How to Handle a Temper Tantrum

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 13, 2023
6 min read

A temper tantrumis your child's way of expressing their frustration with their limits or anger about not getting their way. During a temper tantrum, they may argue, be unwilling to do what they're told to do, and go against authority. 

Children younger than 4 regularly have up to nine tantrums a week. While it can be shocking to see your child become so angry, it's developmentally appropriate in toddlers. Angry outbursts are how they express the frustration they are having as a result of their rapid growth. They want to do things for themselves but don't have the skills and abilities to do so. Thankfully, your toddler's anger should start to fade as they develop the communication skills to express themselves better. 

Most kids will argue or be stubborn every now and then, but when anger and hostility happen often – leading to other problems with friends, at school, or at home – there may be cause for concern.

While parents and caregivers can ignore tantrums in toddlers and preschoolers, it's harder to shrug them off later in life. Aggressive older children can pose a danger to others and themselves.

A typical tantrum can happen when a young child is tired or frustrated, or during daily routines like bedtime, mealtime, or getting dressed.

What's not typical is when the outburst comes out of nowhere or is so intense that the child becomes exhausted. When it becomes regular, that should be a red flag.

Some of the things that can be cause for concern are:

Anger or unkindness toward people, objects, or both. It's possible for a child to want to hit or kick a caregiver out of frustration once in a while. But when it happens in more than half of the child's tantrums, there could be a problem.

Your child tries to injure themselves. They might try to do something like:

  • Bite themselves
  • Scratch themselves
  • Bang their head against the wall
  • Try to hurt their foot by kicking, hitting, or punching something

Your child can't calm down. In other words, you have to remove them from the environment or promise them something after nearly every tantrum to settle your child down and stop the tantrum.

Many tantrums. From ages 1 to 4, your child can average one tantrum a day. If they happen more often, that can be cause for concern.

Very long outbursts. If the tantrums usually last more than 15 minutes, that could signal another issue.

 Some typical triggers for tantrums include: 

  • Being unable to complete a task
  • Not having the words to express their feelings
  • Being ill
  • Transitions
  • Being tired, hungry, or frustrated
  • Wanting attention or a preferred object (toy)

A child might also lash out regularly because of:

Disruptive behavior disorder, which can include a pattern of actions that interrupt daily life, could be another possible cause. This condition is more than a tantrum and can include:

  • Fighting
  • Cruelty
  • Arguing
  • Not listening to authority

Two of the most common disruptive behavior disorders are oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD).

Children with ODD may show signs of being spiteful, mean, or cruel to others. They're angry a lot and spend a lot of time arguing or not following directions. They may be more likely to have anxiety or depression as they get older.

Children with CD may grow up to have problems in daily life with friends or at home. Their ongoing disruptive or violent actions may include bullying, using weapons, destroying property, stealing, and lying.

If you're concerned about your child's behavior, talk with your pediatrician. They may refer you to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, if needed. Early treatment can help and can focus on goals like teaching your child to deal with anger and frustration in ways that are more common.

Stay positive. Children need positive relationships to feel connected and learn to control their behavior. When you're dealing with an angry toddler, it can be hard to stay calm. 

Kids with behavior challenges can get caught in a difficult cycle. Their behavior frustrates their caregiver, who gets angry with them, which causes more anger. It can feel like you're always punishing your child. 

As long as they aren't being destructive, try to focus on the positive – even if it means overlooking some tantrums. 

Make a plan. You can't prevent every tantrum, but if you think ahead, you can reduce how many your child may have. Here are some tips to help: 

  • Plan ahead. Don't run errands when your child is going to be hungry and tired. Pack snacks and toys to keep your toddler busy.
  • Be consistent. Stick to a routine that includes consistent times for meals, naps, and bedtimes. Your child will do better if they know what to expect. They will also handle frustration better if they are getting enough rest. 
  • Offer choices. Whenever possible, let your child make decisions. Children feel more in control if they can decide what toys to play with or what outfit to wear. 
  • Identify triggers. Avoid situations that are likely to cause your child to have a meltdown. Don't give your child toys that will frustrate them. Avoid sit-down restaurants if your child can't tolerate waiting. 

Reward good behavior. Catch your child being good. If your child behaves at dinner, point it out and compliment them. Help your child set an appropriate behavior goal and give them a reward for reaching it. Instead of a material reward, give your child special time with a parent or let them pick the movie for movie night.

When your toddler does have a tantrum, they will need your help to calm down. You can help your child if you:

  • Stay calm. Shouting or responding angrily to your child will just make the situation worse. 
  • Try distraction. Give your child a toy or book. Offer to help if the tantrum is about cleaning up or doing a chore. 
  • Gently hold them. If your child is hitting, kicking, or trying to run away, hold them until they calm down. 
  • Explain the rules. When your child calms down, talk about the rules with them. 
  • Ignore the behavior. When you ignore the tantrum, this tells your child that the behavior is not acceptable. While doing this, keep them in sight and away from objects that could harm them or others.

Aside from normal developmental stages, there are medical issues that can cause anger in children. Some of these include: 

  • Frustration in children with cognitive or communication conditions such as autism
  • Psychosis such as schizophrenia
  • Mood disorders like bipolar disorder
  • Impulsivity, which often happens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Trauma caused by outside circumstances
  • Frontal lobe damage that can happen with injuries or epilepsy

If your child's anger doesn't seem to be related to a developmental stage and lasts longer than a few weeks, you should talk to your pediatrician. You should also talk to a doctor if you feel like you can't handle your child's anger on your own. Some other signs that your child may need help include: 

  • Causing injury to themselves or others, including bruises and bite marks
  • Attacking you or other adults
  • Being sent home from school
  • Being concerned about the safety of people around your child

The biggest warning sign is the how often outbursts happen. It's possible for children with issues such as conduct disorder to go several days or a week without outbursts. But they can rarely go a month without problems. Treatments can help reward good behavior and discourage bad behavior in children with medical issues.