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  • Writer's pictureSam Gardner

Are my child's tantrums normal? The Ultimate Guide to Understanding and Managing Tantrums

Tantrums are an expected and healthy part of childhood, but that does not make them easy to live with! Parents often report that tantrums are one of the most stressful parts of taking care of young children. Seeing your child engage in behaviors that are new for them, or that seem potentially unsafe, can be extremely worrisome. It is normal to worry and ask yourself whether what you’re seeing is normal child development, or something more serious.

Here are some tips for managing your child's tantrums, and figuring out whether these tantrums are normal, or if they may need extra support.

White woman helping young white son while he screams

Is It Normal For Toddlers To Have Tantrums?

Absolutely! Tantrums are considered developmentally appropriate until around age 3. By age 4-5, tantrums should be rare, if not totally gone.

Toddler tantrums can include physical and verbal behaviors, or a combination. Verbal tantrums usually involve whining, crying, screaming, and even name-calling. They can be extremely loud! Physical tantrums may involve stomping feet, thrashing on the floor, kicking and hitting, scratching, or throwing objects. Many parents aren't used to seeing their children hold their breath, scream, or display aggression. This is all normal during tantrums, and the behaviors should go away after a few minutes.

Tantrums often seem to appear out of nowhere, with kids getting upset over small things that you think are no big deal. Even things that never bothered your child before could lead to a tantrum when they’re in the toddler stage!

A typical duration for a toddler tantrum is around 5-20 minutes. If your child occasionally has a tantrum that lasts longer, it is not an immediate cause for concern. And of course, it's super common to ask oneself, "Are my child's tantrums normal?"

Why is my toddler having tantrums?

First, it’s important to know what behavior you’re dealing with. Tantrums and meltdowns are words that are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same! They are caused by different things, and they require different approaches to improve.

Despite what you may have heard, neither temper tantrums nor meltdowns are signs of bad parenting! Tantrums are considered developmentally appropriate for toddlers because the areas of the brain needed for skills like impulse control, emotional regulation, and problem-solving are still growing and changing. The same way we don't expect toddlers to understand complex mathematical equations, we also don’t expect that they’ll know how to perfectly manage big feelings (yet!).

Here are some common reasons why toddlers have tantrums:

  1. Communication Your toddler can express big emotions faster, more easily, and more effectively with a tantrum than they can with their words. So, a tantrum may simply be a means of communication! Your young child might be trying to say “I’m sad,” “I want to spend time with you,” or “I really need something!”

  2. Unmet Basic Needs Tantrums also happen more often when kids are tired, hungry, or needing attention. Even adults are not at their best when basic needs like these aren’t met, and it is even harder for kids. When a child’s brain and body have one or more of these needs, behaviors tend to get more and more challenging. Remember, connection is a hugely important need for young kids, so you may notice that the busier you get, the more tantrums you see from your child!

  3. Major Life Change or Stress Stress and major life transitions like parental separation, moving, a new baby at home, or starting school can be accompanied by a spike in tantrum behavior.

  4. Lack of Routine Predictability and consistency are so comforting to toddlers that they are likely to seek it out if the adults in their lives don’t provide it for them. Young kids have very little control over their environments, and they can’t use watches or calendars to have a sense of their day like adults do. This can be pretty disregulating for kids. Tantrums are one way to bring the adults around them to a screeching halt. It is a reliable way for them to predict what will happen.

  5. Exploring Cause and Effect Kids are natural experimenters; they try things and see what happens. You may recall your younger baby dropping toys or banging things together to see how it felt and sounded. Toddlers try different behaviors and see what results they get. As hard as tantrums can be for parents, kids might learn that a tantrum eventually leads to a good outcome, which makes it worth doing again!

Now let's get into specific questions: Are my child's tantrums normal?

Why Aren’t Your Child’s Tantrums Going Away?

Unfortunately, the most likely reason your child is still having tantrums after weeks, months, or longer is that they work! At least, they work from your child’s perspective. If even one tantrum led to the toy they wanted, a special snack, or more one-on-one time with your, child’s takeaway is likely that tantrums are a convenient way to get what they want. Parents may not realize that what they do in response to tantrums could be unintentionally reinforcing them.

It could be that something in their day-to-day routine or environment could use some adjusting. For example, if you notice that your child has tantrums almost exclusively around bedtime, this may be a sign that they need an earlier bedtime and more sleep. If they scream when it’s time to put toys away, they may benefit from a visual schedule or timers to let them know how long they have to play.

