Violent Temper Tantrums

Updated on February 16, 2014
A.H. asks from Harrisburg, PA
15 answers

Hi there~

I'm at my wit's end with my 23 month old son. He started having violent temper tantrums a few months ago. I thought it was a phase, but it's gone from bad to worse. For the majority of the day, he is a sweet caring little boy, but when his buttons get pushed, he is literally a little monster. He hits, bites, throws toys, screams, bangs his head on floor. He's already hurt my older son (5 yr) to the point where I believe my older son is scared of him. I am on top of things now so I know when it's coming on and prevent my older son from getting hurt.

I have tried: ignoring the behavior (hard to do when someone is at risk for getting hurt), timeouts (seem ineffective), using stern words, giving him alternatives (we hug not hit or here tear this paper up instead). Nothing is working. The tantrums usually come on when he can't have his way (wants to play outside in zero degrees!) or his brother annoys him (although he's not doing anything punishable!) I'm also using more positive reinforcement on his good behaviors, giving him choices, ie all the things Dr. Karp and Dr Sears recommend!

So...any advice on how to handle these tantrums? On how to stay sane?
Should I be worried...any of you with children with autism/aspergers etc see this behavior at this age? Any of you with children without these disorders have seen this behavior at this age?
For those of you who have gone through long do they last? Please say months, not years!! :)

FYI, I am in process of getting an occupational therapy and speech eval, but it wasn't able to be scheduled for another 3 weeks. I don't think his language is too far off (I'd say he uses about 40-50 words, no 2 word phrases yet, but definitely gets his point across)

I'd appreciate any advice or words of wisdom. I'm really going nutty here and am also worried about my older son.


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answers from Seattle on

"The tantrums usually come on when he can't have his way or his brother annoys him"

It really sounds like he's acting out aggressively because he can't adequately express himself. I saw this ALL the time in the 2 year old room at the daycare I worked at.

Try being his voice when you see him starting to get angry/frustrated. When he wants to go out, but can't and see that he's getting mad, say: "I'm SO MAD! I want to go play outside, and I CAN'T!" By giving voice to what he's feeling, you teach him how to verbalize what he's feeling, and you validate him at the same time.

When his brother is annoying him, do the same thing. "HEY! That's MY TOY! *I* was playing with it!" Again, you're helping learn and understand all these new feelings and emotions he's feeling, and you're helping him verbalize what he doesn't have words for yet.

We'd do this with aggressive kids in the daycare. Their behaviors would change, usually for the better, within two weeks or so. The key is to be diligent and recognize when he's about to be aggressive, and cut it off at the pass before he gets super wound up in his anger.

Shoot, I did it for my kids when THEY were little and NOT aggressive, just annoyed with a toy, and it cut down on THEIR tantrums almost overnight.

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answers from San Francisco on

He's TWO. That's how they act. My oldest was a sweet, adorable 2 year old. I patted myself on the back because I was a wonderful parent whose two year old never threw tantrums. Yay, me!

And then my younger daughter was born. I'm pretty convinced the universe sent this child to me so I would stop being so cocky about my parenting skills. Oh, my god. This child was hell on wheels when she was 2. She would have 8+ knock-down, drag-out screaming tantrums per day. It was unbelievable. My parents (the most doting grandparents ever) wouldn't babysit her. Even our beloved nanny, who had raised 7 children herself and had 14 grandchildren, was at her wits' end.

Yet miraculously, when my daughter turned 3, she grew out of it. Her language skills improved, she was better able to communicate, her fine motor skills were better, and she was just all-around a happier kid. Today, she's almost 9, and is a happy, sweet girl. She does have ADHD and is still very emotional (not in a bad way, but she just REALLY feels what she feels strongly).

So, what we did when she was 2 was this. When the tantrum started, I would calmly carry her to her room (or lead her, if she would walk), and say, "I can tell you are frustrated because (you couldn't use your finger paints on the cat... you couldn't eat ice cream for lunch... you weren't allowed to climb the kitchen cabinets...). You can stay here in your room until you're feeling better." And then I would leave her in her room until she calmed down. This allowed her to get herself under control without the stress/pressure of everyone watching her, lecturing her, rolling their eyes at her, whatever. She could just get over whatever disappointment/anger/frustration she felt, and then re-join polite society. This also allowed me to not have to listen to the screaming. Win-win.

Hang in there. He won't be like this forever.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Miami on

I just want to mention that Elaine's remark about a Children's Hospital is a great suggestion. They use a team approach.

I'd also like to tell you that a private evaluation (outside of Early Intervention (EI) with the school system) can be extremely helpful. I would not want to only rely on EI for diagnostic help. Your medical insurance should pay for evaluations. They should also help pay for therapy. Sometimes the wheels turn slowly with EI and you just CANNOT WAIT months and months to get him into the system. Do the therapy privately while you wait for the school system's help. It really IS that important.

