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Temper Tantrums: Guidelines for Parents

By Robert G. Harrington, PhD
University of Kansas

Every teacher of young children and every new parent can expect to witness some temper tantrums in children from age 1–4 years. On average, temper tantrums are equally common in boys and girls, and more than half of young children will have one or more per week.

At home, there are predictable situations that can be expected to trigger temper tantrums, such as bedtime, suppertime, getting up, getting dressed, bath time, watching TV, parent talking on the phone, visitors at the house, family visiting another house, car rides, public places, family activities involving siblings, interactions with peers, and playtime. Other settings include transitions between activities, on the school bus, getting ready to work, interactions with other children, directives from the teacher, group activities, answering questions in class, individual seat work, and the playground.

Characteristics of Temper Tantrums

All young children from time to time will whine, complain, resist, cling, argue, hit, shout, run, and defy their teachers and parents. Temper tantrums, although normal, can become upsetting to teachers and parents because they are embarrassing, challenging, and difficult to manage. On the other hand, temper tantrums can become special problems when they occur with greater frequency, intensity, and duration than is typical for the age of the child.

There are nine different types of temperaments in children:

Developmental Issues

At about age 1 1/2 some children will start throwing temper tantrums. These bouts of temper tantrums can last until approximately age 4. Some call this stage the terrible twos and others call it first adolescence because the struggle for independence is similar to what is seen during adolescence. Regardless of what the stage is called, there is a normal developmental course for temper tantrums.

One-and-a-half through 2 years old. Children during this stage will test the limits. They want to see how far they can go before a parent or teacher stops their behavior. At age 2 children are very egocentric and cannot see another person’s point of view. They want independence and self-control to explore their environment. When children cannot reach a goal, they show frustration by crying, arguing, yelling, or hitting. When children’s need for independence collides with the parents’ and teachers’ needs for safety and conformity, the conditions are perfect for a power struggle and a temper tantrum. The temper tantrum is designed to get the teacher or parent to desist in their demands or give them whatever they want. Many times children stop the temper tantrum only when they get what is desired. What is most upsetting to caregivers is that it is virtually impossible to reason with children who are having a temper tantrum, and arguing and cajoling in response to a temper tantrum only escalates the problem.

Three-year-olds. By age 3 many children are less impulsive and can use language to express their needs. Tantrums at this age are often less frequent and less severe. Nevertheless, some preschoolers have learned that a temper tantrum is a good way to get what they want.

Four-year-olds. Most children have the necessary motor and physical skills to meet many of their own needs without relying so much on an adult. At this age, children also have better language that allows them to express their anger and to problem-solve and compromise. Despite these improved skills, even kindergartenage and school-age children can still have temper tantrums when they are faced with demanding academic tasks and new interpersonal situations in school.

Prevention for Parents and Teachers

It is much easier to prevent temper tantrums than it is to manage them once they have erupted. Here are some tips for preventing temper tantrums and some things you can say:

Intervention for Parents and Teachers

There are a number of ways to handle a temper tantrum. Strategies include the following:

Post-Tantrum Management

When to Get Help

For parents. 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. Your physician can also direct you to a mental health professional who can provide assistance for you and your child.

Resources

Agassi, M. (2000). Hands are not for hitting. Minneapolis: Free Spirit. ISBN: 1575421127.

Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child. New York: Harper Collins. ASIN: 0060175346.

MacKenzie, R. (2001). Setting limits with your strongwilled child. New York: Prima. ISBN: 0761521364.

Nelson, J. (1999). Positive time-out and over 50 ways to avoid power struggles in the home and the classroom. New York: Prima. ISBN: 0761521755.

Reichenberg-Ullman, J., & Ullman, R. (1999). Rage-free kids. New York: Prima. ASIN: 0761520279.

Website

Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies— www.behavior.org (See Effective Parenting)

Robert G. Harrington, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and Research in Education at the University of Kansas and has trained teachers and parents in behavior management of children and adolescents.

© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270. Reprinted from Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators (NASP, 2004), available from the NASP Bookstore.