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Updated: Sep 11, 2023

temper tantrums in children

What is a tantrum?

Tantrums come in all shapes and sizes. They involve behaviours such as screaming, falling onto the ground, holding their breaths, vomiting, breaking things or even hurting themselves and others in the process. The maladaptive behaviour can be seen as an explosion of anger, frustration and emotional meltdown . When a child throws a tantrum, it can be serve as a form of communication. Therefore, it is important for us to pay attention to the mental health well being of our young ones.

Why do children throw tantrums?

Tantrums are common in children from 1 to 3 years of age due to the early stage of social, emotional and language development. They may not have the ability to express their needs and feelings effectively. They are still learning how to understand their environment and how their behaviours can affect others around them. Older children display tantrums when they have not learned safe ways to communicate or manage their feelings. Some of the factors causing a tantrum to take place are as such :

  • Temperament : Some children may be more sensitive, gets easily upset and react more strongly than others.

  • Biological Needs : Hunger, tiredness and over stimulation can influence a child's ability to regulate their emotions and remain calm.

  • Stress : Children may find it hard to cope with new situations or interactions they are unfamiliar with.

  • Big emotions : Strong feelings of worry, fear, anger, guilt, shame can be overwhelming.

How to prevent a tantrum?

  • Help you child to identify their emotions : Teach your child words or signs to label feelings such as 'happy', 'sad', 'tired', 'hungry' and so on.

  • Avoid biological triggers : Plan their routine to not deprive them of their biological needs. Consistent schedules help the child to recognize sequence of things and adjust their behaviours accordingly.

  • Use prompts during transitions : Give gentle reminders about an upcoming change of activity can help a child to prepare for the transition.

  • Reinforcement : Acknowledge and encourage healthy behaviours when your child was able to handle a difficult situation. For example : " You were able to stay calm even though that did not go your way. Did it make you feel strong?".

  • Modelling : Adults can model healthy reactions to stressful situations. For example : " We are late and I'm getting worried, but taking deep breaths keep me calm". Coach them to cope with difficult experiences.

  • Provide meaningful tasks : Tasks given to children should be appropriately challenging or something they are capable to complete. This will help prevent task avoidance or escaping behaviours.

How to handle a tantrum?

Toddlers : Do a Time-In instead of a Time-Out - Adults can stay close, provide comfort and reassurance to the child. Give children choices between two equally allowable activities and reinforced the display of non-tantrum behaviors. Be consistent about not giving into demands so the child learn that they can't get their way with throwing a tantrum.

Older Children : Adults can stay with the child and help them to Identify emotions, label emotions, pause/ take 5, provide support as well as discuss about the triggers and natural consequences of the tantrum. Provide the child paradoxical options where the child is allowed to release their emotions until they are ready to stop. For example : " You can yell into the pillow until you calm down.

How to cope with a tantrum?

Temper tantrums can be distressing to everyone involved. Adults have to take care of their own emotional well being before attending to the children's mental health.

  • Radical acceptance : Accept that adults can't control children's emotions or behaviours directly. Accept that it may also take time for unwanted behaviours to change.

  • Compassionate approach : Acknowledge that children may not be throwing tantrum on purpose. They may not have the skills to cope and communicate their feelings healthily. Use humour to ease the tension if needed. Ultimately, be compassionate to yourself for trying your best to manage every breakdown.

If the above tips have been put into practice consistently but no behavioural improvements found, if may be necessary to seek professional help for a more tailored intervention.

Written by :

Kee Joey

Clinical Psychologist


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