Toddler temper tantrums are a common and normal part of emotional development for 18 months to 3 years old, according to a report published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
That probably doesn't offer much comfort to bewildered parents who are often embarrassed and taken aback by their child's unexpected outburst of frustration.
"Just because tantrums are typical doesn't mean they are easy," Carrie Brennan, an early childhood and family studies professor at the University of Washington, said. "These behaviors can be really hard to deal with and cause a lot of stress."
Researchers found that about 5-7 percent of toddlers can have temper tantrums lasting 15 minutes or more at least three times per week, making the outbursts "among the most common childhood behavior problems and frequently a reason for referral to a pediatric behavioral therapist."
But only in rare cases should therapy be needed to resolve the seemingly uncontrolled eruptions of emotion.
According to the report, "the best way to handle temper tantrums is to prevent them. If they do occur, however, there are several ways to manage their effects."
Instead of becoming frustrated along with their child, parents should try to communicate and show empathy, according to Brennan and Nadine Agosta, a child and adolescent development lecturer at San Francisco State University. When toddlers throw tantrums, it doesn't mean they are "brats" or something is wrong with them — they are simply engaging in behaviors that are developmentally appropriate.
"When parents become frustrated and react in ways that are strict and controlling — those types of behaviors result in noncompliance," Brennan said.
The transition into the toddler stage is a developmental milestone where they start expressing authoritative behaviors and noncompliance.
They develop a sense of autonomy and want to be independent and separate from their parents, which makes them prone to fighting back, according to Agosta.
"They can now use the word 'no' to assert their authority," she said. "That makes them feel confident in themselves and start building self-esteem."
Not only are toddlers gaining more control over themselves, they also become more aware of their desires in life, causing frustration in daily transitions where those desires are not always met, Brennan said.
Even though toddlers have the desire to get what they want, they lack the strategies to deal with disappointment and frustration in the same way adults do, Brennan explained.
Expecting a toddler to explain how they feel can result in frustration for parent and child as most youngsters have not yet learned to "connect their feelings with words," according to Agosta. The difficulty in expressing themselves stems from their development of more intricate levels of feelings from the simple content and discontent they felt in their baby phase.
When they can't express their feelings through words, they often use their bodies to express their emotions physically through hitting, kicking and screaming.
"They automatically go to communicating with their body rather than through thoughts," Agosta sad.
The researchers from the report also recommended teaching toddlers “feeling words" at a young age so they can learn to express themselves verbally instead of resorting to physical expression when they are unhappy.
Additionally, at this age of development, most toddlers have learned a cause and affect understanding, so they know they can get the reaction they want from caregivers by throwing tantrums, Agosta said. Also, toddlers learn from the examples set around them, so if an older sibling or friend is throwing a tantrum, there is a chance they will mimic that behavior.
Prevention and care
Since tantrums can be triggered by certain situations, it is important for parents to identify these triggers to lessen the occurrence and duration of the outburst.
According to the report, tantrums can be caused by hunger, illness or frustration.
Establishing a daily routine that includes specific meal and nap times is key to tantrum prevention. "This will help the child know what to expect every day and help parents avoid activities near nap time or mealtime because tantrums may occur or become worse when the child is tired or hungry," according to the report.
In creating preventative routines, parents should involve their toddlers in making some decisions about what the routine entails, which can reinforce their sense of autonomy. "Tell them they can put their pajamas on or you will help them put their pajamas on," Agosta said. "But the key is to act on those words. If you say it, you do it."
If parents are unable to prevent some disruptions in daily routine, it is important to carry snacks (fruit snacks or crackers) when away from home to prevent tantrums caused by hunger.
To prevent frustrating their little ones, parents should child-proof their home and have age-appropriate toys available to keep their children occupied. "For example, children may become frustrated when they continue to get into cupboards they should not get into and parents continue to say 'no,'" according to the report. "By installing cupboard locks, parents can prevent children from getting into things they should not thus reducing the child's frustration."
Based on the caliber of a toddler's emotional outbursts, Brennan suggested parents create a safe space where a toddler can throw a tantrum without hurting themselves or others.
If nothing seems to be working to prevent or lessen the tantrums and parent begin to be frustrated themselves, sometimes letting the outburst run its course can work as a last resort.
However, Elizabeth Daniels, an author of the report, a mom and nurse practitioner, said ignoring a toddler during a tantrum may be beneficial if it means he or she won't receive negative attention from caregivers.
"If a child has a tantrum they almost always get some type of attention from somebody, even if it's not positive," Agosta said, "and children crave attention."
Parents can teach their toddlers self-regulation skills to help alleviate tantrums and prepare them to thrive in a social setting like preschool, Brennan said.
She said self-regulation can be encouraged by playing games where children must wait their turn, which exposes them to situations where they don't get exactly what they want.
She also noted that parents can encourage their toddlers to desire positive attention instead of the negative attention that comes from tantrums by having encouraging reactions when a toddler does something well in a non-transition part of the day.
Jumping to conclusions
The intensity of a toddler's tantrums may be based on natural temperament.
"Some children have a natural temperament to fight off everything while others may be very accommodating and willing to go with the flow," Agosta said.
If a toddler has long or particularly violent tantrums, parents should not jump to conclusions that these tantrums are a sign of developmental issues until all other factors have been ruled out, Agosta said. A child may throw tantrums for various reasons, especially when they are adjusting to a new setting — which is why tantrums in preschool are very common.
According to Brennan, over 70 percent of parents report difficulty with children ages 2 to 3, but the majority of these kids will never go on to have developmental issues. Some children need more parental and outside involvement in their development than others to learn self-regulation strategies.
However, if a child is still throwing tantrums by the time they reach kindergarten and have not learned any regulation strategies, this could lead to antisocial behavior and low self-esteem, Agosta said.
According to the report, tantrums continuing or becoming more severe past 5 years old, when the child could harm themselves or others, may be a sign of underlying emotional problems that should be evaluated by a doctor.
Abnormal cases, while very uncommon, usually involve tantrums accompanied with another abnormal behavior such as sleep disorders, aggressive behavior and anxiety.
Daniels said parents should have their toddlers regularly evaluated by pediatricians on the nature of their tantrums. Pediatricians can make a diagnosis if there is an underlying problem and refer parents to a doctor who deals with behavior and psyche issues.