Regular temper tantrums could be a sign that your child is having difficulty controlling their emotions. Here’s what could help.
When your child has a temper tantrum — whether at home or in public — it can be startling and disorienting to witness the amount of anger or rage coming from one tiny human. And when those tantrums start happening repeatedly, it can be concerning.
You wouldn’t be alone in wondering what’s causing those outbursts, whether you’re reacting to them correctly, or if there is something else you could do to help your child.
Anger management techniques, when age-appropriate — which focus on emotional regulation — may help.
Your child could be angry or act aggressively for many reasons.
“Children are human beings having a human experience, just like adults,” explains Brandi Garza, a counselor from Dallas who regularly works with children. Unlike adults, children don’t have decades of experience handling their emotions.
When they get angry, it’s easy for that emotion to take over and turn into a tantrum.
“The frontal lobe of their brain is truly half the size of a fully matured adult’s,” explains Garza. “This means that their impulsivity, decision-making, ability to rationalize and make logical, informed decisions is almost impossible.”
All feelings, not just anger, are strong in childhood.
“The strong feelings are caused by a child needing to act out his or her emotions in order to feel better,” explains Gayle Weill, a social worker with Alma who practices in Connecticut and New York.
While anger, in and of itself, isn’t a “bad” emotion, it may be a sign that something else is going on, especially if you’re noticing your child becoming more angry or aggressive than usual.
Here are some things that could be causing angry outbursts that may warrant intervention:
Research suggests bullying can have a wide range of impacts on children, including making kids more likely to develop:
Behavior modeled at home
If a child sees adults arguing and fighting, they may copy that behavior — especially if they are exposed to anger and fighting as they’re learning to talk.
Babies tend to feel stressed after witnessing an argument, which leads to increased crankiness or problems with sleep.
Once they become toddlers and start developing language skills, they can start mimicking the language, communication styles, and tone of voice of the adults in their lives. They may also have trouble calmly expressing their feelings.
A 2015 study posits that this happens because family discord can alter how kids’ brains process emotions.
Abuse and trauma
Several studies have also shown that emotional and physical abuse can lead children to develop psychological symptoms, including a tendency toward anger and aggressive behavior.
Traumatic experiences may have similar impacts, too.
Mental health conditions
Anger and aggression can be symptoms of certain mental health conditions, too, including:
Appropriate emotional regulation strategies look different for different age groups. Here are some examples of what might work for each age group:
For preschool kids
“If a preschooler is yelling and throwing toys, this should be viewed as the child’s way of expressing big feelings,” explains Weill. “[They] cannot articulate in words the way an older child can.”
It may be a good idea to model emotional regulation. In other words, try to respond with patience, empathy, and understanding. This will help them feel safe.
Then, you can try to show them how to calm down through your own actions. You might try to:
- Change your child’s environment. Alter their environment to make it more calming for them.
- Communicate feelings with your child. Reflect on what you see your child doing and narrate it back to them. For example, you could say, “I see you’re clenching your fists, I wonder if you’re angry?” This helps your child name what they’re feeling.
- Ask them questions to help de-escalate. For example, you could say, “Can you tell me with your words what you are feeling?” to help them understand what you want them to do.
- Count to 10 with them. Counting and taking slow, deep breaths together can have a calming effect.
- Play education games with them. Play apps or games with them that teach emotional recognition or emotion management.
For elementary-aged kids
By now, children have more vocabulary to name what they are feeling, but you still play a big role in helping them continue developing those skills. Garza says, “reflecting or restating the behavior or perceived feeling is [still] incredibly powerful.”
“Once a child seems to begin to calm down naturally — or perhaps with the encouragement of breathing — ask them if they want to talk,” Garza adds.
Consider also teaching them coping skills or problem-solving skills to help avoid meltdowns, such as:
- drawing their feelings of anger
- reading books about calming down
- learning triggers and using warnings or countdowns to help prepare them for the trigger
- time outs or “thinking time”
- praising them when they do calm down or manage their emotions appropriately
Hormonal changes common in adolescence can make some teens quick to anger.
“Teenagers and pre-teenagers are going through a lot both physically and emotionally,” says Weill. “They are going through a developmental stage where they need to feel some level of independence while still knowing that they have adults in their lives who they can rely on.”
That’s why it’s important for the adults in their lives to continue validating and listening to their feelings.
“If a teen is feeling understood, validated, and heard, they will be more open to learning skills for managing their feelings,” Weill explains. “They too need to be taught how to recognize what their feelings are before reacting to them, and how to calm themselves down so that they can better regulate how they are feeling.”
With this age group, physical exercise, deep breathing, and meditation are often effective tools for managing emotions.
In addition to the in-home techniques mentioned above, you can try a few other things more generally to help your child better cope with anger or any other strong emotions.
The authoritative parenting style can help your child develop emotional regulation skills. It’s a style of parenting that is nurturing and supportive while also setting firm limits and expectations.
An authoritative parent will listen to a child’s feelings, validate their disappointment, and enforce fair discipline and rules.
For example, if a child is throwing a tantrum at a park because they don’t want to leave to go pick up their sister from dance class.
An authoritative parent might:
- Validate their feelings. This might involve saying something like, “I know you’re having a great time and are disappointed we have to leave soon.”
- Warn them beforehand. Tell their child what time they need to leave ahead of time, then give them warnings or countdowns to prepare.
- Enforce the departure time. Do this even when the child pleads for 5 more minutes or has a meltdown.
Mindful parenting also works well in parallel to authoritative parenting or as its own parenting philosophy. This style is characterized by parents being fully in the moment with their children to truly understand their child and their actions.
Children’s anger management works best with consistent reinforcement from everyone — not just their parents. Teachers, family, peers, and mental health care professionals can all be part of that outside reinforcement.
Some children might benefit from attending support groups, for example, where they can meet other children who have similar issues regulating their emotions. These groups can help children learn coping skills from their peers and group moderators.
Others might benefit from seeing a therapist individually or attending family therapy with their parents. Some popular therapies include:
- parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), particularly for children between ages 2 and 7
- collaborative and proactive solutions (CPS) therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- play therapy
When your child gets angry or throws a tantrum, it can be stressful and, sometimes, scary.
But there are ways to help your child learn how to better control their emotions, so they’re less likely to be aggressive.
While at-home strategies like modeling behavior can help, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may find it helpful to have your child attend a support group or get help from a therapist.