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Should Parents Be Troubled By Tantrums?

Chances are, if you have (or had) a toddler, you've experienced something known as (drum roll, please): The Tantrum.

For many parents, it's their worst nightmare. You know the scene -- You're enjoying a nice lunch or day at the mall, and suddenly, little Johnny or Jane starts wailing about something and just won't quit, no matter what you try.

So, are these episodes normal?


Perfectly, according to San Diego psychologist Christy Wise.

"We see it as such a negative thing, but truthfully it's a healthy part of development," Wise said. "Usually it happens around 2 years old because language skills are developing, but children are understanding more than they can express. So they're frustrated."

Parents get frustrated too, which just exacerbates the situation.

"Because it's very emotionally based, parents usually respond in an emotional way," Wise said. "Instead of seeing that it's healthy and this is a good opportunity to teach a child how to cope with a situation, parents tend to react emotionally.

"Parents just try and use way too many words, or they bribe or negotiate," Wise added. "So if they're bribing or negotiating, the child has figured out there is no boundary and no structure, and knows he or she can manipulate. So the problem will get worse."


The best way to deal with tantrums is to be consistent and set boundaries at a very young age. Wise suggests being "loving but firm" and also following through with consequences.

First, see if your child is tired or hungry. Often, one or both of these can trigger tantrums. Then, make sure to validate little Johnny's experience -- saying things like, "I know you're tired" or "I know you're frustrated" -- and compliment him on something he's done right, like getting through the first half of a trip to the grocery store.

If he continues to act up, give him a choice, Wise said. For example, say something like: "You can either take a deep breath and enjoy the rest of the afternoon, or you can have a time out when we get home." Let your child know his consequence is a direct result of his choice.

"It's an age where kids are trying to gain independence," Wise said. "So give them choices. Do you want juice or milk? Do you want to brush your teeth after dinner or before the movie? Let them have some control over their environment."

Also, make sure your significant other is on the same page as you when it comes to structure.

"It's interesting, because many couples -- especially those who are highly intelligent or educated -- tend to discuss their views, but when it comes to implementing them, they don't handle it in the same way," Wise said. "So their child gets mixed messages."

If tantrums are very consistent, or are starting to bring anxiety to a couple, it could be a sign of a bigger problem.

Dr. Robert Gray, a pediatric neuropsychologist with Advanced Neurobehavioral Health of Southern California, helps parents understand what is "normal" when it comes to tantrums.

"It's very important for people to define what a tantrum is," Gray said. "It means something different across families. For example, kids who are involved in crying, whining or foot stamping, between 1-5 minutes, once a day -- If I hear a parent telling me that, I'm not overly concerned. That's within the range of developmental expectation."

Signs of a "normal" tantrum include an anger phase, then a move toward sadness, or seeking comfort; a recovery period that isn't too long; and sometimes context -- whether the child is tired or hungry.

"But you should talk to your health care provider if you notice things like excessive crying, shouting, aggression or self-destructive behavior," Gray said. "We see certain types of a tantrum, where a kid actually tries to injure himself, and that could make for mood disorders down the road."

Frequency and duration could also be indications of problems.

"If you're talking about 10-20 tantrum across a 30-day period, or more than five tantrums a day for multiple days, that could be an indication of a serious risk," Gray said. But he warns to keep an eye on the context. If a child throws multiple tantrums on a very long road trip, where he or she is getting little sleep, that's probably normal.

Troublesome behaviors could indicate a more serious health risk, like neurological issues or developmental disorders.

Gray encourages parents to bring up any abnormal behavior with their health care provider. It helps to chart the tantrums and describe them in detail, as well as to video tape them if possible.

"There are answers out there." Gray said. "There can be help."

The child care industry has long been in crisis, and COVID-19 only made things worse. Now affordable, quality care is even more challenging to find, and staff are not paid enough to stay in the field. This series spotlights people each struggling with their own childcare issues, and the providers struggling to get by.