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A temper tantrum is a
sudden, unplanned display of anger or other emotions. It is not just an act to get attention.
During a temper tantrum, children often cry, yell, and swing their arms and
legs. Temper tantrums usually last 30 seconds to 2 minutes and are most intense
at the start.
Sometimes temper tantrums last longer and are more
severe. The child may hit, bite, and pinch. These violent tantrums, in which
children harm themselves or others, may be a sign of a more serious
Temper tantrums are most common in children ages 1 to 4
years. But anyone can have a tantrum—even an adult.
Temper tantrums are common. Most children ages 1 to 4 have temper
tantrums. Some children have tantrums every day.1
is a normal response when something blocks a young child from gaining
independence or learning a skill. The child may not yet have the skills to
express anger and frustration in other ways. For example, a temper tantrum may
happen when a child becomes frustrated while trying to button a shirt or is
told it's time for bed when he or she wants to stay up.
children are more likely to have temper tantrums than other children. Things
that might make a tantrum more likely are:
Parents' behavior also matters. A child may be more likely
to have temper tantrums if parents react too strongly to poor behavior or give
in to the child's demands.
the tantrums and helping a young child learn how to deal with anger and
frustration are often good ways to deal with tantrums. Pay attention to what
starts the tantrums. Knowing what triggers the tantrums can help you act before
your child's emotions get past the point where he or she can control
You may want to use time-outs if your child age 2 or older has a lot of tantrums. A time-out takes the child out of the
situation and gives him or her time to calm down. It also teaches the child
that having a temper tantrum is not acceptable behavior. Time-out works best
for children who understand why it is being used.
Most children will grow out of having temper tantrums. With time, most children
learn healthy ways to handle the strong emotions that can lead to temper
Children who still have tantrums after the age of 4 may
need help learning to deal with their emotions. If tantrums continue or start during the
school years, they may be a sign of other issues, such as learning problems or
trouble getting along with other children.
Talk with a doctor if:
Learning about temper tantrums:
Living with temper tantrums:
temper tantrums last 30 seconds to 2 minutes and are
most intense during the first 30 seconds. During a tantrum, a child may:
Temper tantrums are most likely to occur when a child is
afraid, overtired, or uncomfortable.
Breath-holding spells may sometimes occur with
Difficult behavior that frequently lasts longer than 15
minutes, occurs more than 3 times a day, or is more aggressive may mean
that a child has a medical, emotional, or social problem that needs attention.
These are not considered typical temper tantrums. Difficult behaviors may
Talk to your doctor if you are
concerned about your child's
temper tantrums or other difficult behavior. A doctor
can assess your child's behavior based on:
To eliminate other behavioral or emotional problems as the
cause, the doctor may also ask you to complete a behavior assessment
questionnaire. Sometimes the child's care provider or school teacher is asked
to complete a similar form. Preteens and teens may be asked to complete a
questionnaire about their perception of their own behaviors. The doctor can use
the completed questionnaires to determine whether the child needs professional
help and whether you need help dealing with the child's behavior.
If a doctor suspects that your child's temper tantrums are a sign of
another disorder, he or she may order tests to check for other illnesses or
conditions, such as
seizures, learning problems, or
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Most children learn other ways to
deal with their anger and other strong emotions as they grow older and do not
need medical treatment for
temper tantrums. Ignoring the tantrum behavior and
helping a young child learn how to handle his or her feelings is most often all
that is needed.
Parenting workshops can be helpful for parents of
a child who has temper tantrums. These types of programs often help parents
become familiar with growth and developmental stages and provide strategies on
how to handle difficult behavior.
Medical treatment for temper
tantrums may be recommended for children who:
Expect your 1- or 2-year-old to have
temper tantrums. In this age group tantrums are a
normal part of learning independence and mastery. If your young child has
temper tantrums, try the following:
During a tantrum, you can help your child by:
Do not be alarmed if the child
holds his or her breath. Children often hold their
breath during a temper tantrum. They will breathe again automatically, even if
they pass out. For more information, see the topic
There are some
things you can do to help prevent some temper tantrums. You may be able
In general, parents who know what to expect from their
child at different ages are better able to help their child grow and develop in
a healthy way. Talk with your doctor about how to help your child gain a sense
of independence, boost his or her self-confidence, and handle frustration and
If your child harms himself or herself or others during
temper tantrums, talk with your doctor about ways to stop these behaviors. Your
doctor may suggest that your child be evaluated for a behavior problem.
If your child
continues to have temper tantrums, you may want to use
time-outs. Time-out works best for children who
understand why it is being used. A time-out removes the child from the situation, allows him or
her time to calm down, and teaches the child that having a temper tantrum is
not acceptable behavior.
If you need to use time-out, it will be
important for you to also take time to be with your child (time-in). Time-in may
help reduce your child's frustration and lead to fewer temper tantrums. Time-in
is making frequent, brief contact with your child when he or she is
behaving as expected. For example, you can pat your child on the head while he
or she is playing quietly. This physical touch shows the child that you approve
of his or her behavior. Or you can make a comment such as, "I like it when you
sit quietly and look at your books when I am on the phone."
This American Academy of Pediatrics website has information for parents about childhood issues, from before the child is born to young adulthood. You'll find information on child growth and development, immunizations, safety, health issues, behavior, and much more.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers a
variety of educational materials about parenting,
general growth and development, immunizations, safety, disease prevention, and more. AAP guidelines for various conditions and links to other
organizations are also available.
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
Stein MT (2011). Difficult behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph’s Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 335–338. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Other Works Consulted
Albrecht SJ, et al. (2003). Common behavioral dilemmas of the school-aged child. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 50: 841–857.
American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Behavior. In SP Shelov, RE Hannemann, eds., Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, 4th ed., chap. 18, pp. 565–586. New York: Bantam.
Goldson E, Reynolds A (2011). Child development and behavior. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 20th ed., pp. 64–103 New York: McGraw-Hill.
Walter HJ, DeMaso DR (2011). Disruptive behavior disorders. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 96–100. Philadelphia: Saunders.
March 20, 2012
Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics & Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MD, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
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