What’s the Deal with Big Kid Tantrums?

Image via Katie Hurley

One of the greatest myths of modern parenting is that tantrums come to a grinding halt the moment kids enter elementary school. Tantrums are expected in the toddler years, accepted in the preschool years, and supposed to be a thing of the past once a child enters kindergarten.

Here’s the best part of the myth: Tantrums are renamed “meltdowns” the minute a child becomes a “big kid”. Tantrums, meltdowns, or whatever you want to call them are actually fairly common during the early elementary years. 

Some kids experience more frequent meltdowns than others and some experience higher intensity meltdowns, but most kids experience big emotional shifts during the school age years and that can result in excessive tears, yelling, and frustration (for child and parent).

School age kids face a variety of stressors. They are asked to sit for long periods. They have an endless list of rules to follow. They walk in lines and follow very specific instructions. For some, recess is short (or even nonexistent). For others, recess involves negotiating heated debates about what to play and how to establish (more) rules. It’s a lot for a little kid.

Many young children find the strength to hold it together in school only to come home and fall apart, sometimes with no identified trigger in sight.

Parents can help kids through these tumultuous times with patience, empathy, and heaping piles of unconditional love. It’s hard, I know, but they need us to love them when they’re at their worst, even when we are running on empty.

Unpack the stressors.

Kids know when things don’t feel right, but they don’t always know what triggers feelings of stress. Talk to your kids about what stress feels like (clenched muscles, tight jaw, tears, frustration) and share your own triggers. Ask your child about the daily “best and worst”. Within those “worsts” are the triggers that might very well lead to late afternoon meltdowns.

*It should be noted that kids with anxiety tend to have frequent meltdowns that are longer in duration. When anxious children feel a lack of control (unexpected transitions are huge trigger here), they tend to fall apart. If your child experiences frequent tantrums that are lengthy (think 45 minutes) and interfere with normal daily activities (school refusal and bedtime to name two), it’s time to seek outside help.

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The word “anxiety” is a bit watered down and overused these days. When children truly struggle with anxiety, it can be very difficult to manage independently.


We all need to vent our frustration sometimes, right? For young children, venting often comes in the form of loud fits of crying and yelling. They need to unleash those feelings.

Young children are often socialized to simply tough it out in the school or athletic setting. They learn to fight back the tears. The truth is that emotions are perfectly natural. When we give kids the opportunity to get their feelings out and empathize with them, we normalize the range of emotions that people feel on any given day. We also show them that help is always available.


Talk about coping.

Kids don’t enter this world with a bunch of coping skills up their sleeves; we have to guide them through the learning process. We have to model adaptive coping skills and help them consider ways to calm down in the heat of the moment and move forward.

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My son prefers to spend time in his room when he feels overwhelmed. More often than not, he invites me to read to him on his bed and then we talk about what happened after he settles down. My daughter, on the other hand, crawls right into my arms at the first sign of trouble and hugs it out.

All kids are different and different coping strategies will work for different kids. When we take the time to help our big kids through their emotions and talk about different ways to cope with those big feelings, we set them up for happier times ahead.

For more coping strategies to address a variety of personalities, check out The Happy Kid Handbook.


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What’s the Deal with Big Kid 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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