Not enough words. The speech eval at 24 months will be very important. If I were you, I'd make sure that the person who does the evaluation is very experienced and also works with autistic children. If you could actually have a team approach to evaluate your son, that would be helpful.

Frustration is HUGE to a child who doesn't have the words needed to communicate. Sure, he's getting his point across. He's getting it across by having bloodcurdling tantrums.

Do you have a developmental pediatrician? A play therapist would also help shed valuable light on your son's issues.

One thing you might consider, if putting him in his room causes him to hurt himself, is something I read here that one mom talked about. I thought it sounded like a good idea. Sit in the floor with your back against a wall and pull him down in between your legs with him facing away from you. Have his bottom on the floor so that he can't headbutt you in the face and break your nose. Put your legs on top of his so that he can't kick and your arms around his arms. Whisper "It's okay" to him in his ear and let him cry himself out until he's tired of it.

When he's working in speech therapy, it is imperative that you work with him at home, every day, twice a day, on his home program. Speech therapy twice a week isn't enough. Say to him "Use your words" when he starts to get upset. As he progresses in speech, it will be easier. My son's speech therapist taught him how to say "ep me" (help me) when he wanted something. It was a great start.

The developmental ped and play therapist can help you further, including how to safeguard your 5 year old. It's imperative that you really handle this. It will affect your older son for the rest of his life if you don't.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

I feel for you my friend! you have a strong will child who may also have some kind of disorder. My now 17 yr old daughter was like that - and we had some very trying times. She was diagnosed with a disorder - which was devastating at the time - but it explained so very much.

When she had her horrible tantrums (that would go on and on and on) I would direct her to a spot in the middle of a room where she couldn't hurt herself, and I'd do somehting nearby that needed to be done (wash dishes, vacuum, dust, clean out coffee table storage) so I could keep an eye on her but "ignore" her as well. I wouldn't get emotional (I did the first few times when I had no idea what was going on) but very deadpan I'd give her direction (don't hit into the furniture, watch out for your head, etc.) but continue doing what I was doing. If we were in a public place I'd have to pick her up, and leave. Twice I had to tell the grocery store manager that I left a wagon in "aisle 7", I'm so sorry but I have to take this child home. They were wonderfully understanding.

Put your music or TV on louder, vacuum, do something to distract yourself becuase you will surely begin to doubt your abilities to parent this child. I was certain that I was a failure....

Once you can find out if there's a a diagnosis that covers yoru child, read as much as you can about it - then begin to follw that guidance. When my daughter was 14 I had to tell her that I would outlast her, if I had to sleep in her bed to keep her safe I would, if it meant that I had to quit my job to watch over her and keep her in line I would. If I had to take out a loan to get her the help she needed I would becuase she was more valuable to me than any car, new kitchen or vacation - and if I would take out loan for those I'd do the same for her.

Try to figure out if there are triggers - food, times of day, transitionary times. My friend's child was diagnosed on the Asbergers spectrum. when she removed gluten from his diet he improved within days. As they kept it off the diet he eventually came off the diagnosis and he's amazingly well. My 17 yr old is on her way to becoming a wonderful young lady. Getting a name for her disorder and learning how to address is has made all the difference. She's a good student, she works PT, she volunteers a few times a week and just came back from a week in central america holding camps for really, really poor kids and we're planning for college in the Fall. There is great hope for these kids who make us crazy - I think they end up being the leader, movers and shakers of hte world.

When you're ready to lose your mind remember if you can't find a way to control yourself then how can this young child figure out how to control himself? Dont take it personally, don't get mad at your husband becuase you're always the one in the middle of these event, think about how to show love to your child who is wildly unhappy becuase he doesn't know how to control himself. When the tantrum is done hold him in your arms and tell him how much you love him and that next time he gets really upset he should tell you and you'll help him deal with it. Eventually he'll get it, eventually it will begin to stick.

finally, when you do lost it and you've now upset with youself - give yourself a break. Forgive yourself. Ask you child to forgive you - hold eachother, include your older son, and move on. Pray for God's grace to cover your errors - we are all human and have all been there.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

My son did similar things when he was that age. It was like going from Sesame Street to the Battle Royal in a split second.

I learned many things during that time.
1. Most times when he would switch, it would be a split second thing. Ususally when he got mad because we wanted him to do something different from what he was doing. So the first thing I learned was to give him a heads up. 'Hey Billy, when I come back we are going to eat lunch, so finish playing'

2. I also learned, that drinks and food could be a benefit as well as a tamtrum ending distraction. For my son, it seemed that the tantrums were worse when he hadn't eaten or drunk anything for awhile. So I learned that when he would start up, I would remove him to the kitchen, sit him down, hand him a cup of juice and a cracker. I would not say anything except "don't move". I would hand him the stuff, and say, sit there and eat this. I would sit at the table with him, not talking. After he'd had a few sips and bites, he would calm down. THEN I would tell him that getting mad like that was not good.
Do you like it when I yell? No.
Well, I don't like it when you yell. So let's work together on not yelling. .. OK

3. I also found that the more I yelled, the more he yelled or screamed. BUT if I kept my voice low, calm, and gave him the 'you did not just do that look'. that it would get his attention faster.

