How do you handle temper tantrums from kids?

I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had to cope with many temper tantrums–at least not from kids.

And that really is luck. Because even though I’m pretty good at heading off bad moods in children, you can say the same about many parents who have to cope with terrible tantrums.

Some kids are more prone to temper tantrums than others. They’re wired up differently. When researchers analyzed temper tantrums in thousands of twins, they found that about 40-50% of differences between individuals was attributable to heredity.

So what’s the best way to deal with a temper tantrum in progress? If you’re a long-term tantrum veteran, you probably know. But you might find it interesting to compare notes with some researchers who analyzed real tantrums “in the wild” by fitting toddlers with wireless microphones.

The story is here on, and includes some video of a toddler meltdown with commentary from one of the researchers. But what really interested me were two points that emerged from the analysis:

(1) The old idea that tantrums begin in anger and end in sorrow is off the mark. In fact, for most kids in this study, there is both anger AND sadness right from the beginning. The researchers could hear it on the tapes. But as the tantrum progresses, the anger subsides, and then you’re left with a sobbing or whimpering child.

(2) The best time to intervene is after the angry component of the tantrum is over.

As explained by reporter Shankar Vedantam, who interviewed researchers Michael Potegal and James A. Green, the key to ending a tantrum as soon as possible is to get the child “past the peaks of anger.”

Once the kids in the study were merely sad, they were approachable and ready to be consoled.

But for the angry kids, any talk or attention from the parent–even a simple question–had the effect of prolonging the angry phase of the tantrum.

So, say the researchers, the quickest way to get past the anger is to do nothing at all. And yes, the researchers acknowledge that this isn’t always easy advice to follow.

Especially if you’re worried about destruction and injury. Which makes me think about modern-day hunter-gatherers, the people whose life-ways most closely resemble those of our ancestors.

As many anthropologists have noted, hunter-gatherers are remarkably tolerant and laissez-faire about little kids on the warpath. When little kids throw tantrums, adults tend to ignore it. Hunter-gatherer parents react in just the way that researchers recommend.

But hunter-gatherer parents don’t have to worry that their 2-year-olds are going to shatter the sliding glass door.

And if you aren’t outside sharpening your stone ax or repairing the family wigwam, what are you supposed to do with yourself while you are pretending you don’t notice the racket?

Maybe what parents really need is a padded room. Or a big patch of grass where the beast can roam free.

And one more important point: If you do have a preschooler whose tantrums include violence at least 50% of the time–or self-injurious behavior to any degree–researchers Andy Belden and colleagues recommend you get your child evaluated for psychological problems.

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5 thoughts on “How do you handle temper tantrums from kids?”

  1. @ pris: I’ve seen that before myself — the kid who snaps out of it when she finally gets a big reaction from the adult. And everybody turned out all right.

    There are always individual differences, so who knows? But I also wonder if the key is that these sorts of kids really aren’t so angry but mostly hysterical with other emotions?

    And by the way, @everybody, in researching this post I read a study that asked American parents to recall the duration of the last tantrum. The responses might have been skewed by our tendency to remember nasty things as lasting longer than they really do. But anyway…the average duration was about 12 minutes…and many folks reported even longer bouts…like 20 minutes or more.

  2. I’m pretty lucky (so far), too. My 2.5-year-old son is *extremely* busy, but he’s pretty laid-back and his tantrums don’t generally last longer than a couple of minutes.

    From what I’ve personally seen of other parents dealing with more extreme tantrums – and from working with adolescents who occasionally exhibit the same behaviors as toddlers – I think the researchers’ recommendations are spot on. Most kids don’t get dangerously violent during the anger phase, which means it’s fine to ignore them until they’re calmer and more reasonable, and kids who are violent during that phase just need to be in a place where they can’t harm themselves or others. And of course, discussion and consequences likely need to follow for handling their emotions in an inappropriate manner. 😉

  3. We do do time outs and have since she’s 18 months. But I’m talking TANTRUMs from out of no where. T/Os are for when she does something wrong or bad, but her tantrums can come from me walking to the left instead of to the right and I can’t rewind life.

  4. 3 words…The naughty corner. I used to be a nanny for 12 years, and now I am a new mom. I learned it from the Supper Nanny on ABC. I swear it works. The child goes in the naughty corner for the number of minutes of the child’s age. At first children will fight it, but if you can stick with it, its very helpful with controlling tantrums.

  5. I don’t know. When I ignore my child’s tantrums, it seems to send her over the top. She just escalates and it’ll last up to 30 min. I am just hoping the kicking and screaming on the floor will end VERY SOON.
    Unfortunately, what’s worked best for her (me yelling and keeping her in her room)leaves me feeling HORRIBLE. But that seems to be the only thing to shake her out of her reverie , or scare her out of it. Then I comfort her and she apologizes and I apologize and we’re fine but I’m left feeling like the worse mother in the world.

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