Temper tantrums are brief episodes of extreme, unpleasant, and sometimes aggressive behaviors in response to frustration or anger. The literature in older children refers to these events as "rages." The tantrum behaviors are usually disproportionate to the situation. In toddlers, behaviors may include crying, screaming, shouting, falling to the floor, flailing extremities, going limp, hitting, kicking, throwing items, breath-holding, pushing, pulling, or biting. Tantrums occur once a day on average with a median duration of three minutes in 18- to 60-month-old children. The most common tantrum duration is 0.5 to 1 minute, and the child typically returns to their general mood and behavior between tantrums. The severity, frequency, and length of the events naturally decrease as the child gets older. Although the majority of temper tantrums in toddlers are typical and part of normal toddler behavior, atypical tantrums can be a presenting feature of behavioral and psychiatric disorders.
Common causes of sudden onset tantrums in toddlers are physiological triggers such as fatigue, hunger, or illness. Frustration is another common cause. Toddlers are conflicted due to a simultaneous desire for parental attention and a strong will to be independent. They have not developed mature coping skills to manage strong emotions. They also may learn that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want or avoid what they do not want in the short term. Also, toddlers learn through exploring their environment and may become frustrated when others prevent them from doing this, such as when an adult intercedes for safety reasons. As the child learns skills to identify their feelings, name emotions, communicate these feelings to others, and implement positive behaviors to manage negative feelings or emotions, the frequency of tantrums decreases.
Tantrums most commonly occur between the ages of two and three but may occur as young as 12 months. Researchers have found that tantrums occur in 87% of 18 to 24-month-olds, 91% of 30 to 36-month-olds, and 59% of 42 to 48-month-olds. It is common for toddlers to have a tantrum at least once per day, as is the case for 20% of two-year-olds, 18% of three-year-olds, and 10% of four-year-olds. Five to seven percent of one-to three-year-olds have tantrums lasting at least fifteen minutes three or more times per week. Children with language deficits or autism may have more frequent and aggressive tantrum behaviors because of the additional frustration associated with difficulty expressing themselves. Breath-holding events may occur during tantrums and affect 0.1 to 4.6% of otherwise healthy children. Breath-holding spells typically occur between six months and five years of age, with onset between 6 and 18 months, and disappear by five years of age. There are no documented differences in the prevalence of temper tantrums by gender or race/ethnicity.
A thorough history and physical will help distinguish developmental, psychological, or physiological explanations for the tantrum(s) and determine whether the outbursts are atypical, warranting referral to a specialist. The provider should take a thorough history of the tantrums, beginning with an open-ended question such as, “tell me all about the tantrums.” A complete history may provide insight into family dynamics, allowing the provider to address parental behaviors that may be adjusted to manage the child’s behavior. The provider may also recommend that caregivers keep a record of the tantrums, which may help to elucidate patterns. The following is a list of questions the provider can ask for understanding the events before, during, and after the tantrum.
It is atypical for children older than five years to have a repeated pattern of tantrums. It is also unusual for a tantrum to last more than 15 minutes, or occur regularly more than five times per day. Extreme aggression is not typical of routine toddler tantrums. Consider a referral if the child or others are physically injured or the child destroys property during the outburst. If the child also has a sleep disorder, enuresis, or negative mood behaviors between tantrums, the child may benefit from a further medical, psychological, or developmental evaluation.
In addition to the history of present illness for tantrums, a thorough health history, including a developmental assessment, review of systems, and family history of behavioral and developmental disorders, should be obtained. Social history should include screening for social determinants of health and the identification of any trauma. Providers should discuss tantrums in the context of a health supervision exam, which is most pertinent at the ages of 12, 15, and 18 months and at two years when tantrums are frequent.
Physical examination of the toddler with tantrums is often normal. If the child has breath-holding spells during the tantrum, look for signs of anemia, such as mucosal pallor or tachycardia. Treatment of anemia with iron supplementation has been shown to reduce the frequency of breath-holding events.
No laboratory tests are needed to diagnose and manage typical temper tantrums. The physical examination is often normal.
Because visual or hearing deficits can cause frustration leading to tantrums, perform vision and hearing screening if warranted. The United States Preventative Services Task Force states there is insufficient evidence to use instrument-based screening devices in children less than three years old.
Lead neurotoxicity in children is associated with aggressive behavior. Perform lead screening at 12 months of age for children living in areas with high-risk for lead exposure. If there are signs and symptoms of anemia or if temper tantrums are associated with breath-holding, obtain a complete blood count to assess for anemia.
