Child Tantrums

Why do children have tantrums?

Tantrums occur when children are frustrated or angry. They often occur when the child experiences:

  • Being told "No"
  • Changes in routine
  • Things do not go their way
  • Unable to manage tasks that are hard
  • Unable to use words to express their feelings
  • Overtired or hungry
  • And sometimes for no clear reason


As much as possible, keep a routine or schedule, If you have to change something let your child know in advance, use visual reminders as much as possible about changes. Make sure you spend some one to one playtime (see Special Time!Time In) When you tell a child no, do it as a matter of fact, and try to move on to another activity right away. (No, you can’t have that right now, lets do this instead). Redirection can go a long way to preventing an outbursts.

Keep an eye on the clock, make sure that meal time or nap time is not the cause of a tantrum, a child who is tired, hungry or thirsty is more likely to get upset over something small.

Giving Directions

Be clear and brief in giving directions. If a child is having a hard time doing a requested task, break it down into pieces for him/her. For example, if it is time to clean up and put toys away, tell him specifically what to do for a few items (e.g. Pick up the red car, and put it in the blue box, thank you). If the child complies with a few simple requests and you praise them, they are more likely to continue.

Once a child starts crying, becoming angry or throw themselves on the floor, selective attention and selective ignoring can help them calm down.

Selective Attention

Wait for your teachable moment, when in the middle of the outburst the child is quiet for a few seconds, you can then talk to them, tell them what a good job they are being calm. Don’t worry if they start crying again, wait again for a teachable moment.

Selective Ignoring

During the tantrum, ignore, turn your head, look the other way. Wait for a few seconds of quiet before you speak. If the child hangs on to you, gently put their hands off of you, and continue to ignore them.

When it is over

After your child is calm, let them know that they were angry or upset, label the feelings, suggest something else they can do in the future if they start to get upset again.

Remember: Prevention

  • Time In / Special Time
  • Schedules and Routines
  • Basic Needs of Food, Drink Sleep

If a tantrum occurs

  • Make sure the child is safe
  • Selectively ignore the child
  • When they calm for a few seconds, pay attention to them

Article by W. Douglas Tynan, PhD
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