The Top 5 Tantrum Triggers in Children

Knowing the most common tantrum triggers helps us to prevent them from appearing and to reduce their intensity. Learn more.
The Top 5 Tantrum Triggers in Children
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 31 August, 2023

Tantrums are one of the phenomena that cause the most anxiety and discomfort in parents. Calming them seems to be an impossible mission, and the fear of them appearing can generate great concern. For this reason, we want to share with you the main temper tantrum triggers in children.

Tantrums usually appear between the ages of two and five and are caused by the experience of very intense emotions of anger, disgust, or frustration, which they still don’t know how to handle.

In fact, these tantrums, although striking, are nothing more than a type of emotional expression. Therefore, they’re usually preceded by some event or situation that, although not important for the adult, is important for the child and causes their nervous system to deregulate.

Understanding tantrum triggers

If you stop to think about it, you’ll see that any small setback or everyday situation has been capable of triggering a tantrum in your child. Among the most common are the following:

  • Giving them their food with a blue spoon instead of a red one.
  • Taking them to take a bath or telling them it’s time to get out of the bathtub.
  • Refusing to buy them a toy while in line at the grocery store.
  • Putting on their new coat (even if they picked it out earlier).

In reality, little ones’ motives for emotional outbursts seem to make little sense and may even seem incoherent and unpredictable to us. But they all have something in common: They bring them into contact with an intense, novel, and unpleasant emotion that they don’t yet know how to master.

As Álvaro Bilbao explains in his book The Child’s Brain Explained to Parents, what happens is that the infant brain is still immature. Therefore, a small event can overexcite the emotional areas of the brain and the child isn’t able to inhibit this intense emotional state.

Crying, screaming, hitting, or kicking are the ways they find to discharge this tension (Solter, 1992). As the child grows, this emotional control will increase and become easier. But tantrums are, for now, a natural result of their evolutionary stage.

The main tantrum triggers in children

As you can see, the triggers of children’s tantrums aren’t so much the events themselves but the emotions. But which ones specifically? Most of them are associated with the child’s developmental stage, those known as “terrible twos.” So, these are the states that you should pay more attention to as possible precipitants of tantrums.

The feeling of lack of control

Between the ages of two and four, children have developed a series of cognitive and motor skills that allow them to be more independent, and they want to use them. This means being able to make their own decisions about where to go or what to do, and if they aren’t allowed to do this, a tantrum may erupt.

For example, your child may feel a lack of control over their environment or themselves when they’re told what to eat, what to wear, or how to spend their time at that moment.

Challenging authority

Feeling more capable, children demand autonomy and often challenge authority. You’ll notice that many times, you only need to ask them to do something for them to refuse to do it. In fact, at this age “no” becomes their favorite word.

Therefore, when we seek to make children obey us, without showing empathy and without first generating a connection, intense unpleasant emotions are likely to be activated in them.

Problems with delayed gratification

One of the main difficulties of the immature infant brain is patience. In fact, a famed study and book known as The Marshmallow Test showed that it’s a real challenge for children under 5 years of age to delay gratification (i.e., to control their impulses to wait for something they want).

So, if you ask your child to wait a few hours to eat a cookie or to go down to the park, this can trigger a tantrum, as the situation exceeds their internal management skills.

Intolerance to frustration

Most of the time, a tantrum is triggered by the emotion of frustration. In fact, behavioral problems at the preschool age are closely related to the inability to tolerate this feeling (Perlman et al., 2014).

It appears when the child can’t get what they want. For example, when they’re not allowed to play with a ball at home or go to school wearing their new costume, or when they don’t manage to complete the puzzle they’re playing with.

These events generate a feeling of helplessness and failure that isn’t at all pleasant, and they need practice to learn to manage it. It’s natural that, in these years, facing a refusal or an event that doesn’t go as planned triggers a tantrum in little ones.

Fear and ignorance

Did you know that fear and anxiety are often common triggers of children’s tantrums? An interesting pilot study published in the journal Early Childhood Research & Practice states just that.

We tend to think that fear is expressed with a fearful and withdrawn attitude, but many children vent that tension through crying or what we mistakenly call “misbehavior.”

For the same reason, if your child is faced with a novel and unfamiliar situation that tests them or that they somehow perceive as threatening, they may respond with a tantrum.

How to handle the children’s tantrum triggers

As you can see, tantrums are usually preceded by negative and intense emotions. But what good does it do to know this, and how can we address the issue? Well, this helps us to understand that tantrums aren’t something we can or should avoid. Children feel emotions and need to express them when they appear!

What we can do is take some steps to reduce the frequency or intensity of such emotional outbursts. For example:

  • Warn the child in advance of changes that are going to occur. For example, say, “In five minutes, we’re leaving the park” instead of taking the child directly.
  • Allow the child to make choices among several safe, pre-selected options. For example, the child can choose whether to wear a green coat or an orange coat.
  • Offer explanations and generate connection when you want them to follow a command or instruction. This will be much more effective in getting them to cooperate than simply trying to impose.
  • Allow and accompany the tantrum. There will be times when emotions overflow the child, and this is inevitable. At that moment, your role will be to be present and calm and show them how to regulate themselves.

It’s important to emphasize that using techniques such as a “time-out” can be harmful because they make children feel abandoned and undeserving of love when they’re having a hard time (Solter, 2014).

Final recommendations

In short, it’s most likely that your child on more than one occasion will have a tantrum from the age of two, and this is something natural and to be expected. However, understanding what they’re going through, what they need, and what situations and emotions are behind this behavior can be of great help.

By anticipating their emotions and offering certain solutions, you can help prevent this emotional outburst from occurring or becoming as intense.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.