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I understand that temper tantrums are relatively normal for many children.

However, some children seem to have far more temper tantrums than other children their age, and others far fewer.

Can temper tantrums be indicative of problems that should be addressed? If so, how do you tell the difference between "normal" temper tantrums and ones that indicate a problem?

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I'm tempted to say, in a 35-year-old: yes, get help. In a small child: no, it's normal but I will refrain from doing so ;) Seriously though, it's clear enough that some kids are more prone to tantrums than others. It would be valuable to understand the cause, because once the cause is known you can (try to) avoid or reduce it. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 23 '11 at 13:17
    
To me it indicates a behavior problem, but not necessarily with the child. I'm not trying to blame parents for everything, as there are lots of things out of their control, but I have some friends who simply accept the episodes their children throw. Kids are unlikely to stop throwing tantrums if they work. –  corsiKa Sep 24 '11 at 1:31
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6 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Tantrums are a symptom, not really the problem. You can try to deal with the symptom but until you get to the root of the actual cause, you stand little chance of eliminating the symptom in the long term.

It is important to remember that many toddlers have not really developed their ability to communicate. Often a tantrum is a sign of frustration, however it is important to always remember that our children are learning every time we respond to something they do. If a child throws a tantrum and it results in getting what they are seeking, then of course more tantrums are in your future. That is not to say that if you do not give in they will stop all together.

Look for commonalities in the tantrums - is there a common trigger? Is it something you could head off? Begin talking with your toddler about expectations before you get there"we are going into the store to buy new pants, we will not be looking at toys today." That way if they begin to ask in the store you can circle back to the previous conversation.

The number one thing to do to help your child is to be consistent and to follow through - it you tell them you will leave the store if they have a tantrum, then you must leave regardless of the inconvenience to you. Now is the time to let them know what the expectations are and you are not going to back down - at some point they will stop testing you. Know it is never too late to help your child be in better control of their behavior. A book I strongly recommend is "No: why kids of all ages need to hear it and ways parents can say it" by David Walsh.

I will further say, as someone who has taught students of all grades from preschool to high school, now is the time to really make the effort to get it under control or your teenager will be more than a handful!

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I'd +10 this if I could. –  cabbey Sep 23 '11 at 19:33
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After doing some research on this, it seems that some tantrum behaviors might be warning signs of problems.

First, though, it is helpful to understand what causes tantrums.

Tantrums are the results of a child feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. They typically occur in children aged 2-3, and normally taper off by 4 years of age. They are normal parts of growing up, and frequently occur when the child's vocabulary isn't sufficient to express their feelings. Source.

However, the article goes on to describe some of the boundaries of "normal" temper tantrums:

Children who have temper tantrums often have other problems like thumb sucking, head banging, bed wetting and problem sleeping. If these behaviors happen, or if your child has temper tantrums that last more than 15 minutes or occur three or more times a day at younger than 1 or older than 4, seek help from a family physician, psychologist, or marriage and family therapist. Be advised to seek more than an exclusively behavior therapy approach, for results have been reported to be about equally effective and ineffective (11, 14, 17). An approach is recommended that combines the best of behavior modification, family systems thinking (1), and other approaches like paradoxical intervention (6).

The article continues to describe a cycle of destructive behavior patterns that can be associated with problem tantrum behavior:

Sometimes temper tantrums in preschool children are the beginning of patterns that lead to children becoming increasingly disobedient, rebellious and aggressive as they grow older. At the Oregon Social Learning Center, aggressive boys in angry families were studied (12, 13). A complex pattern was observed that included:

  • Parents have trouble with some stressor events like divorce, prolonged unemployment, illness, alcohol or other drug problems, other chronic problems, or dealing with a difficult child.

  • Parents have difficulty controlling children's teasing, yelling, disobedience, whining.

  • Parents allow the child to get away with angry displays.
  • As children learn what they can get away with if they are encouraged to display temper tantrums, angry outbursts, etc., they become increasingly disobedient, rebellious and aggressive.
  • More and more peers reject the child and parents tend to reject or avoid the child, too.

