Tuesday, April 19, 2016

3 yr old tantrums daily

In doing a little research today, I found your blog and wondered what your view might be on an issue with my three-year-old grandson. He has angry outbursts, usually everyday, when he doesn't get what he wants. He will scream and cry and yell, sometimes for a few minutes, other times for thirty minutes or more. A few times I have seen this go on for as long as an hour. At times he will hit his parents or me when he is angry. We have tried distracting him, which only works occasionally to calm him down, and we have tried time-outs, etc., which never seems to work. Otherwise, he is a sweet, loving child with a good imagination. His language skills have developed a bit slowly, but he seems very intelligent to me. Would you recommend him seeing a professional? Any advice you could give me would be so greatly appreciated. Thank you very much.

Hi, Once a young child is in overload, time outs are not usually helpful.  Your grandson is not thinking rationally at those times so he is likely to resist going to time out.  If no one is being physically harmed, try to ignore him until he calms down.  I realize this is hard to do and may take some time to work, but the less attention for tantrums the better.  If someone is being hurt, you will need to physically restrain him. 

An important strategy would be to try to anticipate some of the issues that cause these outbursts. In my parent's manual I explain the importance of keeping a record of what is going on before an outburst.  Then look for patterns.  Once you find a situation that often precipitates an outburst,  try to change the sequence of events.  For example, if he tantrums at bath times, try to have something fun come after the bath so your grandson is more likely to cooperate in the bath.  

Or if the problem sometimes occurs in stores, try to lower your grandson's expectations before going to the store (i.e., we can't buy toys today), or do not take him there, if it is possible to shop without him.  Lower expectations in advance or avoid the situations that you can.

When you use distraction, try to use it early before he is in overload, and use humor or imaginary stories that might captivate his attention.  For example, when getting a young child dressed (if this is a problem), start telling a story before you put on his clothes, so that he is distracted from the start.  

I discuss these strategies more in other blog posts and in my manuals.  But if you do not make progress over the next month, then consider getting an in-person consult with a professional in your area.  The cause could be something else going on in the child's life and that can best be addressed in person.  Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb


  1. I am having the same issue with my 3 year old son and have tried these tactics at home with a lot of success. Unfortunately he is in a daycare/preschool program all day and they are experiencing daily issues with his anger outbursts. He gets very upset when he is triggered and will hit his teachers and act very defiant and uncontrollable. His triggers are changes in the classroom/teachers and separation anxiety when dropped off. Any tactics you can suggest in the classroom? They don't have the luxury to have 1:1 interventions like I can at home or predict as well as when his outbursts will occur since they are managing multiple kids. I have recently engaged a child therapist but I am desperate to work with the school in fear he will be kicked out. I work full time and can't afford him to be without full time care. He is a wonderful, articulate child and his outbursts are not the norm, just follows anxiety triggers and occasional response to no or negative punishment. Your ideas are greatly appreciated!

    1. In my second volume of the anger overload manual (Additional Strategies for Teachers and Parents), I write about how to apply the strategies in a school setting. Strategies like anticipating outbursts and using cues or distraction can be used effectively in a school setting. For example, when there are going to be changes in the classroom, the teacher could cue your child in advance so he could get used to the idea. The cue could also include how to handle the change. So if the change is that there will not be story time today, your child could be told about it earlier that day and also be told what he could do instead. The teacher could let him know how proud she is that he is listening to her explain what is going to happen. She could use praise "in advance."

      The other approach is to sing a silly song about the change so that your child might laugh and be less likely then to get angry.

      For separation anxiety, it is best to keep the separations as brief and matter of fact as possible. Sometimes emotional distraction right before the separation can help (there could be an exciting game to play as soon as he gets to the classroom, or the teacher could sing with him a funny song). If the child goes into overload, it is best to ignore or distract but not to spend a lot of time talking to the child until he settles down. Some classes for young children have a relaxation station where children can wrap themselves in a blanket or hug a teddy bear to soothe themselves. Best to you, Dr. Dave Gottlieb