[Question] My four year old has started having temper tantrums again. He hasn’t had any since he was about two years old. Is this normal? When should I seek help? What should I do about them?
[Answer] Dear A.,
In two year olds, temper tantrums usually occur due to “system overload.” Frustration, extreme emotions, and the dawning understanding that all there “wants” will not fulfilled are major causes of temper tantrums. Coupled by the fact that they do not have the language to express their needs and wants means they will often have meltdowns. This is especially true when they are physically disregulated because of lack of sleep, hunger, or illness.
If the temper tantrums have just sprung up again after disappearing for a year or two, I would ask yourself some questions:
– Is my child behaving this way to get out of something? (Like throwing tantrums in the grocery store because he hates going shopping; before daycare because he wants to delay a separation; or because he doesn’t want to do something you have told him to do.)
– Is my child trying to get something I have already denied him. (For example, if you said “no” to a cookie or extra time playing before bedtime.
– When do these temper tantrums usually occur?
The answers to these questions will help you understand the reason your child is having a tantrum. If your child is successful in getting what he or she wants because of the tantrums, they will continue because your child’s strategy has worked.
What do I do when my child is having a tantrum?
If it is possible, ignore it. If your child is at risk of hurting himself or of breaking things with his flailing arms and legs, move him to a place where it is safe. If your child is throwing a tantrum in a public place, you can pick him up and move him to a less conspicuous spot or to the car. (Yes, you should just abandon your cart in the grocery store and go to the car. It will be likely to still be there when you return.) Then make sure you return to the activity your child may have wanted to avoid so that he gets the message that temper tantrums do not work.
What you will have to do to get the tantrums to stop is to consistently NOT give in to your child’s demands. If you give in just once, your child will keep doing it and the tantrums will be more prolonged because your child will be exploring whether THIS is the time you will give in.
If you can honestly say that you do not give in to your child’s wish to avoid an activity or demand, then it is important to question yourself about other possibilities.
Are there any new challenges my child is facing that may be more than he can handle? (For example, a move, starting a new daycare situation, marital strife that leads to arguments the child witnesses, other traumas or big changes for the family)
Does my child have sensitivities to sound, light, items touching his body, or sensory over-load.
Is there a family history of mental or emotional problems which may be inherited? Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and many other disorders that run in the family can predispose a child to these disorders.
Is this normal? When should I seek help?
The length of temper tantrum is important. If they are brief (5-10 minutes) I wouldn’t worry too much about them. If they last longer than 30 minutes on a regular basis, it is time to seek help. If the temper tantrums are frequent 1-2/ day for over 3 or 4 months, it is very important to seek an evaluation.
Where can I go for help?
You can certainly call us! We have a sliding scale and can and do help people in any socioeconomic range. You can also contact a licensed therapist who has experience working with children as young as yours. Contact us at info (at) bipr.org or call us at 303-442-4562
By Cynthia Divino, Ph.D.
* This information is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to serve as or substitute for psychotherapy.