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7 Steps to Dealing 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?

Having temper tantrums is a normal part of child development. Although many little kids stop having toddler tantrums by the time they turn four, It is still normal for some 4-year-olds to have them.

Here are some tantrum statistics.

1. 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

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

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

4. In seemingly healthy children, typical tantrum behaviors include crying, screaming, and hitting. Yet healthy kids can also show less common behaviors such as holding their breath, head-banging, and extreme emotional dysregulation.

extreme tantrums in 4 year-olds

Why does my 4 year old keep having tantrums every day

Frequent tantrums in a 4-year-old indicate that the child has not learned to regulate their big emotions and cope with frustration. These children have very low frustration tolerance.

Normally, as they grow older, toddlers gain language skills that enable them to talk about their strong feelings rather than throwing fits.

By age 4, frequent temper tantrums should stop or begin to decline. But if they increase in frequency, duration, and intensity, there may be other underlying causes that lead to extreme behaviors.

Here are some potential causes of extreme behaviors in a 4-year-old child’s tantrums.

Sensory integration processing

Highly sensitive children or those with sensory processing challenges have a lower tolerance for stress. They generally have a harder time handling disappointment, are less able to regulate themselves, and throw more extreme screaming tantrums​3​.

Speech delay

Children who experience speech delay are prone to constant tantrums because it is more difficult to have their needs met​4​.

Sleep deprivation

Not having enough sleep could be a cause for excessive and long tantrums.

Researchers have found that shorter nighttime sleep duration is associated with higher instances of emotional meltdowns and externalizing behavior in 4-year-olds​5​.

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

Physiological needs

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

parent throw constant tantrums screaming into the phone

A lack of role models for emotional skills

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

Their children are not only deprived of good role models, but these parents are also more reactive escalating matters faster and more intensely​6​.

Parents wellbeing

The well-being of parents and family climate can have an impact on children’s ability to regulate. More intense tantrums in children are associated with maternal depression and irritability, marital discord, and family stress​7​.

Ineffective parenting

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

Psychiatric disorders

52% of children exhibiting severe tantrums had other behavioral or emotional problems such as mood disorders (depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, mania​8​) or disruptive disorders (oppositional defiant disorder).

Depressed children are more aggressive towards objects during tantrums, and they are more likely to engage in self-harming behavior. Disruptive kids show more aggression and have a harder time recovering from tantrums​9​.

Neurodiversity

Aggressive tantrums and hitting are common problems in children with an autism spectrum disorder​10​.

Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who also have other disorders such as mania or ODD tend to have violent tantrums, too​11​.

4 year old screaming tantrums when frustrated

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. The first step is to address the safety issue. Move the child to a safe place. If it is a public tantrum, you may have to leave the venue. It’s a good idea to let your acquaintance know ahead of time and have a backup plan in case you have to leave early.
  2. Check to see if hunger, anger, loneliness, or fatigue are the causes.
  3. You can hold or hug them to restore their emotional balance or prevent them from hurting themselves or others.
  4. Don’t try to reason and don’t punish.
  5. Don’t give in to their demands while staying calm and positive.
  6. Focus on helping them learn to self-regulate. Teach them to take deep breaths.
  7. After they have calmed down, teach them how to express strong emotions and needs in appropriate ways.
boy has an extreme tantrum screaming fits

How to address the underlying issues

Talk to your pediatrician

Talk to the pediatrician about your child’s uncontrollable tantrums. Ask them to screen for issues such as sensory processing sensitivity, language delay, sleep apnea, major depression, ADHD, anxiety, autism, etc.

Be a warm, responsive parent

Warm, responsive parenting is linked to more compliance and fewer tantrums in children​12​. Children with responsive parents tend to be securely attached and show more positive behavior​13​.

Practice autonomy-supportive parenting

Giving children some autonomy helps cut down on severe tantrums. Parents must balance their need for obedience with their children’s need for a sense of control. When it comes to something that does not affect health or safety, children should be able to make their own decisions.

Work on your own self-regulation

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

Self-care and taking deep breaths are simple yet effective ways to regulate emotions. Seek professional help if you are suffering from depression or other health issues.

Work out marital issues. Fighting in front of children on occasion isn’t necessarily harmful, but don’t let it become a dysfunctional family habit.

For more help on calming tantrums, check out this step-by-step guide

Calm the Tantrums ebook
4 year-old tantrums screaming and hitting when angry

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

Up to 30% of healthy preschoolers show emotional outbursts 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​9​.

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 or clinical psychologist if you notice any of these issues or if you are concerned about your child’s behavior in general.

If you have a 3 year old or 5 year old, and their tantrums are getting worse, there is one simple thing you can do to help.

Check out 3-Year-Old Temper Tantrums Getting Worse? Do This One Thing and How To Deal With Tantrums in 5 Year Olds

Also See: PCIT Parent-Child Interaction Therapy: What Is It & Does It Work

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.
    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
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    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
  6. 6.
    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
  7. 7.
    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
  8. 8.
    Spencer TJ. ADHD and comorbidity in childhood. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2006;67:27.
  9. 9.
    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
  10. 10.
    Matson J. Aggression and Tantrums in Children with Autism: A Review of Behavioral Treatments and Maintaining Variables. Journal of Mental Health Research in Intellectual Disabilities. Published online June 30, 2009:169-187. doi:10.1080/19315860902725875
  11. 11.
    Carlson GA. Mania and ADHD: comorbidity or confusion. Journal of Affective Disorders. Published online November 1998:177-187. doi:10.1016/s0165-0327(98)00179-7
  12. 12.
    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
  13. 13.
    Cabral de Mello M. Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes. Bull World Health Organ. Published online December 1, 2006:991-998. doi:10.2471/blt.06.030163

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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