Carol Tavris (16), in her book, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, writes about the pattern becoming circular and occurring hundreds of times each day. She sees the pattern as a three-step process:

  1. The child is attacked, criticized, or yelled at by an exasperated parent, brother or sister;
  2. The child responds aggressively.
  3. The child's aggression is rewarded when the attacker withdraws and the child learns to use tactics such as whining, yelling and temper tantrums.

When other family members also use these methods, the problems increase. At the Oregon Social Learning Center, Patterson (12, 13) found that when angry exchanges lasted longer than 18 seconds, the family had an increased chance of becoming violent. When talking or even yelling went on and on, it often led to hitting.

WebMD supports the warning signs indicated above, and provides a few examples of other problem signs:

Difficult behavior that frequently lasts longer than 15 minutes, occurs more than 3 times a day, or is more aggressive may indicate that a child has a medical, emotional, or social problem that needs attention. These are not considered typical temper tantrums. Difficult behaviors may include:

  • Kicking, hitting, biting, scratching, hair pulling, or pinching other people.

  • Throwing or breaking things.

  • Head-banging or inflicting self-injury.

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If throwing a tantrum gets the child something the child wants, then lots of tantrums only indicates that the child is not an idiot. As a parent, you need to be aware of how the tantrums develop and decide what is really going on. When you make that determination, figuring out if there is something bigger than trying to get a want satisfied is pretty straight-forward.

The issue is not that temper tantrums happen, or even how often temper tantrums happen, it is whether the child responds to correction and how quickly the child goes from calm to crazy. If the child doesn't respond to corrective actions, or has a shorter trigger than other kids of a similar age, I might be concerned and look at things more deeply, or even go see a professional. But if the parental response to a tantrum is to cave, the kid will throw tantrums all day long, and that will be perfectly normal.

There is a good discussion about dealing with tantrums here, although the higher voted answers seem to be more about calming the child and negotiating, which will encourage more tantrums, than about preventing future tantrums. What that says about parents and kids today I haven't figured out yet ...

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what it says is that you have identified yet another general problem with society. it all cascades together: tantrums allowed @ 3, complete focus on getting exactly what is desired, degraded educational ambition (cuz school sucks), cant point to iraq on a map, and you can extrapolate from there. . . and yes i'm serious. –  monsto Sep 23 '11 at 15:10
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The National Association of School Psychologist clarifies that every child between the ages of 1-4 years has temper tantrums with more than half of young children having one or more per week.

This source emphasizes the similarities of the "terrible twos" with adolescence due to both being fueled by the struggle for independence.

The normal developmental course for tantrums is outlined and explained. When a child is denied their desire for self-control and independence their limited skills in language and egocentric view point results in their communicating their frustration through tantrums.

By age 3, their communication skills have improved and tantrums typically decrease unless the child has learned that tantrums get them what they want.

The article details excellent prevention, interventions and management strategies.

The article further clarifies typical verses atypical tantrums.

If, despite the use of these interventions, the tantrums are increasing in frequency, intensity, or duration, consult your child’s doctor. You should also consult your child’s doctor if the child is self-injurious, hurtful to others, depressed, showing signs of low self-esteem, or is overly dependent on a parent or teacher for support. Your pediatrician or family physician can check for hearing or vision problems, chronic illness, or conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, language delays, or a learning disability, which may be contributing to your child’s increasing temper tantrums.

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A tantrum is a child having a BIG emotion in their head and them trying to deal with it. and yes it is normal and yes sometimes there could be an underlying problem. If you feel you need help call government helplines. Talk to someone. Do some exceptional parental courses. if you feel it isn't normal, see your gp. See your gp anyway! Talking and actively seeking help will help everyone involved.

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Visit the "Circle of Security" website. –  danielle jones Jun 27 '13 at 4:34
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Welcome to Parenting SE! It is helpful if your answers here can provide specific information. For example, can you provide links or names of possible helplines that people could call? Also, a link to a Circle of Security page directly addressing tantrums would be helpful, as their general website seems aimed at trainers rather than parents. –  MJ6 Jun 29 '13 at 17:36
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I have 5 kids (20, 18, 10, 8, 6) and none of them ever threw a tantrum. we had some arguments, and they would sometimes cry after a decision had been made, but they never tantrummed.

therefore, I disagree that tantrums are normal.

