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What is a Temper Tantrum?

A toddler having a temper tantrum.
Parents may want to consult with a pediatrician when attempts to stem hissy fits don't seem to work.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2014
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A temper tantrum, sometimes called a hissy fit or a conniption fit, is a raw and unplanned extreme emotional response to frustration, emotionally overwhelming situations, anger, sadness, unexpected events, or opposition by another person. Such a fit is most commonly associated with young children, usually beginning when children are about two years old. Children can continue to have daily tantrums for a while, but usually, if they are met with the appropriate methods of controlling them, learn within a few years to master them.

This does not mean that older children can’t throw a temper tantrum, and even adults may occasionally have one. Most commonly though, about 80% of children from the age range of two to four are likely to have frequent fits of temper. This is often the result of the child not having enough language or experience of emotions to express himself more clearly. Some pediatricians and child development experts also suggest that children are vulnerable to tantrums when attempting to master new skills or reach a developmental milestone.

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Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the renowned physician, has suggested that when children are close to reaching a developmental milestone, like talking fluently or becoming more independent from parents, they tend to show regression in other areas of development. His explanation of hissy fits focuses on how the child’s behavior may regress negatively, as the child learns to assert himself and be more independent from parents. Even being slightly opposed by a parent can set off a tantrum because the child’s world is an egocentric one, and from this perspective, he should get what he wants at all times.

During a temper tantrum a child may scream, hit, fling himself on the floor, be aggressive toward parents or siblings, throw things, kick things, and generally doesn’t respond to reason. Though the average fit lasts a couple of minutes, some children show remarkable persistence in this area and can carry on a tantrum for a long time, much longer than this average. This is especially true if the child is older.

Most parenting experts suggest, that when at all possible, parents can diffuse a temper tantrum by ignoring it. Occasionally, the tantrum is so severe that a child may need to be gently held in order to keep the child from self-harm. When efforts to diffuse the situation are not helping the child have fewer fits of anger, parents may want to speak to the child’s pediatrician about their frequency and severity. This is especially the case when an older child suddenly begins to have tantrums, or when a child past the age of four shows no signs of slowing down his tantrums.

Though it can be hard not to feel angry or frustrated by a tantrum in a child, parents will generally do a child a disservice by responding with anger. Similarly, if a parent immediately capitulates to the child’s desires, he or she will reinforce that bad behavior results in the child getting what he wants.

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anon316435
Post 9

My wife has these volcano like explosions, although I am glad to say they have only rarely occurred over the last five years or so.

The only way I have learned to cope with them is to remain very calm and attempt to deviate her attention away from the subject of her anger. Also, one grows to sense a potential outburst and knows how to prevent it happening by calmly changing the conversation or steering her attention in another direction. However, is there any way to cure this behaviour?

shell4life
Post 8

It's too bad that it isn't legal to muzzle a child! I have wanted to do this on more than one occasion when I have seen a child throw a temper tantrum in a store.

Usually, the parents either talk sternly to them or try to pacify them by offering something else. Neither method seems to work, and the child's cries fill the store.

Nothing is quite as annoying as a temper tantrum, especially when you don't even have children. This type of behavior is one of the main things that has kept me from wanting to have kids.

JackWhack
Post 7

I had zero experience dealing with temper tantrums when I started babysitting a thirteen-year-old girl. I had no idea that she would be so rotten and difficult to deal with, and I had to find a solution.

Her mother had told me that she was not allowed to chat on the internet. Of course, she tried as soon as her mother left, and when I confronted her about it, she started screaming.

I took the laptop away from her, and she started hitting me. I knew that I shouldn't hit a child, so I picked up the glass of ice water that was on the table and threw it in her face. That shocked her into silence, and she started crying gently, which was so much better than being violent and screaming.

feasting
Post 6

@honeybees – I know what you mean. Some spoiled women throw conniption fits in public that rival toddler temper tantrums!

I knew this one woman who was a bit of a drama queen, as well as a spoiled brat. Her husband catered to her every wish, as her parents had when she was growing up.

A couple of times, I have seen her in restaurants pitching a fit because the waiter got her order wrong or the food didn't measure up to her standards. I felt really embarrassed for her poor husband, who said nothing and turned red in the face.

orangey03
Post 5

@andee – Have you tried picking him up, putting him in bed, and locking his door on your way out? If there is a way to lock it from the outside, then he will be trapped in there and eventually, he will tire out and fall asleep.

It may sound cruel, but since ignoring him and letting him have the fit in front of you isn't working, you might need to try making him have the fit alone. Generally, if no one is in the room to see and hear it, the temper tantrum loses its power and meaning.

andee
Post 4

Does anybody have any good tips on what to do about temper tantrums at bedtime? My two year old is just beginning to do this, and I am at my wits end trying to figure out the best way to handle this.

I know this is a stage that he is going through, but there also has to be a better way to deal with it. Ignoring it is not working, and he can be pretty stubborn about not going to bed.

honeybees
Post 3

Most people aren't surprised by temper tantrums in toddlers, but I have seen more than one adult throw a hissy fit because they don't get their own way.

I don't have much patience for this when I see a grown person throwing a tantrum like this. I can understand kids who are struggling with a way to express themselves, but I see no excuse for this in an adult.

Mykol
Post 2

@julies-- Yes, kids are very smart that way! I always tried to have an escape route, or know I could quickly remove myself and them from the situation.

I think all kids have a temper tantrum from time to time, but there was a difference in personalities when it came to my kids. My daughter was quiet and compliant, and very seldom threw a temper tantrum.

My son, on the other hand, was quite strong willed and controlling his temper tantrums was much more challenging.

Sometimes a temper tantrum can really try your patience if it goes on for a long time. Then it seems to become a battle of wills more than anything else.

julies
Post 1

I remember going through the "terrible twos" with each one of my kids. With my first child I didn't know quite what to expect and how to handle toddler temper tantrums. I realized I needed to get a handle on it pretty quickly though.

I could tell that many of them were out of frustration and they didn't usually last very long. If we were at home, most of the time they could be ignored, but if we were in public it was a different story.

It seems like kids know when it is easier for them to get by with something. I don't know why, but many of their temper tantrums were away from home, and it was more frustrating for me to deal with them.

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