Temper Tantrums and Your Toddler: Is It Something More?


All parents of a toddler have experienced that dreaded moment — you say “no” and it leads to a 20-minute tantrum. But how do you know when it’s just a toddler being a toddler versus something more?

Sadly, as parents we’ve all been there: One little thing sends our toddler into a total meltdown, flailing on the floor, screaming and crying. We can all agree we hope this happens at home instead of the grocery store, but beyond that, how do you know if those tantrums are a sign of a greater problem?

One in seven American children between ages 2 and 8 has a mental health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as a parent, especially a first-time parent, it can be hard to differentiate between a typical toddler tantrum and indications of a possible behavioral health issue.

What to Watch For

As with any stage of development for little ones, it’s important to know your child and watch for changes – particularly changes in the frequency of tantrums, what triggers the tantrums and their length.

“A wide range of behaviors are considered ‘normal’ in children, so differences by themselves are not necessarily a concern. However, if something is impacting the child’s or family’s functioning, or the child seems unhappy, angry, anxious, or tearful much more often than other children their age, it may be worth consulting with a behavioral health professional just to be sure,” says Kristen Davis-Coelho, Ph.D., psychologist with Renown Behavioral Health. “If something is identified that needs professional attention, early intervention can prevent larger problems from developing later.”

Possible red flags include:

  • Child can’t calm down after tantrum: This means the child is unable to self-soothe or seek out mom, dad or another caregiver to feel better.
  • No results from positive reinforcement: For most children, offering a reward can help ease a tantrum. For example, “we can still go to the park today if you don’t scream in the store.”
  • You don’t understand the cause of the tantrums: If the tantrum isn’t tied to a “no” from a parent or the child being overly tired or hungry, it may be a sign of a problem.
  • Frequent tantrums: Are they having more tantrum days than days without a tantrum? Do they have more than 10-20 tantrums each month at home? Or more than five per day away from home?
  • Long tantrums: Keep an eye out for tantrums that last more than 20 minutes.
  • Change of environment: When your child has a tantrum, think about whether a change in plans or noise may have triggered their tantrum.
  • Self-injury: Watch for times when your child may scratch or bite themselves or hit their head or kick the wall. A study found kids with depression or disruptive behavior are more likely to try and injure themselves.
  • Aggression toward caregivers: It’s not unusual for kids to kick a parent when they don’t get something they want, but it may be a sign of a larger issue if it happens more than half of the time.

If you’re worried that your child is showing these red flags, you can reach out to your pediatrician or directly to a behavioral health provider for help.

What You Can Expect

Just like treatment with adults, behavioral health appointments for kids are specifically tailored to each patient. “For children and adolescents, the first appointment will typically be an assessment that involves both the child and parents or guardians,” says Davis-Coelho. “Based on that assessment, the provider will make recommendations for treatment. That may include therapy, medication, or referral to another specialist. “For toddlers, the therapist will either work with the parents on behavior management strategies, work with the parents and child together, or refer the child to a specialist for further evaluation. For preschoolers, older children and teens, therapy appointments may be more focused on working with the family as a whole, with the child and parent together, or with the child individually, depending on what the main issues are.”

Renown Behavioral Health provides care to children as young as 2 years old. If you’d like to learn more or schedule an appointment, call 775-982-5318.