Nine in ten children will have occasional tantrums. ElenaDECAEN/Shutterstock
The first almighty toddler tantrum is a milestone in every child’s development that will never make the baby book. Epic meltdowns, especially those in public, can throw even the most confident parent off their game.
Between the ages of one and four, nearly 90% of children will have occasional tantrums. They involve children expressing their anger and frustration by screaming, crying, falling to the floor, flailing limbs, hitting, kicking, throwing items and, in some children, holding their breath.
The cause can often be nonsensical. Shutterstock/TumNuy
Tantrums often start when a child wants something they can’t have, wants to avoid something, wants attention or if the child is hungry, tired, unwell or just frustrated.
But the cause can often be nonsensical, as blogger Greg Pembroke parodied in his book Reasons my Kid is Crying (which include “I let him play on the grass”, “We told him the pig says ‘oink’,” and “The neighbour’s dog isn’t outside”).
Tantrum throwing peaks at age two, as children experience the perfect storm of not being able to express themselves verbally while simultaneously developing their sense of autonomy and independence.
While part of normal child development, tantrums are a common reason for parents to seek psychiatric help for their child. At the more serious end of tantrum behaviour, around 7% of children exhibit tantrums multiple times a day, lasting for 15 minutes or more. Half of these children usually have an underlying behavioural or developmental problem.
Tantrums that might be classed as “abnormal” tend to be those that continue past the preschool age, last longer than 15 minutes, involve the child injuring themselves or others, occur more than five times a day, or where mood is low between tantrums instead of returning to normal.
Other signs that tantrums are more severe are when they occur with non-parental adults or happen out of the blue, with no seeming provocation.
Unsurprisingly, the family of a child who is prone to frequent tantrums may also need support. One recent study found that half of all mothers of children presenting for help with tantrum behaviours had a mental health problem themselves, commonly depression and anxiety.
Other family factors that were associated with frequent or severe tantrums in children include maternal irritability, marital stress, low parental education level, when child care is exclusively provided by the mother, and when corporal punishment is used in the home.
All of this paints a picture of a family under considerable stress, whether it precedes or results from the child’s tantrums. Either way, frequent tantrums are likely to escalate stress in the home so it’s important the whole family system is given means to cope.