Understanding temper tantrums and how to intervene

Understanding temper tantrums and how to intervene
Why do kids throw tantrums? How should you respond?

Tantrums: A normal stage of development

Tantrums are a normal part of child development. They’re especially common from the age of 18 months, when children are beginning to develop more autonomy. Some tantrums are over in minutes, but others can last for more than an hour.

During a tantrum, a child may do the following:

  • Scream
  • Cry
  • Kick, punch, or headbutt
  • Bite
  • Roll around on the floor or flail their arms and legs
  • Throw things
  • Refuse to be picked up
  • Hold their breath (don’t worry, you don’t need to step in—they’ll start breathing normally again on their own)

Why do kids throw temper tantrums?

The development of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, reasoning, and problem-solving is complex and continues into adulthood.

Young children often have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. They may throw tantrums when they feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings or needs and are unable to express them.

Even for a child with good verbal skills, putting emotions and feelings into words is difficult. They need practice and guidance from their parents.

There are several common causes of tantrums:

  • The child can’t do what they want.
  • They have to do something they don’t want to do.
  • They’re overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, anxiety, or even fear.
  • They’re tired, hungry, overexcited, or not feeling well.
  • They’ve failed to do something they wanted to do all by themself.
  • They don’t have the words to express their feelings.
  • They need to connect with a parent because they feel left out, ignored, lonely, or bored.

Some children are more likely to have tantrums than others. This may be because they have a more assertive temperament or a higher sensitivity to external stimuli. Highly sensitive children are more likely to feel overwhelmed by their environments and may become more emotional or irritable as a result.

Tantrums are also more frequent in children who are less comfortable using words to express their negative feelings. Their anger comes out as screaming and aggressive behaviour.

Tantrums and sleep

If your child has had one or more tantrums during the day, they may not be sleeping well. Subconsciously, they want to make sure you’re there and that the relationship between you is intact.

How should you respond to tantrums?

Here are some tips on what to do when your child throws a tantrum.

  • Start by trying to soothe and calm your child by naming what they’re feeling (e.g., “I understand, you have every right to be annoyed!” or “Stop! I can’t let you throw toys”) and let them know you’re there for them. If you need to look after another child, say: “I’m going to check on your sister/brother. I’ll be right back. I’m here for you.”
  • If they aren’t listening to you, back off. Trying to reason with your child may just make the tantrum last longer. Your little one likely isn’t in the best state of mind to listen to you. Keep an eye on them from a distance. Let the tantrum run its course without stepping in, except to ensure your child’s safety. Stay where they can see you so they don’t feel ignored. Move closer to them as they calm down.
  • Don’t let your child hit you or anyone else, hit themself, or throw things. Keep your child away from objects and other people during their tantrum. Wait until they’ve calmed down to talk to them.
During a tantrum, your child may refuse any suggestions you make. If this happens, just be there for them.
  • Stay calm. Getting angry will only make things worse. If you raise your voice, your child will only yell louder, and you might frighten them. If you can feel yourself getting angry and another adult is around to make sure your child is safe, step away for a few minutes to compose yourself. If you can’t step away, take a few deep breaths to regain control of your emotions. The calmer you appear to your child, the more willing they’ll be to listen to you.
  • Maintain boundaries, even if it’s very tempting to give your child what they want when they’re hitting you and yelling in public. When your child gets frustrated after being told “no,” it’s a good time to help them practise regulating their emotions.
  • Don’t put your child in a time-out when they throw a tantrum, as this may make them more upset. Stay where they can see you; they’re probably just as upset as you are about how they’re reacting.

What to do after a tantrum

  • Hold your child to soothe and reassure them. Your child’s angry outbursts affect them too, as they have difficulty controlling them.
  • Help them talk about what happened, how they felt, and what made them upset. If they haven’t learned to talk yet, you can do it for them. For example, say: “You wanted to make a nice tall tower with your blocks, but it kept falling down when you put the blue one on top. That made you mad and you started screaming.”
  • Suggest one or two things your child can do the next time they get angry. For instance, you can say: “You’re right, it is frustrating when things don’t go how we want them to. Next time you could say, ‘Oh no, my block tower keeps falling over! I need help.’” This way, they’ll learn that there are other ways to express their negative emotions besides shouting and hitting. Remember, you should be suggesting solutions, not expecting your child to come up with their own.

How can you prevent tantrums?

Even though tantrums are a normal part of child development, you can help your little one have them less often. Here are some tips for reducing the frequency of your child’s tantrums.

Meet their basic needs

No parent can prevent every single tantrum. They’re simply a normal part of child development.
  • Stick to a consistent routine for meals, snacks, and sleep.
  • Take a snack and water with you on outings. With kids, hunger and thirst have to be addressed quickly. Otherwise, the child will become more irritable and impatient.
  • If your child starts to get restless, try to figure out if they’re tired or hungry, if they need more space to play, etc.
  • Bring along a few books or toys to keep your child entertained if you’re going somewhere that might be boring for them.
  • Make sure you spend quality time with your child every day. Your little one needs to spend time with you to fill their emotional tank. If their needs aren’t met, they may act out to get your attention.

