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Disarming Tantrums: How to Manage Difficult Behaviors

Temper tantrums are a normal and common part of child development and raising children, and parents often struggle with how to manage them. All the parenting books and parenting classes discuss the “terrible twos” and how to handle toddler tantrums, but as children approach five and six, a kid throwing tantrums may trigger parent concern.

While parents become concerned that they reflect a deeper concern, for most kids they are a part of typical child development and there is no reason to jump to medication because new behaviors can be learned.

Tantrums, however, can be a sign of a problem that needs to be addressed when they occur with intensity, length, and frequency and occur outside of the developmental window in older children.

Why Do Kids Throw a Tantrum?

Temper tantrums are often an expression of frustration at the lack of control children have over their lives and are more common with strong-willed children. Tantrums can be triggered by hunger, exhaustion, discomfort, sensory needs, or wanting something they can’t have. It can be sign of a stressed child too. A child may tantrum when they didn’t get their usual snack at the grocery store because they didn't understand you were in a rush. As annoyed and you are about a screaming child and now being late, this is pretty typical.

As much as tantrums are a normal part of a child's development, sometimes an underlying clinical issue such as autism, ADHD, anxiety, OCD, and other issues are part of the problem.

Whatever the trigger, most mental health professionals agree that children who have frequent emotional outbursts are lacking certain skills that would help them better handle situations that cause them anger, frustration, or anxiety. Problems with impulse control, problem solving, delaying gratification, negotiating, communicating wishes and needs to adults, knowing what’s appropriate or expected in a given situation, and self-soothing are all skills that can be directly supported and learned once the brain is calm.

Some children have frequent tantrums and others infrequently.  It isn’t unusual for a child to have as many as one or two a week.

What Can I do to Prevent a Tantrum?

Being proactive is key to preventing a tantrum. Offering a child choices, is very helpful in empowering a child to problem solve on their own and promotes self-regulation.

Once anxiety increases, problem solving decreases. Teaching kids that they have options and have control over their lives will help today and in the future.

Following a schedule and letting your child know the schedule and the expectations provides your child the structure they crave.

Bringing balance into children’s lives with good nutrition, following a sleep schedule, and practicing stress management daily (e.g., regular downtime, sensory activities, music, coloring, exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and etc.) can go a long way in giving children the tools they need to manage stress in their life.

When all else fails and a tantrum happens, the best parenting tip is to try your best to be calm and understanding when handling a meltdown. Communicate and support your child throughout the process and realize they are learning to navigate their emotions and behavior.

How Long Should A Tantrum Last?

Most tantrums typically last a few minutes or less. Even a highly regulated child will have a tantrum here or there. Some children tantrum for less than a minute a few times a week and others tantrum to 5 to 10 minutes a couple of time a month but both are normal.

Frequent tantrums lasting more than 25 to 30 minutes are atypical and associated with later behavioral issues.

How to Stop a Temper Tantrum?

Identifying and proactively managing the triggers to a tantrum are the first steps to supporting child behavior and really is the best way to actually stop a tantrum from ever happening. Knowing your child, recognizing that they have certain behavioral and sensory triggers, you try to set up the environment or task in advance.

Identify the Cause of the Tantrum

Identifying the real reason behind your child’s behavior is critical in teaching them to communicate differently and self-regulate. Let them know in advance what the schedule is, what behavior you expect, and offer choices whenever you can. I often recommend the use of social stories, which  is a way to teach appropriate behaviors through the use of visual stories. So in the case of a child with transition difficulties, you would make a story that displays the problem and appropriate solutions and ways to communicate and review it daily until the tantrum has subsided. The app Pictello is a wonderful tool for creating personalized social stories.

Find Ways to Comfort Your Child

When you aren’t able to catch your child and they still have a tantrum, then you need a bag of tricks. Think about what works for your child: a hug, removing them from the situation, a weighted blanket, a parent leaving the room, turning on music, giving them a homeopathic, or whatever is your child’s unique way to decompress and self-regulate. If your child is prone to tantrums, then make sure that you always have access to your tool kit.

Process and Reinforce Alternatives

Not every kid is capable of communicating their distress. Parents can help try to process the emotions after the tantrum ends by talking about what happened and reinforcing alternatives. Instead of shaming and blaming, parents should try positive parenting skills by focusing on communication and behavioral tools. Typical kids learning how to manage emotions and behaviors need support, but children with neurological issues need even more patience and support.  Remember, learning a new behavior takes some time, so be consistent and try to remain calm.

