of future chaos, but rather a curiosity of how you make decisions is a normal part of his development.  Teaching your child to handle their frustration (“use your words instead of screaming”) and to be able to ask for help is crucial at this age.

How to Manage the Tantrums of Four-Year-Olds

Tantrum frequency often dissipates at this age as your child has continued to develop communication skills. If the tantrums have continued steadily around the age of four and a half, as a parent you probably feel exhausted and defeated. Seeking the opinion and assessment from a medical provider at this age is recommended to rule out any physical or psychological issues contributing to the tantrums.

How to Stop Kids from Throwing Temper Tantrums

There is no magic solution or foolproof way to prevent temper tantrums, but remember the three C’s: it is important to be CALM, CONSISTENT and COMPASSIONATE when your child has an outburst. Keeping your own temper in check is important. Take a few deep breaths and try to see the situation from your child’s perspective. It is imperative to avoid arguing or trying to reason with him and remember that demonstrating physical or verbal aggression in response to your child’s tantrum will only teach him to be aggressive. Always praise your child for getting it right.

The “Ignore It” Tactic

Ignoring your child’s negative behavior sounds easier said than done, but it is vital to avoid giving in to your child’s demands. Choose your battles, however. Would five more minutes at the playground really disrupt the entire day? Studies show that switching to an activity your child enjoys or making a funny face as a distraction has been proven effective. A brief time-out is also a recommended strategy. Designate a specific location for time-outs. Explain to your child why she is in time-out. And follow the general rule of one minute per age of the child. For older children, this technique is continued in taking away privileges such as time on the Ipad or watching Scooby-Doo.

Create a Routine

Your child thrives on routine. And having a relatively stable schedule is important. This is so your child has an idea of what to expect next during the day. The lack of routine can cause anxiety in your child. Providing your child with five minute and two-minute warnings of an upcoming transition is highly effective. Another suggestion is to offer your child the opportunity to make simple choices. The result is that your child feels her opinion is valued. This can be as simple as asking her if she wants apple juice or grape juice with lunch.

Michael Potegal, Ph.D. recommends asking, “What function does this inappropriate behavior serve?” Potegal also has explained the Anger Trap and the Sadness Trap that parents often find themselves in. He states of the Anger Trap: “If you get just as mad and irrational as your child, it’s like throwing gas on a fire.” And of the Sadness Trap: “When you comfort your child in the middle of the tantrum, you reinforce the behavior; instead say ‘I’m sorry you’re upset. When you calm down, I’ll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.”

What are the Causes?

You might be wondering if you are causing your child’s temper tantrums, and sometimes you might be. But it’s important to remember that your child needs to learn to control herself. Unrealistic expectations and rigid rules can be confusing to your child. The response to this pressure is often a tantrum.

If your child has learned that temper tantrums are an effective way to have their needs met, they may remain a problem and set the stage for future behavioral issues. Some teenagers even engage in tantrums that include screaming, name-calling and slamming doors. And unfortunately can escalate into behavior that is destructive or hazardous.  If your child poses potential harm to himself or others, seek professional help.

Remember, tantrums are NORMAL. You are not a bad parent and your son/daughter is not a bad child.

 Keep Yourself in Mind

If you have found yourself getting angry or frightened by your child’s behaviors, seeking professional help is recommended. In these situations, you will often start feeling anxious about your own feelings, especially about parenting. Children who throw frequent tantrums are more likely to be abused. And it is common for parents to begin feeling guilty about their feelings of wanting to stop their child’s tantrums using physical means. The therapists at Cristina Panaccione and Associates would love to help you navigate through these struggles. Call us today to schedule an appointment: 412-439-1416 or contact us for more information.

Kids this age think magically, not logically. Events that are ordinary to us are confusing and scary to them. They don’t understand that the bathtub drain won’t swallow them or that their uncle can’t really snatch their nose.” – Gina Mireault, Ph.D.


* This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please contact a medical professional for advice.


“Temper Tantrums: Guidelines for Parents and Teachers” (National Association of School Psychologists)

“Temper Tantrums in Young Children…” (Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Journal)

www.kidshealth.org, www.mayoclinic.org, www.babycenter.com

Image Credit – Adobe Stock