it is my belief that by the time a child gets to the age of the so=called 'terrible 2s', that they have already cultivated tantrum behaviour and it is a solid part of their personality. in other words, a tantrum doesn't just pop out like rain, it grows over time. like an oak tree. and by 2-3, you're looking at a down=line behaviour with foundation, not individual occurrences of somewhat related bad behaviour. To put it more harshly, if your 2yo is throwing tantrums, blame yourself for a year or two of what could have been better parenting... more on this later.

at 2-3, it's not too late to put the kibosh on it. but it will certainly take some harsh changes and will definitely take time, effort, patience. because at it's core, it's about control. who controls the relationship. "I'm the parent, I make the decisions, you will like it and you will sit your ass there until i say you can get up." or whatever... (yeah cussing refer to How do my wife and I stop our son from learning to swear from us?)

Understand: a child this age only knows what they want and they do not understand subtlety. negotiating will only result in you giving in and not getting anything. even giving in a little "ok 5 more minutes before bed" is still giving in. so be hardcore. "can i have 5 more minutes?" "No."

Now some parents can do this. what they can't do is maintain control. it's the hard part and can be done without spanking. in the above scenario, when you make them sit down, you have to be in control, make them sit and stop the noise. it will be trying, they won't like it and they'll fight you the entire way, but you're bigger and you absolutely can be in control of the relationship...

and here's why you want control: it is much easier to define the boundaries of the real world from the INSIDE than it is from the OUTSIDE. in other words, you'll be more successful in releasing them to reality a little at a time than trying to pull them back in a little at a time. if you control every aspect of their life today, and over time give them more and more freedom as you think they're ready... just a little bit here and there to give them their control of their own world, then they will have a much tighter foundation as they get older.

as far as the taking the blame goes, it's another way of saying that you've identified the problem and you admit to it. every 12 step program starts with admitting and accepting that you have a problem... because if you can admit to yourself that "i probably could have done better in the past" then you absolutely will do better in the future.

i look at my 20 an 18 yos, but even at these ages after i've long since stopped telling them what to do, they actively listen to me and accept my advice. they are proof positive to me that the way i'm raising my 6 year old may not be the nicest or the best, but it actually works.

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"Normal" != "every single child has them". "Twenty-three to 83 percent of all 2- to 4-year-olds have occasional temper tantrums." –  Beofett Sep 23 '11 at 15:45
    
23-83%... it's no indictment on you directly, but people -- even professionals -- throw out baseless stats like this all the time. was that a nationwide study? california? france? was it a 10 year study at NYU or was it 2 weeks of observation at the denver school for babysitting? and then a 60% range completely devalues the purpose of the stat. THAT BEING SAID i understand your point, that normal doesn't necc mean that it's common or even relevant. my point was that i don't believe it should be called 'normal' because there's too many external factors and stimulus that can set such behaviour. –  monsto Sep 23 '11 at 16:16
    
I fully agree that a range of "23%-83%" is, well, bizarre. I can only guess that it reflects a range resulting from multiple studies. Unfortunately, the source, while referencing many of its statements, does not reference that one. However, the point was that many (even the low-end of that range I would consider common enough to argue that "relatively normal" would be accurate) children have temper tantrums, and I believe it is unfair to take 100% of the parents of children who have had even a single tantrum and say "you're doing it wrong!" –  Beofett Sep 23 '11 at 16:23
    
"single tantrum" is not what i said at all, not even near the spirit. My solution was based on a 2-3 yo where tantrums are a problem. the tantrum is noth more than a technique that guarantees the child getting what they want. they wouldn't be in that frame of mind if it wasn't a clear established pattern by then. which means the parent has been simply giving in and has really lost control of the relationship long ago. control the relationship, meaning be the parent be the boss, and the tantrums will stop. –  monsto Sep 24 '11 at 2:52
    
The question was "can tantrums indicate a problem". Your answer seems to be taking a clear stance that if a child is throwing tantrums, then it is because the parents taught them that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want. Your answer, particularly with your comment about how none of your children ever had a tantrum, seems to be denying that tantrums are ever normal. I think your advice is good for many parents but I suspect there are lots tantrums that arent the result of parents "giving in". I didnt downvote, but I think you make too many assumptions. –  Beofett Sep 24 '11 at 3:07
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