Medical Author: John Mersch, MD, FAAP
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
- What are temper tantrums?
- What causes temper tantrum in toddlers?
- How should parents handle temper tantrums in toddlers?
- Should children be punished for having temper tantrums?
- Can temper tantrums be prevented?
- Do children grow out of having temper tantrums?
- Temper Tantrums At A Glance
- Find a local Pediatrician in your town
What are temper tantrums?
Temper tantrums are emotional and physical "meltdowns" common among children in the 2- to 4-year-old age range. The toddler may demonstrate a number of characteristic behaviors, including screaming, kicking, lying on the floor, and occasionally holding his breath (rarely to the point of passing out). As a child matures, these manifestations of emotional, developmental, and physical immaturity gradually extinguish themselves. Studies indicate that 23%-85% of children between 2 and 4 years of age will commonly have temper tantrums.
What causes temper tantrum in toddlers?
A toddler's view of the world is egocentric; "I want what I want, when I want it!" This narcissistic view of their world is coupled with an incomplete and unbalanced development of expressive language skills when compared with their more complete receptive language skills. The receptive language of a 2-year-old child is numbered in the thousands, while the expressive skill generally is 150-200 words. Perhaps more frustrating for the toddler is the receptive ability to understand complex sentence structure while only able to express his thoughts in two- to three-word phrases.
The toddler world is full of exploration and discovery. Commonly, young children learn by observation and attempting the same or similar task. This (from a parental perspective) is fine when it comes to desired behaviors (such as toilet training). However, playing with the TV remote control is not part of these desired behaviors, unless you are a toddler and don't discriminate with regard to goals. When a parent's desire for safety and limiting chaos clashes with their young child's fierce struggle for autonomy and limited language capabilities, the temper tantrum is almost inevitable.
How should parents handle temper tantrums in toddlers?
Over the years, parents and psychologists have developed a series of suggestions to help deal with temper tantrums. These include
- Don't get sucked into the emotion of the situation. Remain calm and unemotional. If possible (for example, at home) tell the child you can't understand him when he behaves that way and leave the area. Inform him that when he calms down you will talk with him about what he wants. Feeding into the situation by trying to deal with the out of control child reinforces the behavior.
- Try to distract or redirect the child. Many parents observe that this strategy works better in the young toddler; the older child is less likely to be "bought off."
- Discipline should be promptly applied, brief, proportionate to the "crime," and rendered without emotion by the parent. The classic recommendation for "time-out" of one minute per year of age has well stood the test of time. A quick verbal explanation of the infraction is reasonable ("You are going into time-out because you kept pinching your brother. We don't pinch. Pinching hurts.")
- Realize that temper tantrums are a way a child is testing your limits in addition to a way of venting frustration. If he discovers that he is more likely to succeed in a certain setting (such as at grocery-store checkout line), he will persevere in this location. Parents may be very frustrated by their toddler's temper tantrums in a public venue; take heart in the fact that almost all the other adults have similarly been the recipient of their child's wrath in a public locale.
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