Sarah Schmermund, MA

Sarah Schmermund is a child development and parenting expert and specializes in couples work and marriage counseling. She is committed to supporting couples and families with practical tools to improve relationships and reduce stress, misunderstandings, and conflict. Sarah provides Counseling and Marriage & Family Therapy via her private practice in Washington, D.C. For more great info on relationships, marriage, and family life, check out Sarah's blog, In Your Corner, at Readers "feel a little less crazy when [they] read her posts," and says that she is "one of the finest parenting authors we've come across."

Temper tantrums, along with Dora and The Wiggles, are a “special” part of being a parent to a toddler. Both researchers and parents note that temper tantrums are characterized by an emotional outburst of negative emotions that may often seem dramatic and excessive given the stimulus or situation.

This may include a lively combination of screaming, crying, thrashing, stomping, throwing, and hitting that erupts without much (or any) warning.

While the shared experiences of parents everywhere let us know that temper tantrums are a common, normal part of this developmental stage, many parents still wonder whether their children’s tantruming behavior is “normal.”

In some cases, this worry may be warranted; tantruming can be indicative of a more problematic or underlying issue. Some common developmental and emotional issues have been associated with different kinds of tantruming behavior, like ADHD, disruptive behavior problems, and oppositional defiance disorder. Early childhood is a critical time for identifying and working through a problem to prevent greater distress or difficulty later.

So as a parent, how do you know when it’s just a temper tantrum and when it’s something more?

While talking with a therapist specializing in child development or your pediatrician is the best way to better understand you toddler’s behavior, here are a few helpful guidelines that can help differentiate the everyday, garden variety temper tantrum from tantruming behavior that may warrant further attention. While any of these behaviors may occur in some children from time to time, if they are the rule instead of the exception, they become a red flag.

How often does it happen: While temper tantrums are relatively common (87% of parents report that their children had at least one temper tantrum in the last month), they are not particularly frequent, with less than 10% of young children having a daily tantrum. If temper tantrums in your household happen more than once a week, something else may be at play.

When does it happen: It is common for young children to tantrum with their parents when they are tired, frustrated, or during daily routines like bedtime, mealtime, or getting dressed. However, if the tantrums seem to come about sort of “out of the blue,” or if the child has temper tantrums with adults other than his parents, this can also be a flag for concern.

How long does it last: While they may seem to drag on forever, most temper tantrums don’t even hit the 5 minute mark. Regular tantrums that carry on for longer than that, lasting 5 – 10 minutes or longer warrant some attention.

What does it look like: Most tantrums usually taper off and the child is able to return to a positive mood relatively easily, either independently or with some adult support. Temper tantrums that do not seem to weaken in their intensity or persist to the point that the child becomes exhausted despite any offered adult support are more concerning. Additionally, while it’s common for a child to exhibit some mild, impulsive aggression (particularly with other children in social disputes), tantrums that include multiple incidents of mild aggression, more serious aggression (like biting, kicking, or hitting), aggression toward a parent/adult, or directed throwing of things are also of concern.

Even if your child’s temper tantrums seem fairly “run of the mill,” if they are stressful, worrisome, or problematic for you or your family, reach out to a parenting support provider. Just because they’re “typical” doesn’t mean they’re not terrible, and some fresh approaches can help make them more manageable.

Sarah Schmermund, MA is a child development and parenting expert providing marriage and family therapy via her private practice in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her posts on relationships, marriage, and parenting at In Your Corner.

What do you think?

One Response to “Temper Tantrums: When to Worry”

  1. Parents-Space Says:

    [...] frazzled. Repeating yourself for the umpteenth time, never getting to go to the restroom alone, or tantrums that seems to go on forever, every day, for the rest of your life (or so it seems), is apt to make your temperature rise. And [...]

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