A tantrum is an episode of extreme anger and frustration characterized by crying, screaming, and violent body motions, including throwing things, falling to the floor, and banging one's head, hands, and feet against the floor.
Tantrums, also called temper tantrums, can occur by the age of 15 months, but are most frequent between the ages of two and four. All children have them at some point, and active, strong-willed youngsters may have as many as one or two a week. Generally, tantrums are an expression of frustration. Children may be frustrated by their inability to perform an activity they are attempting, such as buttoning a coat. Tantrums may also be an expression of frustration at the lack of control children have over their lives, such as at bedtime when children want to continue playing instead of going to bed. Occasionally a tantrum may also be an attempt to gain attention from a parent or other caregiver, or it may be an attempt to manipulate the situation in some way.
Aside from taking any measures needed to prevent danger to children, parents should try to ignore the tantrum and let it run its course. If the upset has occurred over something the child wants and has been denied, it is tempting to give in to the child's wishes, but doing so can be harmful because it teaches children that they can get what they want by having a tantrum. Frequently, tantrums occur in a public place, which is especially unsettling for parents. Children become over stimulated or tire more easily in busy public spaces such as supermarkets and malls and may use the tantrum as an attempt to regain parental attention that is focused elsewhere. In spite of their embarrassment, parents should treat a public tantrum in essentially the same way they treat one at home. Whenever possible, they should remove the child to the car or some other private space to avoid inconveniencing others and attracting any more unwelcome attention, after which they should ignore the tantrum and let it run its course.
While a parent cannot stop tantrums once they are in progress, it is sometimes possible to prevent them by being alert to certain danger signs, especially fatigue, hunger, and irritability. In these cases, they can change plans to give the child a needed rest, food, or change of scene. For example, a child who is getting cranky at a party or other event at which the parent is present can be taken home early. The archetypal shopping tantrum over the candy bar at the checkout counter or the elaborate toy can sometimes be countered by proposing an alternative treat or purchase instead of the flat denial that sends the child into a tantrum. Emotional upsets that occur when children are left with a babysitter or at daycare are usually a sign of separation anxiety and can be alleviated by preparing children in advance for the separation and giving them the opportunity to become familiar with the babysitter or daycare setting ahead of time. Keeping walking trips short can prevent tantrums over a child's demand to be carried.
Children between the ages of two and four are the most likely to have tantrums and to have them the most often. They have not acquired the verbal skills necessary to adequately express their emotions or even, in many situations, to make themselves understood. In addition, they can only use words to demand what they want, not to negotiate for it. They love to explore, but often they do not understand which places or objects are off limits and are scolded as a result. Although they are developing rapidly, they still lack the motor skills to do many things they would like to do. They want to be independent but still require continuous supervision and assistance, and their preferences are often unrecognized, ignored, or refused by their caregivers. There is also a great deal of ambivalence and indecision associated with this stage of life, meaning that there is internal conflict as well as tension between the toddler and his or her environment. The tantrum occurs because the small child, who is still learning to cope with her feelings, is simply unable to contain strong emotions of anger, frustration, or disappointment. In some cases, children are actively discouraged from showing these feelings, which creates even more tension.
School-age children tend to have tantrums less often, but many children still have them occasionally. At this age, frustration with inability to do homework may often be the cause of tantrums. Parents should let their child calm down and then offer to help them and give encouragement. It can be helpful to remind the child that the task that causes frustration will become easier to perform with practice. If the child has tantrums at school, a doctor's advice should be sought because it could be a symptom of other another problem such as a learning disability.
Having tantrums is a normal part of growing up; however, they are not socially acceptable behavior. Consequently, the most common problems with tantrums are problems for the parents. The tantrums often take place in public, which can be embarrassing and make them harder to deal with calmly. If the child actually hurts himself or others or has very frequent tantrums, it may be a sign of behavior problems, and the child should be assessed by a pediatrician.
Most children do not actually hurt themselves or others during tantrums, although it may seem like they are going to. Holding the breath cannot actually hurt a child; the child will breathe involuntarily before harm occurs. A child's tantrums can, however, challenge parents' ability to remain calm. Tantrums may occur in busy places such as restaurants and grocery stores, and the child is more likely to be tired. It can also be very distressing for parents to see the child so upset and out of control. Parents who are concerned about their ability to calmly deal with the child's temper tantrums may talk to the child's pediatrician about ways to cope more effectively with this natural part of the child's development.
When to call the doctor
The child's doctor should be called if the child hurts herself, the parent, other people, or objects during a tantrum. If the child has more than five tantrums a day, or the tantrums reoccur in school, the doctor should also be consulted.
See also Separation anxiety.
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Tish Davidson, A.M.