Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

6 Surprising Findings About Temper Tantrums

These findings may help you better understand a child's temper.

Key points

  • Much of what's written about childhood temper tantrums is theoretical and not based on empirical research.
  • Research shows that tantrums normally resolve themselves fairly quickly and may not solely be expressions of anger.
  • According to one study, kids who meet depression criteria are more likely to enact violence toward objects, other people, and even themselves.

There's nothing more unpleasant than witnessing a toddler's temper tantrum, except, maybe being the parent desperately trying to calm their child. But what's actually happening in that little one's head? What causes tantrums and what do they mean for the child's future?

Although much theory has been written about temper tantrums in general, the following are actual empirical findings that may surprise you. With any luck, you'll be more prepared for the next time you say "no" to that bag of jumbo marshmallows.

Different tantrum behaviors may be caused by different emotional states.

Researchers used a clinical sample of pre-adolescents and a statistical process called cluster analysis to differentiate when the children were feeling anger from when they were feeling distress. While some findings are unsurprising (e.g. screaming is more strongly associated with anger than distress) others were not as intuitive. For example, data suggested that head-banging and disrobing were associated with distress, and pacing was associated with anger. Perhaps most importantly, parents should take away that tantrums are not always solely expressions of anger. [5]

The average tantrum lasts about 3.5 minutes.

At least it did for a clinical sample of 24 children who, by the completion of the study, had enacted 330 total tantrums, the average tantrum lasting 3 minutes and 24 seconds (with a maximum of 27 minutes). Furthermore, researchers found that aggressive behaviors were less likely to occur as the tantrum progressed. Although parenting through a tantrum will never be fun, some solace can be taken knowing that it should resolve itself fairly quickly. [2]

Severe tantrums may be a sign of depression.

Although most children will throw mild-to-moderate tantrums from time to time, children who meet the criteria for depression were more likely to enact violence toward objects, other people, and even themselves, than their normative counterparts. For this study, a community sample of preschoolers was studied. This is important to note because it implies the results will be most applicable for the "average kid." However, intuition would suggest that the findings hold true even for a clinical sample. [1]

Children as young as preschool age have the capacity to self-regulate emotional states.

While it's true that young children frequently experience much stronger emotional states than adults (I just don't get that excited about cupcakes anymore), some preschoolers are still able to minimize or prevent temper tantrums by relying on their emotional self-regulation skills.

Notably, there is no clear evidence in this study to suggest this is a conscious decision on the part of the preschoolers. Rather, parents should seek to instill emotional self-regulation skills at an early age to mitigate the effect of distressing experiences that might otherwise precipitate a tantrum. [3]

Expressive language skills are connected to tantrum severity.

Researchers used a community sample and observation methodology to examine the language skills of children ages 1-3. Sure enough, kids who possessed a smaller expressive vocabulary had more severe temper tantrums. In fact, their risk of severe tantrums was about 2 times greater than a peer with typical expressive language abilities. Granted, there are likely other important variables to consider in connection to tantrum severity that should be studied in future research. [4]

Tantrum-throwing children are more likely to be convicted of a violent crime in adulthood.

Although somewhat dated (the children who participated in this longitudinal study are now over 50 years old), the results are striking. Indeed, children who threw tantrums at age 3 were statistically more likely to have been charged with a violent crime by age 24. This effect remained significant after controlling for children's parents' marital distress as well as socioeconomic status, suggesting a lasting and potent link between tantrum-throwing and anti-social externalizing behavior.

This does not mean that if your child throws tantrums, they will become a criminal; that's not how statistics work. Furthermore, it was not reported how "tantrums" were operationalized (i.e. defined and measured). Thus, findings from this study should be taken with a grain of salt and may be useful to re-examine. [6]

References

Belden, A. C., PhD, Thomson, N. R., PhD, & Luby, J. L., MD. (2008). Temper tantrums in healthy versus depressed and disruptive preschoolers: Defining tantrum behaviors associated with clinical problems. The Journal of Pediatrics, 152(1), 117-122. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.06.030

Eisbach, S. S., Cluxton-Keller, F., Harrison, J., Krall, J. R., Hayat, M., & Gross, D. (2014). Characteristics of TEMPER TANTRUMS in preschoolers with disruptive behavior in a clinical setting. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 52(5), 32-40. https://doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20140110-02

Giesbrecht, G. F., Miller, M. R., & Müller, U. (2010). The anger-distress model of temper tantrums: Associations with emotional reactivity and emotional competence. Infant and Child Development, 19;7;(4;5;), 478-497.

Manning, B. L., Roberts, M. Y., Estabrook, R., Petitclerc, A., Burns, J. L., Briggs-Gowan, M., Wakschlag, L. S., & Norton, E. S. (2019). Relations between toddler expressive language and temper tantrums in a community sample. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 65, 101070. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2019.101070

Potegal, M., Carlson, G., Margulies, D., Gutkovitch, Z., & Wall, M. (2009). Rages or temper tantrums? the behavioral organization, temporal characteristics, and clinical significance of angry-agitated outbursts in child psychiatry inpatients. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 40(4), 621-636. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-009-0148-7

Stevenson, J., & Goodman, R. (2001). Association between behaviour at age 3 years and adult criminality. British Journal of Psychiatry, 179(3), 197-202. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.179.3.197

advertisement