Act before the first signs of anger

To prevent a tantrum from happening in public, clearly explain your rules before leaving. See what Nisrine, a mother of three, has to say (video in French).
  • Make sure your child is playing with toys that are appropriate for their age. They’ll be less likely to get frustrated.
  • Keep any objects your child isn’t allowed to touch out of sight and out of reach. Removing the temptation will help prevent tantrums.
  • Offer to help your little one, give them a hug, take a break, or get their mind off things when you can sense that they’re getting angry. However, while redirection can be a useful strategy, you shouldn’t overuse it, because children also need to learn to cope with negative emotions.
  • Find strategies to prevent your little one’s usual frustrations. For example, if they often get upset when their younger sibling starts taking apart the puzzle they’re working on, ask if they want to work at the kitchen table instead of on the floor.
  • When you go out together, let them know what to expect. For example, if you’re going grocery shopping, tell your child in advance that you won’t be buying them a treat, but that they can pick the cereal. You can also give them a little job to do, like putting the oranges in a bag or pointing out all the red or yellow things they see. Since your child can only concentrate on one thing at a time, keeping them busy reduces the chances that they’ll ask for something they can’t have.

Encourage alternative ways of expressing frustration

Remember that no matter what strategies you use, change will come with time. Your child needs practice and guidance to improve their behaviour.
  • Help your child put their feelings into words and tell you how they feel. By encouraging them to talk about their feelings, you can help them regulate their emotions more effectively and avoid getting overwhelmed by them.
  • Be patient and try not to let your frustration get the better of you. Your child will likely follow your lead. In addition, it will be hard to get your child to regulate their own feelings if you lose your temper at the drop of a hat. When you’re feeling upset about something, say out loud what you’ll do to feel better: “I’m feeling grouchy. I’m going to have a glass of water and do a breathing exercise. Do you want to do it with me?”
  • Praise your child when they’re able to express their needs and negative emotions in words.
  • Read books about emotions with your child.
  • Teach your child to blow on each of their fingers like they’re birthday candles. Encourage them to practise this when they’re calm. That way, it’ll be easier to do it when they’re angry.

Create a calm-down corner

If you have the space, set up a calm-down corner in your home where you can help your child through a tantrum. Fill it with items like a favourite stuffed animal, pictures that illustrate emotions (e.g., joy, anger, sadness, fear), books about feelings, and feathers to help your little one take deep breaths (the feather should move when they exhale). Encourage your child to use it by saying something like “Let’s go to your calm-down corner so we can help you feel better.”

When should you consult a professional?

Tantrums typically become less intense and less frequent around age 3 or 4. At this age, your child is developing better impulse control and can also express themself better in words.

If your child continues to have several tantrums a week and their intensity isn’t improving (e.g., they have trouble calming down or end up hurting themself or others), or if you feel like you can’t handle your child’s tantrums, you should make an appointment with their doctor or at your local CLSC. Tantrums may also be a sign of an underlying issue. If this is the case, a specialist can help you figure out what’s going on.

Things to keep in mind

  • Temper tantrums are a normal part of child development and usually occur between 18 and 36 months, when children are developing more autonomy.
  • When your child has a tantrum, try to stay calm. Getting angry will only make things worse.
  • You can’t prevent all of your child’s tantrums, but you can help reduce their frequency and intensity.
Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2023

Photo: iStock.com/PeopleImages

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Bilodeau, Mélanie. Soyez l’expert de votre bébé. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2019, 218 pp.
  • Bilodeau, Mélanie. Soyez l’expert de votre tout-petit. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2022, 240 pp.
  • Bourcier, Sylvie. L’agressivité chez l’enfant de 0 à 5 ans. “Parlons Parents” series, Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 248 pp.
  • Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Aggression.” 2022. child-encyclopedia.com
  • Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Emotions.” 2022. child-encyclopedia.com
  • Government of Manitoba. Temper Tantrums. www.gov.mb.ca
  • Hamel, Sarah. Le Ti-pou d’Amérique : mieux le comprendre pour mieux intervenir. Laval, Saint-Jean Éditeur, 2022, 200 pp.
  • Lupien, Sonia. À chacun son stress. Éditions Va Savoir, 2019, 333 pp.
  • MacNamara, Deborah. Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One). Aona Books, 2016, 304 pp.

Books for kids

  • Allancé, Mireille. What a Tantrum! Barcelona, Corimbo, 2003.
  • Bourque, Solène. Mini Loup vit un tourbillon d’émotions. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2017, 48 pp.
  • Desputeaux, Hélène. Mella : une mauvaise journée. Beloeil, desputeaux + aubin, 2008, 12 pp.
  • Gaudrat, Marie-Agnès, and Fred Benaglia. Adélidélo dompteuse de colère. Montrouge, Bayard Jeunesse, 2021, 26 pp.
  • Latulippe, Martine, and Nathalie Parent. La colère de Fabien. Mammouth rose, June 2020, 32 pp.
  • Laurans, Camille. La colère. Toulouse, Milan jeunesse, 2020, 29 pp.
  • Paruit, Marie. Je suis en colère. Paris, Larousse Jeunesse, “La météo des humeurs” series, 2020, 24 pp.
  • Percival, Tom. Ravi’s Roar. New York, Scholastic, 2021.