Temper Tantrums

Throwing temper tantrums often is a child's way of expressing anger or getting attention. Behavior displayed during tantrums includes crying, yelling, biting, hitting, and kicking. Young children frequently throw tantrums because they cannot verbally express their feelings. Young children with language delays are more prone to throwing tantrums because of their limited ability to communicate (Wagonseller & McDowell, 1979). Children with motor delays may have tantrums because they cannot perform tasks they would like to or observe other children doing (Goodman, 1992).

Tantrums may also be a response to frustrating situations including limits imposed by adults, lack of time to complete tasks, or in response to another child's actions, such as taking away a toy (Bagnato & Neisworth, 1991). Tantrums are not considered abnormal unless they occur frequently and last for a long time. It is important not to overreact to temper tantrums. When a tantrum appears likely, using redirection may prevent it or lessen the intensity (Crary, 1979). Methods used to reduce the likelihood of tantrums include avoiding saying the "no" words.

Removing objects that contribute to tantrums and placing them out of a child's sight and reach also helps reduce tantrums (Bressanutti, Mahoney, & Sachs, 1992). Allowing children to make choices and providing them with advanced warning for impending transitions is also helpful in preventing tantrums (Blechman, 1985). For example, a child who often has a tantrum when asked to help clean up could be told, "It will be time to put away the toys in five minutes. Let's set the timer. After we clean up, we'll have a snack."

Once a tantrum has begun, it is best to ignore it (extinction). During tantrums children may need to be moved to a safe spot that reduces their chances of being hurt. When children appear to be "out of control," it might be necessary to firmly hold them for a few minutes to help them regain control and prevent them from hurting themselves or someone else (Dreikurs & Cassel, 1972).

Adults should not yield to demands that lead to the tantrum. For example, if a child began to throw a tantrum because the child was not allowed to have another cookie, the child should not be given a cookie during the tantrum or after it stops. Giving the child a cookie might reinforce the child's behavior, leading to even more tantrums in the future. After the tantrum is over, children often need to be comforted because the "loss of control" frequently is frightening and embarrassing. Once the tantrum is over, adults should not focus on the tantrum (Blechman, 1985). An adult might say, "You were very upset. I am glad that you are feeling better," and then continue with the regular activities.

Frequent or very intense tantrums or tantrums that result in children intentionally hurting themselves or someone else are abnormal. In these situations, it is advisable to seek professional help. Pediatricians, social workers, and psychologists are appropriate individuals to contact (Thurman & Widerstrom, 1990).


Aggression refers to any behavior that results in injury or discomfort to another person and includes hitting, name-calling, yelling, and damage to property (Saarni & Crowley, 1990). Dealing with aggression at home or school is one of the most difficult challenges adults encounter. It is difficult not to feel anger toward children who hurt others. It is difficult not to worry that others may reject a child who behaves aggressively.

Acts that result in injury but are unintentional are generally not classified as aggressive behavior (Sherburne, Utley, McConnell, & Gannon, 1988). Children playing closely together frequently experience situations in which another child accidentally gets hurt. Unfortunately, most young children do not distinguish between intentional and unintentional acts. For example, a child who is accidentally hit by a ball thrown by another child might respond by hitting that child. Adults should help young children interpret these situations by saying something like, "Joey didn't mean to hit you with the ball. He was playing catch. Joey should be more careful." Adults should monitor children and create environments that help minimize unintentional injuries (Killen & Turiel, 1991).

Sometimes, children are intentionally aggressive (Sherburne, et al., 1988). For example, a child may push another child aside to be the next to go up a slide. In this case, the child acted aggressively based on the desire to use the slide without waiting. Adults should help children to develop alternative methods to meet their goals and impose logical consequences when they behave aggressively. For example, an adult might respond to the slide situation by saying, "You need to wait your turn to use the slide. Pushing can hurt someone. Because you did not wait your turn you may not use the slide."

Aggression is more likely to occur when children are frustrated. Frustration occurs for many reasons, such as when children are unable to obtain a desired goal, when they are involved in activities too difficult for them, are asked to wait, or are not allowed to participate in activities, when the play area is overcrowded, and when they are not adequately supervised (Strain, et al., 1992). Children who are frustrated react in different ways. Some children respond by acting aggressively, having temper tantrums, or crying, while others become very sad, withdrawn, or shy. A child who acts aggressively needs reassurance that, although an adult does not like that behavior, the adult still likes the child (Miller & Sperry, 1987).

When confronted with a frustrating situation, a child often finds helpful an adult's comments that address the child's feelings. For example, an adult might say, "I can tell you are feeling very sad because Shelly took your toy. Sometimes, when I feel sad or angry, I take a walk. Would you like to take a walk with me?" In this example, the adult helped the child understand the anger and frustration, as well as suggested the alternative activity of taking a walk rather than hitting or having a tantrum (redirection).

Sometimes children behave aggressively when there seems to be no logical reason for the aggression (Saarni, 1984). Aggression can occur immediately following an incident or may be deferred to a later time. For instance, Katie might hit Jenny during circle time because Jenny grabbed a car from Katie during free-play time. Children who are frequently aggressive need to be taught to "use their words" and say something like, "Don't take my car!" Adults need to allow children to say "no." This is a much better alternative than aggressive behavior. Saying "no" may seem bossy or even unreasonable to an adult but saying "no" is preferred to aggression. When adults hear a child telling another child "no," the adult should be supportive and say something like, "Claire. I know you really like this car. You have been playing with it for a long time. In five minutes you will let Beth have a turn. Let's set the timer together."

When aggressive acts occur, adults should avoid asking young children,"What happened?" or "Did you hurt Jill?" Children are not likely to admit they were at fault or that they hit another child (Saarni, 1985). When adults enter situations where children are upset, they need to resist the temptation to guess what happened or expect children to explain what occurred. Too often, children who have behaved aggressively in the past are automatically blamed for causing conflicts (Saarni & Crowley, 1990).

When adults do not see the aggressive incidents, they need to remind all children involved in the incident that they should not hurt each other. Children might also be told, "If you are not happy playing together, you will not be allowed to play together." It is an adult's responsibility to monitor children closely. If conflicts continue. the children should be separated or the environment needs to be changed, such as removing the object over which the children are arguing (Strayer, 1986).