What to Do About Violent Temper Tantrums

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It’s no big secret that a five-minute tantrum feels like one thousand hours to a parent. Tantrums always seem to occur at the worst possible time, catching parents off guard and triggering increased stress for the adults in the room. Even in the privacy of your own home, tantrums can be overwhelming. Tantrums are, however, a very normal part of child development.

Most parents expect tantrums to emerge during the toddler and preschool years.

Yelling, excessive crying, and flailing limbs are fairly common among the little ones when frustration sets in, after all. Violent tantrums, however, are generally not expected.

I get a fair amount of questions about how to handle violent tantrums. What should parents do when kids are aggressive towards parents, siblings, or others or engage in self-injury during tantrums? What if tantrums are really long? What if kids throw stuff, break stuff, or make a run for it during a tantrum? When is professional help necessary?

For the most part, tantrums can be traced back to specific triggers. I always encourage parents to keep a “trigger tracker” to find the pattern – when you record the circumstances surrounding each tantrum for a few days, a pattern generally emerges.

Violent or aggressive tantrums, however, can be a signal that a child needs help. If one out of ten tantrums turns violent, it’s probably just a really bad day. However, if your child engages in the following red flag tantrum behaviors more often than not, it’s time to call the pediatrician to get an evaluation:

  • Aggression toward parents, caregivers, siblings, or objects.
  • Frequent tantrums: If your child has 10-20 tantrums a month in the home or more than 5 outside the home, it’s time to look for additional resources. It might mean revamping the sleep schedule or creating a predictable routine, but it’s best to check in with a professional at that point.
  • Duration: Tantrums typically last 10-15 minutes, though they feel much longer than that. If your child’s tantrums regularly last more than 30 minutes, it could signal a problem.
  • Self-injury: Some kids bang their heads during tantrums once in a while. That’s not necessarily a problem, although you do want to watch your child carefully and make attempts to calm him to ensure that he doesn’t get hurt. Regular self-injurious behavior during tantrums does increase the risk of depression down the line.
  • Inability to calm down. Most kids will calm down at some point, even if they continue to cry for a while. When kids are unable to calm themselves and parents have to resort to physically removing the child or bribing the child each time, there could be an underlying mood disorder.

Now that you know what to look for, there are a few things you can do during a tantrum (even a violent one) to help your child calm down. 

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What to Do About Violent Temper Tantrums

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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