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Self-expression is important to growth, self-esteem and confidence. But sometimes this self-expression can turn into an explosive typhoon in the form of a tantrum, when it seems like the only response is to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. So what is a temper tantrum and what can be done to help a child who’s having one?

According to “A temper tantrum is when a child has an unplanned outburst of anger and frustration. Tantrums can be physical, verbal or both. Your child may act out, be disruptive and generally display unpleasant behaviors. Usually, they’re acting like this because they want or need something they can’t express with words.”

Tantrums are often disproportionate to the circumstances. In other words, children react very strongly to what is likely a mild situation. For example, you might tell your child to put away a toy or you turn down their treat request. This may lead to thrashing, yelling and hitting.

What causes a tantrum?
Even though you might feel like there is nothing valid contributing to the meltdown, a big cause is the conflict they feel. They want independence, but still crave their parents’ attention. And since they haven’t developed the coping skills to deal with strong emotions or disappointments, coupled with the lack of verbal skills to explain how they feel, the result is lashing out. Some other causes of temper tantrums include:

  • Frustration
  • Wanting attention
  • Wanting something (like a treat or a toy)
  • Avoiding doing something (like leaving the park or cleaning up)
  • Hunger
  • Tiredness

What are the signs of a tantrum?
Tantrums are a normal part of your child’s development and happen most frequently between the ages of 1 and 4, averaging up to one a day. They typically decrease when your child starts school, and at this age, they are talking more, so they can express their needs verbally. Signs of a temper tantrum can include:

  • Whine, shout and cry
  • Kick, hit, pinch and bite
  • Flail arms and legs
  • Hold their breath
  • Tense their body, or go limp

Tantrums usually last between two and 15 minutes. Violent tantrums that last longer than 15 minutes may be a sign of a more serious problem. If your child has lengthy, violent outbursts, talk to your child’s pediatrician.

What can I do to help my child during a tantrum?

Here are a few strategies to try during a tantrum.

  • Find a distraction
  • Stay calm
  • Ignore the tantrum
  • Keep them in sight
  • Keep them safe

Don’t worry, you’re not a bad parent if your child throws a hissy fit. It’s not a reflection of poor parenting. Tantrums happen because of a child’s personality and current situation. They’re a normal part of child development. Hang in there! This phase will likely pass sooner than you think. However, if tantrums persist or get worse after age 4 or your child is hurting themselves, others or property, be sure to discuss this with your child’s pediatrician.