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A tantrum is an emotional outburst wherein higher brain functions are unable to stop the emotional expression of the lower (emotional and physical) brain functions. It can be categorized by an irrational fit of crying, screaming, defiance, and a resistance to every attempt at pacification in which even physical control is lost. The person may not stand or sit on their own. Even when the "goal" of the person is met, he or she is not calmed.

Usually tantrums are seen in children of the ages of 3-6 but sometimes 7-9; this is a very clear case of emotional disinhibition caused by immature forebrain development. People who have mental illnesses or neurological conditions such as autism are more prone to tantrums than others, although anyone experiencing forebrain damage -- temporary or permanent -- can suffer from tantrums. The most common ways to temporarily damage the forebrain are to poison it with a mood depressant (such as alcohol) or inhibit its functioning with lack of sleep or fatigue.


Tantrums are one of the most common forms of problematic behaviour in young children, but tend to decrease in frequency and intensity as the child grows older. For the toddler, "tantrums are normal...the force of the tantrum is a kind of measure of the strength of character the child can possess eventually, if [s]he's helped to harness that energy."[1]

While tantrums may be seen as a predictor of future anti-social behaviour,[2] in another sense they are simply "a manifestation of a loss of control and frustration ... and so 'with patience and a consistent reaction to tantrums, they'll get fewer and farther between as your child grows'."[3]

Although "when a child is in a tantrum, it is all too apparent that it is wanting somethinghfr ... what the child is also needing is something very different...."[4]

Selma Fraiberg warned against "too much pressure or forceful methods of control from the outside' in child-rearing: "if we turn every instance of pants changing, treasure hunting, napping, puddle wading and garbage distribution into a governmental crisis we can easily bring on fierce defiance, tantrums, and all the fireworks of revolt in the nursery."[5]

In 2011, research found that toddlers use tantrums to express two emotions, anger and fear, simultaneously or in patterns.[6][7] Such tantrums often have a "pattern and rhythm" to their "vocalizations".[7] Analysis of the patterns can lead to discerning which tantrums are normal and which could be signs of future problems -- "that may be warning signals of an underlying disorder."[7] The study was authored by Michael Potegal, at the University of Minnesota, Pamela G. Whitney at Quinnipiac University, and James A. Green at the University of Connecticut.[7][8] Potegal was quoted by National Public Radio as saying that "The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible," and when "the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger ... was to do nothing."[6][7] The researchers were called "brave scientists" for dealing with their research subjects.[6]


Freud considered that the Wolf Man's development of temper tantrums - as he became 'discontented, irritable and violent, took offence on every possible occasion, and then flew into a rage and screamed like a savage'[9] - was connected with his seduction by his sister.

He also considered that subsequently 'the patient's fits of rage and scenes of fury were put to a new force punishments and...satisfy his sense of guilt'.[10] Freud added that 'I do not know how often parents and educators, faced with inexplicable naughtiness on the part of a child, might not have occasion to bear this typical state of affairs in mind. A child who behaves in this inexplicable way is making a confession and trying to provoke punishment...setting his sense of guilt at rest'.[11]

Jealousy over the birth of a sibling, and resulting aggression, may also provoke tantrums: 'the efforts to control himself produced temper tantrums "over nothing" dozens of times a day...stormy and negativistic'.[12]

Some people who have neurological disorders such as the combination of autism or mental retardation[13] could be more prone to tantrums than others, although anyone experiencing forebrain damage (temporary or permanent) can suffer from tantrums. Anyone may be prone to tantrums once in a while, regardless of gender or adgge.


Heinz Kohut contended that 'the infant's core is likely to contain a self-centred, grandiose-exhibitionist part', and that 'tantrums at being frustrated thus represent narcissistic rages'[14] at the blow to the inflated self-image. With 'a child confronted with some refusal...regardless of its justifications, the refusal automatically provokes fury, since it offends his sense of omnipotence'.[15]

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (London 1993) p. 177
  2. Potegal, Michael Ph.D., L.P.; Davidson, Richard J. Ph.D. (June 2003). Temper Tantrums in Young Children. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 24 (3): 140–147.
  3. Roy Benaroch, Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth Through Preschool (2008) p. 157
  4. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 113-4
  5. Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York 1987) p. 65
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Ryan, Erin Gloria. Brave Scientists Record and Study Kids Losing Their Shit. Jezebel. URL accessed on December 6, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Vendatum, Shankar. What's Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams. Jezebel. URL accessed on December 6, 2011.
  8. "Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children's tantrums," Green, James A.; Whitney, Pamela G.; Potegal, Michael. Emotion, Vol 11(5), Oct 2011, 1124-1133. DOI:10.1037/a002417 . Found at Psycnet website; accessed on December 6, 2011.
  9. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 242
  10. Freud, p. 257
  11. Freud, p. 257-8
  12. Fraiberg, p. 152
  13. Dominick KC, Davis NO, Lainhart J, Tager-Flusberg H, Folstein S (2007). Atypical behaviors in children with autism and children with a history of language impairment. Res Dev Disabil 28 (2): 145–62.
  14. H. and I. Goldenberg, Family Therapy (2007) p. 172
  15. Edmund Bergler in J. Halliday/P. Fuller eds., The Psychology of Gambling (London 1974) p. 182

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