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How to Deal With Extreme Tantrums in 4-Year-Olds

| Causes | How to deal with extreme tantrums when they happen | How to address underlying issues | When to worry (5 red flags) |

Is it normal for a 4-year-old to have tantrums?

It is normal for a 4-year-old to still have tantrums. The majority of temper tantrums occur in children between 18 months and 4 years of age.

  • 87% at 18 to 24 months old
  • 91% at 30 to 36 months old
  • 59% at 42 to 48 months old

Age-appropriate tantrums are most common among 3-year-olds and usually decline as they age​1​

Boys tend to throw tantrums more often than girls​2​.

Typical tantrum behaviors in seemingly healthy children range from crying to less common behaviors such as holding breath and headbanging to extreme emotional dysregulation.

boy has an extreme tantrum screaming

Why does my 4 year old keep having tantrums every day

Frequent tantrums in 4-year-olds may indicate the children have not learned to regulate their intense emotions and cope with frustration.

Children gain language skills that enable them to talk about their feelings and act appropriately rather than throwing temper tantrums as they grow older. Therefore, childhood temper tantrums tend to decrease in severity, frequency, and duration as they age.

By age 4, a child’s tantrum frequency should begin to decline. However, if tantrums increase in frequency and intensity, there may be other factors at play besides normal child development.

Here are some potential causes of extreme tantrums in 4-year-olds:

A lack of role models for emotional skills

Studies indicate that parents of children who have tantrum problems often lack self-regulation skills and throw tantrums themselves​2​

Thus, the children are not only deprived of good role models, but these parents are also more reactive when their children tantrum, escalating matters faster and more intensely​3​.

Parents wellbeing

The well-being of parents and the family climate can have an impact on children’s ability to regulate their strong emotions. More intense tantrums are associated with maternal depression and irritability, marital discord, and family stress​4​.

Sensory integration processing

Highly sensitive children or those with sensory processing challenges have a lower tolerance for frustration. They may have a harder time handling disappointment, are less able to regulate themselves, and throw more tantrums​5​.

Speech delay

Children who do not get their needs met are prone to tantrums. This is especially true for children with speech delays​6​.

Sleep deprivation

Not enough sleep could be a cause for excessive tantrums. 

Researchers have found that shorter nighttime sleep duration is associated with higher instances of tantrums and externalizing behavior in 4-year-olds​7​.

Sleep disturbances can be caused by various reasons – late bedtime, too much screen time, sleep apnea, etc.

Ineffective parenting

Parenting practices such as inconsistent discipline, over-criticism, neglect, and overprotection can contribute to tantrum-throwing in children​2​.

Psychiatric disorders

Mood disorders like depressive disorder or disruptive disorders like oppositional defiant disorder may cause more tantrums with a higher intensity.

According to a study, 52% of children exhibiting severe tantrums had other behavioral or emotional problems.

During tantrums, depressed children are more aggressive towards objects, and they are also more likely to engage in self-harming behavior.

Disruptive kids show more aggression and have a harder time recovering from tantrums​8​.

Physiological causes

Hunger, excessive fatigue, physical illness, and poor child health are also associated with severe temper tantrums.

How to deal with extreme tantrums when they happen

Managing extreme tantrums is similar to managing toddler temper tantrums when they happen.

The following is a summary of the 7 steps for dealing with disruptive tantrums at the moment (click here for the detailed guide)

  1. Make sure everyone is safe. Remove the child from the scene if they show destructive behavior.
  2. Don’t try to reason with them.
  3. You can hold or hug them to restore their emotional balance or prevent them from hurting themselves or others.
  4. Don’t give in while staying calm and positive.
  5. Please do not punish.
  6. Teach them how to express emotions and needs verbally.
  7. Keep an eye out for hunger, anger, loneliness, and fatigue to prevent tantrums.

How to address the underlying issues

Learn to control emotions

Model the behavior we want to see in our children. We cannot expect our children to control their emotions if we cannot control our own.

Taking deep breaths and taking care of yourself are both good and simple emotion regulation strategies. Seek professional help if you are suffering from depression or other health issues.

Take time to resolve any marital issues. Fights in front of children on occasion aren’t harmful, but don’t let them become a dysfunctional family habit.

Be a warm and responsive parent

Responsive parenting is linked to more compliance and fewer tantrums in children​9​

Screen for medical issues

Work with your child’s pediatrician to screen for health problems or underlying disorders such as mood disorder, language delay, sensory processing disorder, sleep apnea, etc.

When you should worry about extreme tantrums in your four-year-old

Up to 30% of healthy preschoolers show intense tantrums from time to time. Hence, occasional tantrums that are intense are not a cause for concern.

However, psychologists have identified five ‘red-flag’ tantrum behaviors that parents can watch for​8​.

5 high-risk tantrum styles that warrant a mental health evaluation.

  1. Consistent display of aggressive behavior directed at caregivers and/or objects (i.e. more than half of the last 10–20 tantrum episodes.)
  2. Intentionally engage in self-injurious behavior during tantrums.
  3. Have 10–20 tantrum episodes at home during the past month, or on average more than 5 tantrums a day for multiple days.
  4. Tantrum duration lasts longer than 25 minutes on average.
  5. In general, they cannot calm themselves during tantrums without help from caregivers,

Consult your child’s physician, a child psychologist, or a developmental psychologist if you notice any of these issues or if you are concerned about child tantrums in general.

References

  1. 1.
    POTEGAL M, DAVIDSON RJ. Temper Tantrums in Young Children: 1. Behavioral Composition. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online June 2003:140-147. doi:10.1097/00004703-200306000-00002
  2. 2.
    Bhatia MS, Dhar NK, Singhal PK, Nigam VR, Malik SC, Mullick DN. Prevalence and Etiology. Clin Pediatr (Phila). Published online June 1990:311-315. doi:10.1177/000992289002900603
  3. 3.
    Lorber MF. The role of maternal emotion regulation in overreactive and lax discipline. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online August 2012:642-647. doi:10.1037/a0029109
  4. 4.
    NEEDLMAN R, STEVENSON J, ZUCKERMAN B. Psychosocial Correlates of Severe Temper Tantrums. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online April 1991:77???83. doi:10.1097/00004703-199104000-00002
  5. 5.
    Critz C, Blake K, Nogueira E. Sensory Processing Challenges in Children. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners. Published online July 2015:710-716. doi:10.1016/j.nurpra.2015.04.016
  6. 6.
    Marcus BA, Vollmer TR, Swanson V, Roane HR, Ringdahl JE. An Experimental Analysis of Aggression. Behav Modif. Published online April 2001:189-213. doi:10.1177/0145445501252002
  7. 7.
    Scharf RJ, Demmer RT, Silver EJ, Stein REK. Nighttime Sleep Duration and Externalizing Behaviors of Preschool Children. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online July 2013:384-391. doi:10.1097/dbp.0b013e31829a7a0d
  8. 8.
    Belden AC, Thomson NR, Luby JL. Temper Tantrums in Healthy Versus Depressed and Disruptive Preschoolers: Defining Tantrum Behaviors Associated with Clinical Problems. The Journal of Pediatrics. Published online January 2008:117-122. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.06.030
  9. 9.
    Kochanska G, Kim S. Difficult temperament moderates links between maternal responsiveness and children’s compliance and behavior problems in low-income families. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online October 11, 2012:323-332. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12002

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