What Is a Tantrum?

girl throwing a tantrum on floor

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What Is a Tantrum?

A tantrum is when a child exhibits an uncontrolled burst of anger and frustration. Tantrums, which are sometimes called temper tantrums, may involve screaming, stomping, kicking, or throwing themselves to the ground.

It’s likely that every parent has witnessed their child throw tantrums at one time or another. They usually decline over time as a child learns more socially appropriate ways to deal with their emotions.

What’s Normal?

Whether they’re mad that you said they can’t have another cookie or they’re upset that they can’t go to the beach on a cold day, temper tantrums are normal for young children. Toddlers and preschoolers who struggle to manage their emotions will often exhibit dramatic tantrums when they’re upset.

Their tantrums may also be an attempt to manipulate you into getting what they want. They may scream loudly in the grocery store in hopes you’ll buy them some candy to keep them quiet. Or, they may get louder or throw themselves down in front of you to ensure that you understand just how upset they are.

Common reasons kids have tantrums include being hungry, feeling overtired, or not feeling well. Tantrums that stem from physical discomfort are not usually a cause for concern.

In most cases, tantrums stop within a few minutes and a child calms down and is able to resume their day in a normal fashion. And while tantrums can be frustrating and embarrassing for parents (especially when they occur in public), they usually shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

Researchers have found that 70% of 18- to 24-month-old children have tantrums. Toddler tantrums often involve screaming and crying.

But, those tantrums don’t necessarily disappear at the age of 2. In fact, some researchers have found that the highest incidence of tantrums occur in the 3- to 5-year age range. About 75% of preschoolers exhibit tantrums.

Most 18- to 60-month-old children exhibit crying and hitting once a day, on average. The average tantrum duration is 3 minutes, with most lasting between 1.5 and 5 minutes.

What’s Not Normal?

There are times however when tantrums do become problematic—or when they may be a symptom of an underlying problem.

When researchers examined preschoolers who exhibit severe tantrums, they found that 52% of them had other non-tantrum related behavioral/emotional problems.

Researchers have found that emotionally healthy children exhibit fewer violent tantrums. They’re also able to recover from tantrums faster.

And while it’s likely most kids might exhibit some of these behaviors occasionally, frequent tantrums that include these behaviors may be cause for concern:

  • Hitting others
  • Throwing objects
  • Breaking objects
  • Hitting self
  • Head banging
  • Holding breath
  • Biting self
  • Biting others
  • Hitting walls
  • Spitting on others

In addition to the severity of behaviors during a tantrum, researchers have also found that children who display more frequent tantrums are more likely to have an underlying mental health issue.

The length of the tantrum can also be a sign of another problem. Tantrums that last for 25 minutes or more may indicate more serious issues.

Children who struggle to calm themselves down after a tantrum are also more likely to have a clinical issue, such as an underlying mental health issue or behavior disorder.

Language Delays and Tantrums

Research shows “late talkers” are likely to exhibit more severe tantrums. The study found that 12- to 38-month-olds with fewer spoken words exhibited more frequent and more serious tantrums than their more talkative counterparts. 

Perhaps children who can’t express themselves verbally feel like they need to show adults how upset they feel by throwing a tantrum. When their language skills improve, their tantrums may subside.

Depression and Disruptive Behavior Problems

Researchers have also discovered that severe tantrums can be a sign of an underlying psychiatric disorder.

Studies have found that children with depression are more likely to display self-injurious behavior during tantrums, such as banging their heads or biting themselves. They are also more likely to be aggressive toward objects and other people.

Children with disruptive behavior disorders are more likely to exhibit tantrums at school or daycare than their counterparts. They also tend to require more time to recover from a tantrum.

How to Respond to Tantrums

Tantrums should gradually go away over time as your child learns new skills and gains maturity. Here are some of the best ways to respond to a tantrum:

  • Ignore them. If your child throws a tantrum at home, you might simply walk away and not say anything. When your child learns that tantrums aren’t an effective way to get your attention, they might become motivated to learn other ways to express themselves.
  • Provide attention when they’re over. When the tantrum is over, provide attention again. Say something like, “Oh I like the way you decided to start playing with your blocks again.” This reinforces the behaviors that you want to see more often.
  • Don’t give into them. Make sure you don’t get into a tantrum. Otherwise, your child will learn that screaming or kicking is an effective way to get what they want.
  • Remove your child from the situation. If your child throws a tantrum in the middle of a public place, you might decide to take them outside or to the car for some quiet time. When they are calm, you can return to the activity.
  • Use consequences for acts of aggression. If your child becomes aggressive, address the issue immediately. You might intervene and say, “No hitting,” and then take away a toy or place your child in an official time out. Make it clear that it’s OK to feel mad but it’s not OK to hurt anyone.

There may be certain times when it feels like ignoring a tantrum isn’t a good option—like when you’re on an airplane. In a case like that, you might decide to do what it takes to get the tantrum to stop (for the sake of everyone around you). That might involve handing your child a drink (you can’t cry when you’re drinking) or distracting them with something fun for a minute.

Prevent Tantrums

There are several things you can do to help prevent tantrums from happening. Here are some strategies that can reduce tantrums:

  • Teach feeling words. Rather than say, “Don’t cry,” validate your child’s feelings by saying something like, “I see you feel really mad right now.” With practice, they may learn to verbalize their own feelings.
  • Provide guidance on healthy coping skills. Teach them healthy ways to deal with angry feelings, like run fast or take deep breaths. Keep in mind that it’s not recommended to teach them to “punch a pillow” or act out their aggression as this sends a message that says hitting is OK.
  • Teach problem-solving skills. Help your child discover how to solve a problem without a tantrum. Ask questions like, “If you are mad at your sister, what can you do?” or “If you’re hot, what could you do to fix that?” Then, work together on solving the problem.
  • Make sure your child’s basic needs are met. You might not want to schedule a trip to the store when your child is hungry or overtired. Instead, try to plan the activities that can test your child’s patience around the times when they are likely to be feeling their best.

A Word From Verywell

In most cases, tantrums are just a phase that will eventually go away. Applying consistent discipline and proactively teaching your child new skills can help.

If you’re concerned about your child’s tantrums, talk to the pediatrician. Your pediatrician may help you create a plan to address certain behaviors or you may be referred to a mental health professional who can evaluate your child’s needs. 

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Article Sources
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    The Journal of Pediatrics. 2008 Jan 01. 52(1):117-122.

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