What are temper tantrums in children?
Almost all children have temper tantrums when they are toddlers. Temper tantrums are natural in children who are too young to express their anger and frustration in words. They are a normal part of child development and most frequently occur in kids between the ages of 2 and 3.
Temper tantrums range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting and breath-holding.
Children may even throw themselves down on the floor, clench their teeth, kick, hit and pound their fists. These emotional outbursts release energy as well as attract attention.
Boys and girls both have tantrums and your child's personality will also play a part. Some children are naturally easy going and positive, whereas others who are very active, intense and persistent may have more intense tantrums.
Some children are naturally easygoing and positive, whereas others who are very active, intense and persistent may have more intense tantrums.
Tantrums tend to occur more often if a child is anxious, ill, moody, tired or lives in a stressful home.
Causes of tantrums
Tantrums mean your child is overwhelmed by their feelings. It means they need your help.
To some extent, tantrums are attention-seeking behaviour. They often happen when children are tired, hungry or uncomfortable and want attention from parents or caregivers.
Frustration — children can get frustrated, especially when they can't get what they want. It's an unavoidable part of children's lives as they learn how people, objects and their own bodies work.
Poor verbal communication — tantrums are common at a time when children are learning to speak and can generally understand more than they can express.
Autonomy — children want a sense of independence and control over their environment. Sometimes when they attempt something, such as trying to open a container on their own, if they are unable to, it might be more than the toddler can handle.
Tantrums can’t always be avoided. But you can make them less likely by avoiding stress, identifying and anticipating what triggers them, and talking about emotions with your child. Here are some ideas to encourage positive behaviour in your toddler.
Reward and praise specific good behaviour — make sure your toddler gets enough attention when they are behaving well. When your child is behaving well praise them for that particular behaviour.
Choices — try to give your child some control and choices over little things. This may fulfill the need for independence and can ward off tantrums.
Encourage kids to use words — encourage your child to use words rather than screaming.
Reduce temptations — keep things you do not want your child to touch out of sight and out of reach to reduce the likelihood of struggles developing over them. This is not always possible, especially outside of the home where the environment cannot be controlled.
Distraction — take advantage of your child's short attention span by moving to a different environment, changing activities or offering them a different object.
Nurturing success — set your child up to succeed when your child is playing or trying to master a new task. Offer age-appropriate toys and games. Also start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
Know your child's limits — if you know your child is tired, or feeling unwell, it's not the best time to go to the supermarket or visit friends.
Responding to a tantrum
There is no point trying to reason with your child as they are not in control. Don’t punish or laugh at them.
- Stay with your child to help them feel secure. Be kind and reassure them. If your own feelings are getting out of control, move to another room but come back to your child when you feel better.
- Stay calm — don't complicate the problem with your own anger or frustration. Take deep, slow breaths and try to think clearly.
- Try to not get angry and don't resort to smacking or hitting your child.
- Ignore the outburst if the tantrum poses no threat to your child or others but remain in sight to prevent your child feeling abandoned.
- In public places or when the child is in danger of hurting themselves, pick your child up and take them to a quiet, safe place to calm down.
- Distract your child with another activity or change location.
After the tantrum
Do not reward your child after a tantrum by giving in to their demands. This will only prove to your child that the tantrum was effective. Instead, praise your child for regaining control.
Children may feel vulnerable after a tantrum when they may know their behaviour was not very desirable. This is a time for a hug and reassurance that your child is loved, no matter what.
You can talk to them about what they are feeling – jealous, scared or disappointed. Acknowledge those feelings and help them learn from what happened. Reassure them that you will always love them.
When to seek professional help
Most children outgrow the tantrum phase by the age of 5. If your child’s tantrums become more frequent, severe or destructive, it may be a sign of a bigger issue, such as stress, family issue or a health or development problem such as hearing problems, learning problems or difficulty with concentration or attention. Tantrums can also be a sign of anxiety or trauma in some children.
Consult your doctor or call Pregnancy Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for advice if:
- tantrums increase in frequency, intensity, or duration
- a child injures themselves or others, or destroys property during tantrums
- a child holds their breath and faints, or has a seizure during tantrums
- tantrums are accompanied by frequent nightmares, extreme disobedience, reversal of toilet training, headaches or stomach aches, refusal to eat or go to bed, extreme anxiety, constant grumpiness or clinging to parents
- tantrums persist when your child enters primary school
- you worry you might hurt your child or are stretched beyond the limits of your patience
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: August 2021