Standardized rating scales of childhood behavior for the evaluation of temper tantrums are usually not necessary in the community pediatrician’s office. There are rating scales available for purchase by pediatricians, researchers, and other child specialists for use in research and clinical evaluations of preschoolers. The Child Behavior Checklist and the Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment are examples of instruments used with parents of children ages two to five years old. The Preschool Feelings Checklist is a validated screening tool in the primary care setting for preschoolers in need of mental health evaluation and services.
The child’s primary care provider can provide reassurance that tantrums are part of healthy child development, make recommendations for how to manage tantrums, refer when appropriate, or rarely, prescribe medication for associated extreme behaviors such as breath-holding or aggression. Prevention is the best way to handle frequent and recurrent temper tantrums, therefore attempting to mitigate common triggers of temper tantrums such as fatigue, hunger, illness, or injury can be helpful.
There are times when caregivers cannot avoid a tantrum but can minimize their stress by practicing consistent management strategies. The acronym R.I.D.D. can help parents and caregivers handle a typical tantrum.
Time out may lose effectiveness if used too frequently. Children need frequent positive praise and encouragement. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a 1-minute "time-out" for every year of the child's age. Do not recommend physical punishment as it may cause tantrum behavior to increase in severity or duration. Physical punishment also teaches the child that hitting is permitted when angry or frustrated.
Belden et al. identified temper tantrum styles that were associated with a higher risk of having a psychiatric condition. These children display aggression consistently, are intentionally self-injurious, unable to calm themselves, or engage in tantrum activity for periods to time greater than 25 minutes. Children with these temper tantrum styles may benefit from a referral to a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, or child psychiatrist.
It is helpful for the clinician taking care of young children to be knowledgeable of the parent training programs and resources in their community. Several parent training programs are available for parents to gain skills in managing challenging behavior. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (P.C.I.T.) is an evidence-based intervention to decrease behavioral problems in children ages two through seven. Parents receive one-on-one and in-person coaching from a therapist behind a one-way mirror while they interact with their child in a set of tasks. Parents practice positive interaction skills and progress to disciplinary skills to improve the child’s behavior for 14 to 17 weekly sessions.
Iron therapy is effective in reducing the frequency and severity of breath-holding events in children with iron deficiency.
Extreme, atypical temper tantrums are present in many behavioral, developmental, and psychiatric conditions. Consider disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder, trauma-related disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, learning disabilities, and vision or hearing deficits.
The prognosis for typical toddler tantrums is excellent. Providers should reassure parents that they are a part of healthy childhood development, and the child is expected to outgrow the tantrums by school age.
Tantrums do not cause cognitive or developmental abnormalities in the child. Breath-holding can accompany temper tantrums but is also benign. Frequent temper tantrums can be disruptive to families and in some cases, in classrooms, leading to the anxiety of the parent or caregiver. If the tantrums are disrupting the class, parents should meet with the school educators and determine a plan for managing behavior. Bites sustained during the tantrum are usually superficial. Provide wound care and clean human bites with soap and water. If a child breaks the skin, the wound should be evaluated by a medical professional. Generally, the wound should not be closed or sutured, given the high risk for secondary infection. Antibiotic prophylaxis is warranted if the bite breaks the skin. The preferred treatment is empiric coverage of human and skin bacteria with amoxicillin-clavulanate for three to five days with close follow-up.
Prevention is the best way to manage frequent and recurrent temper tantrums. Fatigue, hunger, illness, injury, and frustration are common triggers of tantrums. Use the acronym C.A.L.M. to remember the ways to prevent frequent tantrums and teach parents these skills:
While the pediatrician is almost always involved in the care of toddlers with temper tantrums, it is sometimes essential to consult with an interprofessional team of specialists that include may include a nurse, social worker, developmental and behavioral pediatrician, child psychologist, or child psychiatrist. If iron supplementation is part of the solution, a pharmacist should verify age-appropriate dosing, and report back to the prescribing clinician. To improve outcomes for atypical temper tantrums and aggression in the preschooler, prompt consultation with an interprofessional team is the recommended course. After referral, the primary care provider should schedule a follow-up with the patient as well as review notes from the encounter with the specialist. The problem list and medication list should be reconciled in the medical record with each contact to support interprofessional team communication with the most up-to-date and accurate health information. The key is to educate the parent that temper tantrums are benign. It is helpful for the clinician taking care of young children to be knowledgeable of the parent training programs and resources in their community. Several parent training programs are available for parents to gain skills in managing challenging behavior. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (P.C.I.T.) is an evidence-based intervention to decrease behavioral problems in children ages two through seven. Child developmental experts recommend that prevention of temper tantrums is one way to avoid them; therefore attempting to mitigate common triggers of temper tantrums such as fatigue, hunger, illness, or injury can be helpful.
The long-term outlook for temper tantrums is usually excellent, and collaboration among members of the interprofessional healthcare team as outlined above, optimizes outcomes. [Level V]
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