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Temper tantrums are a way a young child lets out strong emotions before he/she is able to express them in socially acceptable ways. Although a child may seem totally out of control, these fits of rage, stomping, screaming, and throwing themselves to the floor are a normal part of childhood development. Temper tantrums often occur only with a parent. They are a way a child communicates his/her feelings. Parents can learn from their child by understanding the situation that caused the temper tantrum to erupt.

Temper tantrums often begin at about 1 year of age and continue until age 3. Nearly all children have them, but, by age 4, most children develop the necessary self-control and temper tantrums stop.

What causes temper tantrums?

As a young child learns more and becomes more independent, he/she wants to do more than she can physically and emotionally manage. This is frustrating to the child and the frustrations are expressed in a variety of ways. Temper tantrums are worse and occur more often when a child is hungry, tired, or sick. Some reasons children have temper tantrums include the following:

  • want to be on their own, and get upset when they cannot do what they want
  • are trying to get attention to test the rules
  • have something taken away from them
  • have not learned all the words to tell you what they are feeling or want and this upsets them
  • do not understand what you want them to do
  • are tired or hungry
  • are worried or upset
  • feel stress in the home

How to prevent temper tantrums:

Although temper tantrums sometimes happen without warning, parents can often tell when a child is becoming upset. Knowing the situations when your child is more likely to have a tantrum and thinking ahead may help. An example is not letting your child become overtired or hungry. Some suggestions for preventing or minimizing temper tantrums include the following:

  • Stick to routines for meals and sleep times. Avoid long outings, delayed meals, and naps.
  • Distract your child with a toy he/she is allowed to have.
  • Be reasonable about what to expect from your child, and do not expect your child to be perfect.
  • Help your child to avoid frustration. Prepare your child for changes or events by talking about them before they happen.
  • Let your child know your rules and stick to them.

How to respond during a temper tantrum:

The following are helpful hints regarding the most appropriate ways to respond during your child's temper tantrum:

  • Stay calm.
  • Ignore the child until he/she is calmer. Keep doing whatever you were doing prior to the tantrum occurring.
  • Do not hit or spank your child.
  • Do not give in to the tantrum. When parents give in, children learn to use inappropriate behavior to get their way.
  • Do not "bribe" your child to stop the tantrum. The child then learns to act inappropriately to get a reward.
  • Remove potentially dangerous objects from your child or your child's path.
  • Use time-out for a short period to allow the child to get back in control.

What else should parents know about temper tantrums?

Temper tantrums generally happen less often as children get older. Children should play and act normally between tantrums. However, consult your child's physician if any of the following occur:

  • Temper tantrums are severe, last long, or happen very often.
  • Your child has a lot of trouble talking and cannot let you know what he/she needs.
  • Temper tantrums continue or get worse after 3 to 4 years of age.
  • Your child has signs of illness along with temper tantrums or holds his/her breath to cause fainting.
  • Your child harms himself/herself or others during tantrums.