Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on February 3, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
I've been there, too in public with a small child who is screaming her brains out, as if someone is pulling her fingernails out one by one. Of my five children, Natasha was the most dramatic: Once I walked through Target pulling her along as she clung to my leg, letting the entire (huge) store know that she wanted the (very expensive) princess telephone. I know that feeling of anger, embarrassment, and desperation.
Why Tantrums Happen
Tantrums are a normal part of childhood. They are most common in 1- to 3-year-olds, but sometimes older children have them. They usually happen because a child:
- Gets frustrated. Children ages one to three are learning to use language and their bodies. They become frustrated as they struggle to express themselves and when they can't do something they want to.
- Gets upset. Disappointment and anger can be very difficult feelings to deal with, especially for a small child.
- Is asserting his or her independence. This is the age when children begin to say no sometimes purely for the sake of saying no.
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Some Children Are More Prone to Tantrums
While every child throws a tantrum at some point in their lives, some children are definitely more prone to them than others. My eldest, Michaela, hardly ever threw one; I thought I was doing everything right as a parent until my next child came along and threw plenty of tantrums.
Here are the most common reasons why some children are more prone to tantrums:
- Some kids get frustrated more often than others, usually because they don't talk well enough to express themselves or aren't yet physically able to do what they want to like running, climbing and reaching.
- Temperaments vary. Some children are simply more emotional, more stubborn (that's Natasha!), or have more trouble handling disappointment than others. It was Michaela's thoroughly easygoing temperament that made tantrums rare for her, as opposed to my parenting of her.
- Some kids need more attention. The attention they get for tantrums isn't really the kind they want, but it's attention.
- Tantrums work. If you could get what you wanted by screaming, wouldn't you do it?
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How To Prevent or Defuse Tantrums
The key to preventing or defusing tantrums is to understand your child's tantrum triggers, and understand what it feels like to be little and out of control. Here are some suggestions:
- Avoid tantrum-provoking situations. Use the candy-free check-out aisle at the supermarket. Toy shop when you can leave your child at home and definitely don't take your child to the store or any other possibly challenging place when they are tired or hungry. (Bring snacks whenever you go out if hunger is a trigger for your child). At home, keep things your child wants but can't have out of sight. When it comes to tantrums, a little advance planning goes a long way.
- Spend positive time together. Dedicate some time every day to snuggling and playing with your child. (Reading together is a great way to snuggle!) Even if it doesn't totally prevent tantrums, it is good for your childand for your relationship with her.
- Let your child feel in control. Obviously, you are in charge. But when you can, give your child choices. Instead of saying "Time to get dressed!" say "Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the green one?" Instead of "Time to go to bed!" try "Which book shall we read before bed this one, or that one?" (Limiting the choices to two is generally best.) When you do that, your child is less likely to feel bossed around and is therefore less likely to struggle with you.
- Use distraction. It's amazing how well this can work, if you do it at the first sign of trouble. Before your child gets really upset about not being able to play with a particular toy, swoop in with a different one and make a big deal out of it ("Wow, look at this truck! It makes noises and everything!"). Quickly suggest playing on the slide when someone gets to the last swing before you. Sometimes doing something really unexpected, such as breaking into song, or doing the Chicken Dance, does the trick. Take advantage of your child's short attention span.
If all else fails and your child explodes into a tantrum, don't despair. Here's how to survive it:
- Take a deep breath. If you get upset, it's only going to make things worse.
- Resist the temptation to give in. Giving your child what she wants may quiet things down right then, but teaching your child that tantrums work is not the way to get them to stop.
- Let your child scream it out, in a safe place. That may mean leaving the nearly full grocery cart in the store and going home. If your child is older, send him to his room; let him know that he can come out as soon as he calms down.
- Give hugs when he's done. It can be scary for a child to get that upset and they usually know that you're not happy with them. Let him know that you love him, and that you are proud of him for stopping.
While tantrums are usually nothing to worry about, and will go away as your child gets older, it's important to call your child's doctor for help if:
- The tantrums are getting more frequent, or severe
- Your child is in mid- to late- elementary school and still having tantrums
- Your child hurts herself or others during the tantrum
- You have any concerns about your child's development
- You are very upset by the tantrums, especially if you feel like you might hurt your child
Don't feel ashamed the best thing you can do is ask for help!
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and director of the pediatrics department at Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications and a contributing editor for Parenting Magazine.