They may still be working on the social-emotional (SEL) skills needed to move past tantrums. For most kids, these skills need to be modeled as well as explicitly taught. Tools like describing feelings with words, asking for help, and using calming strategies do not come quickly or easily to everyone, and that is okay! There are numerous ways that parents can support their children’s social-emotional learning. For example, parents can demonstrate the coping skills they use themselves when experiencing stress, name their own feelings and their kids’ feelings out loud, read age-appropriate books about managing big emotions, and create a calm-down area in the home.

In some cases, children do need extra support to help reduce their tantrums, and parents need guidance to learn how best to handle them. This may be because of a developmental need, unique behavior concern, or exposure to stress. Kids and parents can get help from a licensed therapist to learn practical calming techniques, work through life stressors, and express difficult emotions. Parents can also speak to their pediatrician about whether speech or occupational therapy could be beneficial.

How Bad Can Toddler Tantrums Get?

So, how bad can a really intense toddler tantrum get? It is possible for kids to hurt themselves, others, or become destructive during a tantrum. Tantrums can get particularly stressful for families when they involve kids holding their breath, banging their heads on surfaces, breaking items that are fragile and contain dangerous materials like glass, and hurting other family members to the point of leaving marks.

Holding their breath shouldn’t be immediately alarming, but it’s a cause for concern if they’re doing it to the point of fainting.

Should I Worry About Tantrums?

Most of the time, you do not need to worry about tantrums. It is not unusual for parents to describe tantrums as a major departure from what’s typical for their child. For example, a quiet, calm child that always played gently starting to throw toys during tantrums once they turned two. During early childhood, so much brain development is happening that they may have days, weeks, or even months where they seem to be more emotional than they were during previous stages. This is okay, and your child will most likely return to the temperament that you know to be their “regular” personality after they’re better able to express themselves.

It is completely normal for parents to find tantrums overwhelming, frustrating, and exhausting. It is also normal to worry about them! However, tantrums become concerning and warrant a call to your pediatrician when they include the following:

  1. Your child is 5 years or older

  2. Most or all of the tantrums last 30 minutes or more

  3. Your child, family members, or pets have sustained injuries due to the tantrums

  4. Your child is so destructive that your home and items are regularly, seriously damaged

  5. Your child holds their breath to the point of fainting

Should I Get Help for My Child’s Tantrums?

The most important thing to remember is that if you feel like you and your need help managing tantrums, that is enough! Even if your child’s tantrum behavior is “mild” or infrequent compared to others that you’ve heard of, you are the expert on your family’s needs. If you’re at your wit’s end, it’s time to reach out for support!

With that in mind, asking yourself the following questions may help you decide if it’s time to seek professional support:

  1. Are the tantrums so extreme that you consider them a danger to themselves or others?

  2. Have the tantrums been happening for months or even years without many breaks in between?

  3. Have the tantrums been happening more and more over time?

  4. Have tried everything you can think of, and the tantrums have stayed the same or gotten worse?

  5. Do you find yourself losing your patience to the point that you feel like you’re not yourself during tantrums?

  6. Has your family’s quality of life been impacted by the tantrums?

  7. Is your child regularly sent home from daycare or school due to tantrums?

  8. Are tantrums impacting your child’s friendships or family relationships?

If you answered yes to one or more of the 8 questions above, these are indications that the tantrums you are dealing with may be difficult to resolve without the support of a licensed professional.

Women carrying two screaming children

Other Frequently Asked Questions About Tantrums

Do babies have tantrums? How can I stop them?

Very young children do not have the cognitive skills to understand boundary setting, and do not have the verbal skills to talk about their feelings and needs. Babies can get extremely upset and cry a lot, but this is not a tantrum! They may need to eat, rest, or be comforted. If your baby has been crying without pause for three or more hours, contact your pediatrician to rule out concerns like illness or injury.

Are Temper Tantrums A Sign of Autism or ADHD? Something else?

The most likely explanation for the tantrums your child is having is that they are experiencing a normal part of development that can be really tough for them, and for you.

It is true that some neurological differences, like having ADHD, a sensory processing disorder, or being on the autism spectrum, make individuals more prone to intense outbursts. These may actually be meltdowns, rather than tantrums. Additionally, most professionals like pediatricians, neurologists, and psychologists wait to explore things like ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, and for good reason! They wait because we know that kids change so dramatically between birth and age five that a child’s behavior and skills at age two might not look at all like their behavior or skills at age 5.

When in doubt, consulting a licensed professional is the best way to address your concerns.

If you’re just looking for a better way to address and help your child grow out of their tantrums, check this link out for ways on how to prevent tantrums before they start, and

If you’re looking for an easy but helpful way to learn how to parent your child better, then try over here. It’s an app designed with the expertise and approval of expert licensed child therapists, and it only takes a few minutes to download and try out with your toddler!


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