Learn and Adapt

Addressing child behavior problems early is critical in helping children to self-regulate, which can have an immediate and life long positive impact on behavioral, social, and emotional regulation. Good parenting isn’t stopping the behaviors through draconic child discipline methods; it’s getting the parenting help that allows you to support your child to learn better skills. Teaching them ways to cope and self-manage their stress early in life, prevents later maladaptive habits that can be tough to break and interfere with cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social functioning.  Addressing issues also preserves or repairs self-esteem and reduces family stress.

Why Is My Child Having More Tantrums at Home Than at School?

School can increase anxiety, stress, and sensory issues in children. After holding it together all day at school, home becomes the safe place to let their frustrations out. Even kids with good self-regulation can get very overwhelmed by being at daycare or school.

Speaking with your child’s teacher can be helpful in figuring out if there are any concerns or issues at school. Parents should become concerned when their behaviors occur frequently, they display signs and symptoms of attention and impulse control problems, and they don't decrease with intervention and seek professional support when they feel overwhelmed or ineffective.

Why Does My Child Get Aggressive?

Aggression is often a reflection of a child’s difficulty dealing with their anxiety or frustration and an inability to verbalize their feelings as others do. Aggression in an of itself is a normal part of child development.

A defiant child who engages in  verbal aggression is a normal part of toddler development. Physical aggression can be normal for children up to the age of about six. Most children outgrow these behaviors when guided to communicate better. What child hasn’t hit their sibling or pushed at kid at the playground?

These kind of behaviors are a reflection of their inability to regulate or manage their own feelings at that moment. Like all less desirable behaviors, aggression is only is an issue when it occurs frequently. A pattern of aggressive behaviors reflects poor impulse control, as well as poor emotional and behavioral regulation.

This same pattern of aggression can also reflect a more significant mental health or behavioral issue. Addressing these behaviors early and getting parenting support can really turn behaviors around.

When Should I Worry When my Child’s Tantrum Isn’t Normal?

You should worry that your child’s tantrum isn’t normal when they occur with frequent high intensity, are lengthy (more than 25 minutes), or if your child is self-injurious.

Tantrums that frequently last a very long time is not only a possible sign of a deeper issue but reflect a lack of self-regulation.  Problems calming oneself after a tantrum is another red flag of a potential behavioral issue. Excessively long tantrums and problems recovering after reflect a lack of self-regulation.

It is not uncommon at all for children to try to kick their parents but if it happens the majority of the time, then it may signal a problem.

If these behaviors are present, a consultation with a psychologist is suggested.

How Can Seeking Professional Support Help My Child’s Tantrum?

At a minimum, kids who haven’t outgrown tantrums have lagging skills in emotional regulation that warrant support. When strategies that worked for your other kids or advice from solid parenting books haven’t helped, you need to seek professional help.

A psychologist offers parenting advice that helps identifying behavioral triggers and how to manage them. Addressing behaviors early is so critical in helping children to self-regulate, which can have an immediate and life long positive impact on behavioral, social, and emotional regulation. Teaching them ways to cope and self-manage their stress early in life, prevents later maladaptive habits that can be tough to break and interfere with cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social functioning.  Addressing issues also preserves or repairs self-esteem and reduces family stress.

The good news is that most children outgrow tantrums. When tantrums are difficult to manage, are intense, or lengthy, then seeking help may be necessary. In our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program, we work with families all over the world using a combination of neurofeedback and/or PEMF with counseling or parent coaching

Coaching and counseling can be a valuable short cut to give you the best parental guidance to support your child’s behavioral, social, and emotional needs. Addressing issues early without medication is key to preventing habits that can interfere with your child’s emotional well being. All parents want their kids to be healthy and happy, so teaching them how to manage stress and frustration is a vehicle for that.

What Can I do When my Child’s Tantrum is Uncontrollable?

Sometimes even when you have your parenting “A Game” on, your kids can still throw a tantrum. Comforting them or letting them safely cry it out is all you can do. Safety is your first priority and focus on calming strategies. Talking too much or yelling isn’t going to help. When a child is experiencing a tantrum or meltdown or is otherwise “ in the red”, they are unreachable and certainly not capable of reasoning of any kind.

To learn more about Meltdowns and Tantrums read Handling a Meltdown.

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. 

Are you looking for SOLUTIONS for your struggling child or teen? 

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

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