Children and temper tantrums

Although perfectly normal and very common, our children’s tantrums make us feel baffled and helpless. How can we react to a demonstration of anger of this magnitude?

All parents face it one day!

Sunday afternoon, the supermarket is crowded and Mary, 3 years old, wants candies. That’s the dilemma… If I give in, she will soon get used to ask for treats and if I refuse, I will surely have to deal with a tantrum. What should I do? Should I explain myself? If I do, she will take it as an opportunity to discuss and negotiate and may not understand anyway. Should I just say NO, plain and simple? But will it be enough to convince her? I’m not so sure… Finally, I gently refuse and there she goes: she cries, argues, clings to the candy shelf and screams when I raise my voice.

Although a majority of parents experience, one day or another, the embarrassment and the shame of seeing their own child screaming to the top of his lungs in a public place, when it happens to us, we feel like we are the only parent in the world who did not manage to teach the basics of anger management to our offspring and we think that everyone who is looking at us is judging us for being such a failure when most of them are probably thinking; ”Poor him! I remember when it was me…” 

Tantrums happen at all ages

First, it is important to clarify this: children’s tantrums (especially between 2 and 4 years old) are normal. You should not worry about it or see it as the manifestation of a major behavioural problem. Although not all children exteriorize their negative emotions with so much energy, you must expect a strong-willed and extroverted child to express fear, anxiety, disappointment, anger and sadness loudly with tears, screams and even violence.

Temper tantrums usually begin between 18 months old and 2 years old and finish before your child goes to school. It usually peaks around 3 years old with tantrums sometimes lasting for over an hour and accompanied by various manifestations such as screams, tears, uncontrollable movements, breaking or throwing objects. Some children will even induce vomiting, bang their head, pull their hair or hurt themselves. Even though very impressive, those tantrums are “normal” at this age and a lot of children will do it, to their parents’ dismay.

Crises of children over 6 years old are somewhat different. While toddlers throw tantrums because they have not learned how to manage their frustrations, school children can now control their actions. Even if their anger is uncontrollable, their reaction to it is chosen. If he had really lost his self-control, he wouldn’t be able to control his movements enough to turn a doorknob or to use his hand to hit someone or something. He would scream nonsense and could not choose words that hurt and the best insults to cause a reaction. So, for school children, a tantrum is not a lack of control, it is an attempt to take control. It usually aims at hurting the parent who is the source of frustration. The golden rule is to make sure that the child does not gain anything with this behaviour and that the tantrum is useless and only bothers the child.


Causes are many. However, in toddlers (2 to 4 years old) tantrums are usually caused by the fact that your child has not developed his language enough to express his frustrations verbally. Imagine if you were trying to express your anger in a language you do not speak very well…

In older children, tantrums can hide a lot of anxiety, an impulsivity problem or just a bad habit that your child has not yet overcome by lack of tools or support. Also, if your child gains something from tantrums (or if he did in the past…) he will be tempted to try again. It is the same principle as the lottery ticket: “If I have a chance, why not give it a go…"

A few tips
  • Clarify with your child, using examples and scenarios, what he CAN do when he is angry and what is forbidden. Also show him a few things that he can do to calm down when he is angry (breathe deeply, draw, cry silently, etc.) 
  • The first step is, of course, acknowledging his emotions. Make sure that your child can recognize anger in him and in others. To do so, tell him clearly what he is feeling when he is overwhelmed by negative emotions. “Oh! Sarah! I think you are angry right?” Also teach him to recognize emotions on the faces of his friends or on the characters of his favourite cartoons. 
  • Through simulations, demonstrations with dolls, Barbie or puppets and through concrete examples, teach your child to make the difference between the good and the bad ways to express his anger.

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