Tantrum TriggersAt any age, a child will be more prone to outbursts when he's hungry, tired, or ill, says Meg Eastman, Ph.D., author of Taming the Dragon in Your Child. And if he's stressed -- whether because of normal developmental leaps like learning to walk or use the toilet; changes in environment or routine; or everyday emotions, such as fear or jealousy -- he's also more likely to pitch a fit.
Throw in the frustration that can occur over a variety of situations throughout his day, and you have all the necessary ingredients for an out-of-control reaction. Your baby may protest when you rescue him from an enticing but dangerous situation, such as an electrical outlet. A toddler might ignite over her desire to be independent, while preschoolers are often set off by their inability to do something, such as tie their shoes, or by occurrences that simply don't meet their expectations. Shlomo List, 4, of Baltimore, would fall apart when the ketchup wound up in the wrong place on his plate or when his mom cut his sandwich straight across instead of diagonally.
Sometimes, a child's need to cry gradually builds, and then the slightest disappointment sets her off. For Hannah, the slippery cheese on her pizza -- surely not the day's first letdown -- was just a pretext to release her tension.
Although lack of control is a given, occasionally you may wonder whether a tantrum is staged. "But even a child who's trying to manipulate you with a tantrum doesn't feel good about it," says Gery LeGagnoux, Ph.D., associate clinical professor of psychology at UCLA. "He simply feels he doesn't have another avenue to get what he wants or needs, or he doesn't know how to find one." Don't waste too much time trying to determine whether your child is purposefully pushing your buttons -- in either case, your response should be the same.