Temper Tantrums

A temper tantrum is an explosion. It is a burst of adrenaline manifesting in red faces, clenched fists, loud ranting and sometimes physical aggression. A person experiencing a temper tantrum is completely overwhelmed with emotion. He or she cannot be reasoned with because the frontal cortex (thinking center of the brain) is “offline.” Anger, panic and helpless rage control the show. Temper tantrums are unpleasant to witness, to say the least. Sometimes, depending on who is having them, they can be outright dangerous.

Who Has a Temper Tantrum?
We tend to think of tantrums as fits of anger thrown by exasperated toddlers. However, the reality is that people of every age can have temper tantrums. There are indeed 3 year-old temper tantrums, but there are also 9 month-old baby temper tantrums, temper tantrums in ages 12-24 months, preschool (4 and 5 year-old) temper tantrums, school-age child temper tantrums (that is, 6 year old temper tantrums right up to 11 year old temper tantrums), teenage temper tantrums and adult temper tantrums. In other words, tantrums occur across the entire spectrum of ages. They are not limited to any particular type of population but occur in regular folks as well as those with mental health problems or physical health problems. They tend to occur more frequently in some groups—for example, a link has been noted in ADD (attention deficit disorder) and temper tantrums and a similar link in Asperger syndrome temper tantrums. Adults with mood regulation disorders such as manic depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder also show a significant increase in temper tantrums. Some physical disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease are associated with a sudden appearance of temper tantrums in people who’ve never been prone to them.

Why Do They Happen?
Some temper tantrums simply come from the release of brain chemicals that is triggered by frustration or helplessness. For example, infant temper tantrums occur because the completely helpless newborn has needs that he cannot express in any other way. He is totally powerless over his environment, except for the one power tool he has in his kit: his ability to tantrum! Similarly, it is normal for 9 month-old babies to throw temper tantrums simply because they can’t do what they want to do, say what they would like to say or have what they want to have. Their helplessness triggers the adrenaline response and they’re off and running with a full blown tantrum. We find that 17 month-old babies have an even greater incidence of temper tantrums because of an increase in a mismatch between what they want to control and what they actually can control. They experience tremendous frustration as their knowledge of the world now increases but their competencies and power lag behind. However, as children increase in competency and power, the regularity of temper tantrums decrease. Thus while we see that it is common to have frequent severe temper tantrums in toddlers, such fits of rage become much less common in the school years.

When tantrums continue to occur in late childhood and beyond they require professional intervention. Something is seriously wrong. If the environment is still characterized by intense helplessness, perhaps the person is dealing with abuse. If helplessness is not the cause, sometimes poor modeling is the demon. Children sometimes live with parents who tantrum. They simply learn to tantrum as a communication tool. However, intervention is still required because those who communicate via temper tantrums will have serious relationship difficulties in life, including marriage and parenting problems and sometimes work problems as well. If the environment is not problematic at all, then physical or mental problems can be causing temper tantrums in this older group. Professional assessment and treatment can be helpful.

Handling Temper Tantrums
Everyone has to deal with temper tantrums at some point. Here are some tips for handling them:

  • When an infant throws a tantrum, try to determine what her needs are and address them. If you can’t find a specific cause of her frustration, assume some internal distress and simply try to soothe the baby with holding, caressing and gentle talk.
  • When a toddler tantrums, be patient. Wait for the adrenaline to run its course. Do not try to calm the child by asking questions, threatening or bribing. Just softly say something like, “I know you’re upset. When you finish crying you can tell me what you want and I’ll try to help” or “I know you’re mad/sad. I’m sorry you can’t have (the cookie or whatever). When you’re finished crying, we can have a story.” Do not talk to the child about the tantrum itself. Just wait it out, unless the child is actually violent during a tantrum. In that case, tell the child gently that he’ll have to finish his tantrum in his room and when he’s finished, he can come for his story/hug or whatever. A calm, unimpressed response to toddler tantrums helps children move through the tantrum stage much more quickly.
  • When a school-age child tantrums, wait for the adrenaline to run its course. When the child is calm, name her feelings. “I know you’re upset about (whatever).” Offer comfort. Then teach her that temper tantrums aren’t a good way to communicate. (Make sure that you are not modeling tantrums of your own!). Let her know that her tantrums upset you/the household. They have to stop. Discuss consequences if necessary. (See a full discussion of temper-stopping strategies in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe)
  • If an adult in your life is tantrumming, speak to your medical doctor for advice and consider arranging a consultation with a mental health professional for further guidance.

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