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Temper Tantrums

By Stephen Brian Sulkes, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Temper tantrums are violent emotional outbursts, usually in response to frustration.

  • Frustration, tiredness, and hunger are the most common causes.

  • Children may scream, cry, thrash, roll on the floor, throw things, and stomp their feet during a tantrum.

  • If distraction does not stop the tantrum, the child may have to be removed from the situation.

Temper tantrums are common in childhood. They usually appear toward the end of the first year, are most common between ages 2 and 4, and are typically infrequent after age 5. If tantrums are frequent after age 5, they may persist throughout childhood.

Causes include frustration, tiredness, and hunger. Children also may have temper tantrums to seek attention, obtain something, or avoid doing something. Parents often place the blame on themselves (because of imagined poor parenting) when the real cause is often a combination of the child’s personality, immediate circumstances, and developmentally normal behavior. Rarely, an underlying mental, physical, or social problem may be the cause and is more likely if a tantrum lasts for more than 15 minutes or if tantrums occur multiple times each day.

A child who is having a temper tantrum may shout, scream, cry, thrash about, roll on the floor, stomp, and throw things. Some of the behavior may be rage-like and potentially harmful. The child may become red in the face and hit or kick. Some children may voluntarily hold their breath for a few seconds and then resume normal breathing (unlike breath-holding spells, which also can occur after temper tantrums or crying bouts caused by frustration—see Breath-Holding Spells).

Although providing a safe setting in which children can compose themselves (a time-out) is often effective, many children have difficulty stopping tantrums on their own. In most cases, addressing the source of the tantrum only prolongs it. It is therefore preferable to redirect and distract children by providing an alternative activity on which to focus. The child may benefit from being removed physically from the situation.

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