A temper tantrum is over expression of anger, which is uncontrolled, in a very violent manner especially seen in children. Dealing with Temper tantrums causes a lot of distress in the parents or care givers. This article focuses on the causes of temper tantrums in children and shows the biological and medical links associated with temper tantrums.
Temper tantrums are emotional or anger outbursts. They are also called meltdowns and in some places fits. They occur most commonly one and a half to four year olds in eighty percent of the children (Medicine, 2011).
Children express temper tantrums through verbal or physical means, or both. Different children express them differently and so there are no specific symptoms. The symptoms also change even in individual children as they grow.
Most children express temper tantrums by crying excessively, rolling on the ground, running off to hide, swinging arms and legs, screaming, hitting, kicking, breath holding pouting and running around and refusing to respond to the parents. They are sudden and can not be predicted in most cases. They may last for about thirty seconds to three minutes.
They are seen equally betweens boys and girls. They disappear quickly after that and they are usually intense in the first few seconds. In severe cases, children may harm themselves or the people around by exaggeration of these symptoms and also biting and pinching. Temper tantrums are normal and healthy children can have even two a day. Some children experience them more frequently and others rarely (Medicine, 2011).
Children get temper tantrums because they have not yet developed emotionally in order to control their anger and also because they have not yet acquired skills to express their responses by other means. Temper tantrums are normal and should not be confused to medical conditions. For these reasons, causes of the tantrums are many and petty. For example, a child can develop a tantrum when he or she is unable to tie the shoe laces or can’t get her/his doll from the shelf (Levine, 2005).
Toddlers in the second year of life are prone to tantrums because at this age they get to know many things but are not able to express them or their reactions to them. Also at this age the children have not developed self-control. This is the age that the tantrums are most severe. They thus react by what they have by symptoms above. Tantrums are unintentional and they arise from hostile environmental factors on the child who has not a fully developed cognitive function (Levine, 2005).
Children as young as ten years are able to notice when the caregiver attempts to leave him or her. It peaks in the middle of the second year of life. The child throws a tantrum so that the care giver does not go and continue to protect him/her. The child responds to the feeling of insecurity and betrayal by the caregiver. Separation anxiety is less common in children with secure attachments (Levine, 2005).
Egocentric children only think about themselves and so all attention and everything should be given to him/her. These type of children suffer from tantrums when they notice things are going in a different way. The tantrums are an expression that they want to receive whatever that has been taken away from them, and that rightfully belongs to them (Levine, 2005).
Children at this age are starting to get noticed by learning to resist, struggle with the caregiver. This is because the child wants to be independent. They want to have control on what is going around even if it is obviously beyond their power. They get power struggles on this desire. This causes tantrums when the child realizes that he/she is not winning (Levine, 2005).
Lack of language skills
A child may get strong emotions that he/she wishes to express but since be cannot explain it verbally; he/she resorts into a temper tantrum (Levine, 2005).
Lack of patience
Children, especially the preschool ones, have not yet been able to learn impulse control. Failure to meet his/her desires leads to a tantrum. This particular case may be especially difficult because the child’s desire was unexpected and is usually not within the caregiver’s capacity to handle it (Levine, 2005).
Failure to succeed, even in adults, causes frustration. Children get frustrated when they can’t achieve like the elder children. The children may try to put more effort to learn the tricks and skills involved but they still fail. They don’t know yet that they are too young to accomplish these goals and they end up in frustration, leading to temper tantrums (Levine, 2005).
Need for Attention
Temper tantrums may be a method of attempting to get attention especially if the caregiver has been fulfilling all, or most of the other demands of the child. This is perceived as rudeness to the caregiver but it is not the case.
Means of getting what he/she wants
This cause presents itself in older children who still have temper tantrums. They are known as manipulation temper tantrums and they stem from learning by the child that they make their caregivers to respond better to his/her demands. These delayed temper tantrums have a high propensity to increase with age and may end up in rudeness as the child grows and starts to learn more. Instrumental tantrums subside earlier than intentional tantrums which usually subside by the age of eight (Levine, 2005).
Fear activates the sympathetic nervous system leading to the fight or fight phenomena in the child. This causes anger in the child as a means to cope with the offending intrusion. Unfortunately, he/she can only express this strong emotion by a temper tantrum.
At this age, the children have not learnt to differentiate fact from fantasy, leading to fear of their encounters which present to them as fictional, incomprehensible, impossible or irrational. They resort to tantrums on encounter of imaginary things like ugly witches, clowns, dragons, monsters etc. (Levine, 2005).
In general, children are more susceptible to stressors than adults. Environmental causes of tantrums can be summarized as a lot of confusion to the child, overstimulation, lack of choices, lack of guidelines to various tasks, excessive excitement, exhaustion, noise pollution, too much going around, frustration, confinement to an enclosed space, lack of attention and loneliness. Children respond to the stressors more if they are sick, hungry or tired because in this states their ability to cope with stressors is decreased (Stonehouse, n.d.).
In young children, the prefrontal cortex has not yet developed. This is the part of the brain that carries out the cognitive function. It is responsible for understanding consequences of their actions. It is also the section of impulse control. It is the one that regularizes various urges sent from other parts of the brain (Megan, 2005).
As highlighted above, temper tantrums vary in cause, severity, frequency and presentation. These criteria have been used to classify them into normal or problematic. Normal tantrums are seen when a child is seeking attention, is angry, is in need of something or is against an idea. They are well spaced, few per day and are not very intense. They usually recover in minutes and everything returns to normal like nothing had happened (Berkowitz, 2000).
If a child has frequent temper tantrums say more than five per day, or harms himself or others, or destroys valuables around him, or bites himself a lot, then it can be concluded that he has problematic temper tantrums. The causes also could be different in this scenario and more severe, those which the child is completely unable to intervene or cope with.
Examples include parental conflicts, poor parenting skills, disabling diseases or physical difficulties of the child hindering him from performing his chores e.g. a young girl having difficulty in class because she has unilateral hearing loss with the caregivers are not aware of, or a boy incapable of playing with others because he has club foot. Other examples include emotional problems like low self esteem and depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Berkowitz, 2000).
Since temper tantrums are basically a normal developmental phenomenon, children experiencing temper tantrums should not be punished. Parents and other caregivers should get professional counseling. They should be taught of simple preventive measures like “child proofing” of their homes to reduce shouting to their children. Children should be given more opportunities to make minor decisions enabling them to use the freedom to choose in a positive manner (Berkowitz, 2000).
Finding out the cause should always be done especially in problematic temper tantrums as this could be the only key to finding out the underlying condition which could be more serious.
Berkowitz, C. (2000). Pediatrics: a primary care approach. New York, NY: Elsevier Health Science.
Levine, J. (2005). The everything parent’s guide to tantrums: the only book you need to prevent outbursts, avoid public scenes, and help your child stay calm. New York, NY: Cengage.
Medicine. (2011). Temper Tantrums. eMediciene. Retrieved from
Megan, K. (2005). The Biology Behind teens’ temper tantrums. Settle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/health/2002163863_healthteenmoods30.html
Stonehouse, A. (n.d.). Temper Tantrums. RCH. Retrieved from