Are my pre-schooler's tantrums normal? A psychologist answers

Tantrums don't seem to end with the toddlers years, and a Parent24 reader reached out to us with a popular question about their pre-schooler.

We approached Lerato Diale, a clinical psychologist, on their behalf. 

Read the question and answer in full below:

Dear Parent24,

My daughter is five, and she has been throwing the most terrible tantrums lately. She loses her temper quickly, and is very demanding. If we don’t give her what she wants, she threatens, and says she’ll hurt us. She doesn’t follow through of course, but this is scary for us.
We have tried all the gentle parenting techniques, such as acknowledging her feelings, holding her, giving her space, time in, time out, and so on, but nothing seems to work in the long run.
She calms down soon enough, but then will suddenly lash out again. She is otherwise a normal, sweet child.     
Her mother has recently returned to full-time work, but she has a lovely nanny after school. Could this be the reason?
Our friends with children this age say they are experiencing similar behaviour, but we have to ask if this is normal.
It is also affecting us all, as it is so draining for us as parents, and for her poor brother who doesn't understand her tantrums.
Please help?
Concerned parents

Share your questions and concerns with us, and we could publish an answer. Anonymous contributions are always welcome.


Dear Concerned Parent,

It can be difficult experiencing a child have a tantrum. Research done on the topic found that many children experience tantrums. This is indeed normal and you are not alone.

Bear in mind, the psychological development of a child in early childhood has an impact on their behaviour. Here children realise that they're no longer small but transitioning to becoming big children. They're also learning how to regulate their emotions, although there might still be instances of emotional meltdowns. 

Pay attention to the Environment:

It was mentioned that mom recently returned to work. This change must not be taken for granted as your daughter had been use to the same pattern of having mom at home. Coming back from school to mom not being there can be a difficult adjustment to make initially. With time however, a new routine can be established and come to be accepted. You're  on the right track by acknowledging your daughters feelings. Try taking it a step further, talk about the recent big change and explore what her thoughts are about it.

This can help in reducing her anxiety about it.

Can tantrums become worrisome:

Tantrums  can be telling of deeper problems sometimes related to a child`s mental health. They can be worrisome if the child displays violence in their tantrums. From the description that the concerned parent gave about their daughter's temper tantrums, there didn't seem to be violent behaviour given. Threats were made but not followed through with. Nevertheless, remain observant for aggressive behaviour, ask a professional if it becomes uncontainable.

Things to try at home:

Read the signs: It's important to be attentive to your child's behaviour as children have a tell sign if you pay close attention. Do this successfully and you can avert a tantrum before it happens.

Instigate crisis manoeuvres: Sometimes when a tantrum cannot be avoided, it can be best to walk away. This is a good way of diffusing tension to avoid escalation. Other experts recommend the DNA approach, which involves Describing what you see on your child's face "You're frowning",  Noticing your child's feelings "Are you feeling angry" and lastly Acknowledge what your child was hoping for and talk them through it.

Time out: When time out is introduced effectively it can be a good tool in teaching the child what is acceptable and what behaviours will pay off. 

Kind Regards,

Lerato Diale

Clinical Psychologist, Pretoria

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