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Exploring tantrums: when are they normal, and when should you seek help?

Young children, usually between the ages of two and five years old, often have temper tantrums. It’s their way of expressing dislike, dissatisfaction, frustration and anger.

A sandwich cut in squares instead of triangles. An item of clothing that is literally rubbing your tot the wrong way. These are the kind of triggers that can turn your little angel into an unreasonable, freaked-out mess.

Read about how to understand and deal with temper tantrums and cope with conflict and the strong-willed child.

Confused and scared

“Children this age think magically, not logically,” explains Gina Mireault, a professor of psychology at Johnson State College, in Vermont. “Events that are ordinary to us are confusing and scary to them. They don’t understand that the bath drain won’t swallow them or that their uncle can’t really snatch their nose.” And if you’re not sure if a simple bath may end in your demise,  you’re going to feel pretty confused and prone to anxiety – on a daily basis.

Normal or problematic?

As embarrassing and disturbing as these tantrums are, studies show that between 60% and 90% of two year olds throw tantrums. The frequency peaks between two-and-a-half and three years (cue the “terrible twos”), when many children have them daily. By age five, most children have stopped.

According to a recent study, less than 10% of preschoolers have daily temper tantrums. Most of these are linked to real, momentary frustrations the toddler experiences.

“It’s uncommon for children to throw a tantrum daily,” says Lauren Wakschlag, lead author of the study. Therefore, it’s important to make the distinction between normal and concerning behaviour so that parents can more accurately identify whether their child needs professional help or if they are simply “acting their age”.

“I think we intuitively know when we are dealing with normal outbursts or more problematic, aggressive behaviour,” says KZN-based counselling psychologist Dr Rob Pluke. “Normal outbursts are usually fairly easy to contain, and parent and child still feel connected through the process. These tantrums are also not that frequent. And, the child can probably save their meltdowns for home and with people he knows,” adds Pluke.

Finger on the trigger

Every child is born with his own unique way of approaching the world. This includes a distinct temperament, as individual as a set of fingerprints. “Some children are born with intense and reactive temperaments that leave them more likely to have explosive outbursts in the face of frustration.

“Dr Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, says that difficulties with self-regulation underpin many childhood problems. And, infants and young children who battle to self-regulate are at risk of later problems,” says Pluke.

Children who struggle to self-regulate, as Siegel observed, may be diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).

Features of ODD
  • Angry or irritable mood
  • Frequently argumentative and defiant
  • Vindictive towards others

What to do if your child’s behaviour is concerning

Anger management

Dr Pluke has some sound, constructive advice for parents:

  • Consider consulting a child expert who is well versed in managing children with behavioural difficulties.
  • Make sure you and your partner are on the same page when it comes to dealing with your child. .
  • It’s important for a child to understand that there are consequences to the way we act.
  • Very few children with self-regulation difficulties learn through punishment. Approach your child’s meltdowns as opportunities for him to learn new skills rather than just bad behaviour you need to correct through discipline.
  • Clinical psychologist Dr Ross Greene points out that children generally behave well, if they can. A child that lurches from meltdown to meltdown is not a happy child. Greene argues that children with chronic meltdowns and conflicts have “lagging cognitive skills”. These are normally in the areas of flexibility, adaptability, frustration, tolerance and problem-solving. Parents should step back, look at predictable problem areas and begin to teach their children how to stop, think through and problem-solve when they hit frustration.
  • Help your child to think about his feelings and behaviour by talking with you. But, don’t bother when your child is in the “red zone”. Reflective conversations (where parent and child look back at an incident) can be saved for later in the day, or even some days later. This conversation can be used to problem-solve, where parent and child together work out better ways of acting or compromising in the event the situation arises again.


Teach your child that focusing on other things, even getting up and moving around, help when we are upset; even going to the bottom of the garden and back, will relieve some of the aggression and bring a measure of calm. Read more about attention-seeking children.

Samantha Page