Biting, screaming, flailing, thrashing or a meltdown in the toy aisle are just a few of the noisy, but seemingly normal, ways in which young children, usually between the ages of two and five years old, express their dislike, dissatisfaction, frustration and anger.

A sandwich cut in squares instead of triangles, the compulsive need to dress for the beach in the heart of winter or an item of clothing that is literally rubbing your tot the wrong way, are the kind of triggers that can turn your little angel into an unreasonable, freaked-out mess.

“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 whether or not a simple bath will end in your demise, needless to say, 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 and most of these are linked to real, momentary frustrations the toddler experiences. “It’s very uncommon for children to throw a tantrum daily,” says Lauren Wakschlag, lead author of the study, published in the online edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Therefore, it’s important to make the distinction between what’s 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 would probably be able to save his meltdowns for home and with people he knows,” adds Pluke.

Finger on the triggerEvery child is born with his own unique way of approaching the world and it follows that this includes a distinct temperament, as individual as a set of fingerprints. “Some children – called ‘sensitive intense’ by child psychologist and author Ron Taffel – are born with intense and reactive temperaments that leave them more likely to have explosive outbursts in the face of frustration. On a more concerning level, 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 has the following features:
  • The child has an angry or irritable mood
  • The child is frequently argumentative and defiant
  • The child is vindictive towards others

So, what can you do if your child’s behaviour is concerning?

A Child magazine reader recently wrote to the letters page seeking advice after her four-year-old daughter stabbed her doll 20 to 30 times with a knife she had hidden in her bed. Livescience.com reports that this and other aggressive, destructive behaviour could indicate a predisposition to depression or other mental health issues.

Anger management

Dr Rob 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, whether with regards to discipline or consulting a professional for help.
  • It’s important for a child to understand that there are consequences to the way we act. Treating yourself or others with respect will always be vital to healthy relationships.
  • 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 is lurching from meltdown to meltdown, at odds with his parents and without friends, is not a happy child. Greene argues that children with chronic meltdowns and conflicts have “lagging cognitive skills”, normally in the area of flexibility, adaptability, frustration, tolerance and problem-solving. Instead of harsh discipline, parents should step back and look at predictable problem areas for their children so that they can begin to teach them 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”. In this space, your child’s skill would be to calm down so that he can start to think. 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.

Samantha Page