You are here

6 Things You Don’t Know About Tantrums


My daughter threw her first tantrum on my birthday. We were out at a restaurant, trying to celebrate, reluctant to exclude our eighteen-month-old by hiring a babysitter. Bad mistake: As soon as dinner arrived, she wanted out of her highchair. Then she started wailing, so my husband whisked her out of the restaurant. I ate a few bites of my dinner, alone, before I gave up and doggy-bagged the rest. Happy birthday? Yeah, right.

Since then, my daughter’s outbursts have grown longer, stronger, and more varied in pitch and pacing. They’ve made me wonder: Is this normal? And, dear god, how can I make them stop? I was soon relieved to find that tantrums aren’t just the bane of parenthood, but a subject of serious scientific study. At the University of Minnesota, highly sensitive microphones were sewn inside onesies to record meltdowns at close range. At the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, researchers gave toddlers toys, then took them away to see how they’d react (in general, not good). Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a 118-question quiz called the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior to gauge the difference between a normal hissy fit and a potential sign of mental problems. All of this has heralded in a wealth of research that can give parents a fresh perspective.

Consider these six surprising facts to help you cope during your child’s next meltdown so you don’t lose it, too.

1. Tantrums follow a predictable pattern

They may look like pure chaos, but tantrums are actually more like a symphony, with predictable peaks and denouements. Phase one involves yelling and screaming; phase two throwing objects or oneself on the floor. While the flailing of phase two may seem like an escalation, it’s actually a sign the tantrum’s past its apex and headed downhill, giving way to phase three: crying and whining. Parents should wait until phase three before intervening to comfort their child. Only what should you do to soldier through phase one and two?

2. Ignore it, and it will go away

The fastest way to end most tantrums is to not add fuel to the fire, which means you should ignore the outburst. Turn your back if you can, and don’t get angry or emotional—from your child’s perspective, negative attention is better than none. We know this is easier said than done, but the less you acknowledge a hissy fit, the faster it will fade. In cases where parents kept quiet, their kids’ screams subsided in less than a minute on average. 

3. Reasoning is futile

Ever notice how trying to talk to a ticked-off toddler just makes things worse? Here’s why: Kids in the midst of a meltdown are so mentally taxed, appeals to their sense of logic won’t sink in, and will only push their tirade to greater heights. So don’t bother explaining to Jimmy why he has to wear shoes outside. Don’t ask questions, either, which also overload their brain circuits as they scramble to formulate a response. Instead, give short, specific orders like “sit down,” “be quiet,” or “go to your room.” Avoid vague commands like “be good.” Only concrete commands will compute.

4. There’s more than one type of tantrum—and way to deal

There are actually three types of tantrums. “Attention tantrums” are a type where your child is playing quietly but erupts as soon as you’re on the phone. “Tangibles tantrums” erupt when your child desires something he can’t have, like a candy bar at the store. “Command avoidance tantrums” occur when your child resists changing what he’s doing, like taking a bath or going to bed. For the first two types of tantrums, ignoring them is best, since your attention is what they’re angling for. For “command avoidance” tantrums, you’ll need to take more forceful measures. Say, “I’m going to count to five. By five, you should be putting your toys away/dressing for bed.” Counting works well because no one can immediately jump into an activity they’re reluctant to do; this gives them time to adjust. If, by five, your child doesn’t comply, then put your hands on him and do it for him—toddlers hate being controlled in this manner and will try to avoid it in the future.

5. Tantrums are normal but not every day

Occasional conniptions are no cause for concern: In one study of more 1,500 three- to five-year-olds by Lauren Wakschlag at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, 84 percent had thrown a tantrum in the past month. But daily outbursts aren’t the norm, either, with less than one in ten children fitting in this category. If your child’s tantrums are more frequent, and occur out of the blue—verses at predictable intervals like when he’s tired or doesn’t want to get dressed—consider bringing it up with your doctor to rule out potential psychological issues like ADHD. In the past, pediatricians used the same behavioral yardstick for younger and older children, resulting in an overdiagnosis of behavioral problems. Wakschlag’s work hopes to fix that by observing patterns based on age. 

6. It’s OK to cave under certain circumstances

If you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place—i.e., you’re late getting somewhere and your child is clamoring for a lollipop—sometimes the best course for your sanity is to give in. But you should fold immediately—don’t deny their request, then give in later, since “this teaches your kid that if they’re sufficiently persistent they’ll get what they want. It’s training for a long-distance tantrum,” warns Michael Potegal at the University of Minnesota. “If you can’t win, don’t fight. It’s the age-old advice of pick your battles.”