How long did it last? More than a few months. When I put 1,2 and 3 together, not that much longer. That isn't to say that my kids haven't had melt downs in public. When those happen, I pick them up and walk out. No matter what is in my cart, how bad I need to get whatever errand done, we leave. When we would get to the car, I put him in it, not in his seat, just in the car, I would climb in back with him and sit in the backseat, and lock us in. Then we just sit there until he calms down. The car doesn't move until he put himself in his carseat.

A key thing that another mom mentioned below is staying calm. You can't let the tantrum upset you. You have to stay in control. You aren't causing the scene, they are. People aren't staring at you, they are staring at the child.
My daughter once had a bad one. I took her to her room, sat against the closed door and just let her go. The only thing I would say to her, every few minutes was 'are you done yet?' ... eventually she said yes. I then gave her a hug, we told each other we were sorry. I brought her some juice and had her take a nap. She was 'back to normal' when she came back downstairs.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Austin on

You might also want to look at the Early Childhood Intervention through your local school district. They can also be a valuable resource for you.

Call your local school district for a referral.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Beaumont on

Our son was adopted so we didn't know his history. He was very much like this. It is very hard. I would suggest taking him to a hospital (We went to Texas Children's that does lots of work with international adopted children) for a diagnosis. They've seen it all. We waited till he was 5 because we kept thinking it would get better. Hopefully, he is just frustrated and this will pass. I wish you the best!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Columbia on

My ex's son, who has Asperger's, also had very violent temper tantrums.

I'm sorry you're going through this. I suggest that you talk with your pediatrician about having him evaluated. I would also suggest that you strip his room down to only the things he can't injure himself with or throw, and put him there when he tantrums. Let him know that you will come and get him when he's calmed down.


answers from New York on

Are you certain he's getting enough sleep??


answers from Williamsport on

If you want to go the discipline route, you can stop the tantrums altogether. The book Back to Basics Discipline by Janet Campbell Matson is excellent. My kids were warned and disciplined (swats) at the very beginning of tantrums so they learned not to start them. Just for bratty fits, not for real sadness etc. I never would let a tantrum progress to the violent stage. For one it's not safe, and two, they don't learn self control that way, and the tantrums could last years. People thought the idea sounded barbaric to give a warning and a swat for tantrums, but when they saw my kids quickly and easily learn to "not begin" a fit at a warning, they realized it's not so bad to handle it firmly and nip it in the bud. I would try discipline before therapy and all that. Most two year olds will have raging fits if you let them or if you use things like time outs and ignoring. Ignoring is actually the worst thing you can do because you're allowing them to practice and escalate the behavior. Rumor has it they'll give up if they get no attention for it, but I've never seen that be true.

Btw, my three kids are very different, first was easy, second very spirited, and third VERY RAGING with angry fits starting much earlier, and much crazier, but consistent calm discipline nipped the fits in all three.



answers from Pittsburgh on

Do you have a safe place where you an put him to ignore him during his tantrums? At that age, I put my child into either the crib or pack n play if he started to tantrum, whichever was closest. He didn't try to climb out, so it worked well for him. I would tell him that he needed to stay in until he was done crying. Then I walked out of the room until he stopped.

If he had one when we were out, I would strap him into his car seat, then sit in the car with him - but in the front and not looking at him, until he stopped.


answers from Boston on

Ugh - I feel your pain. I have a colleague who went through this - her child had severe rages from an early age. He also was diagnosed with a learning disability. She also works extensively with kids who have a variety of diagnoses - PDD, OCD, ADD/ADHD and so on. I have 3 friends who are early childhood experts who've seen a lot of kids with these issues whether or not something like Asperger's was present. They each have at least one child of their own who had focus and attention issues. The behavioral strategies you've used only work up to a point - when things are so far out of control, you can't rely on just one approach.

They've all had good success with a nutritional approach but NOT by removing so many things from the diet (it's a hassle, is hard to maintain if you ever want to go out or let the child go to someone else's house or a birthday party, and it's not effective long term unless you are constantly policing every morsel they eat). Instead, they've added necessary nutrients through patented (therefore safe and effective) supplementation. There is new science on this as well - there's one dietary ingredient found to change cells that go haywire and cause everything from disease to hypersensitivity. The focus is fabulous, the rages disappeared in the one child I mentioned (so did his 60 food allergies), and the school took him off his IEP and said he no longer had a learning disability.

I'd be happy to help more if you want to message me. You are wise to take into account not only that your younger son is miserable and you are going crazy, but your older child is at risk as well. But there is hope and it's pretty easy to do if you're consistent.



answers from San Francisco on

My oldest who is now 4.5 years old was awful. She had a pritty pronounced speech delay though and she didn't act out violently towards others just herself and that was cured when she was actively in speech therapy and we all learned how to communicate with one another.
My youngest who is 2.5 years old is in the middle of this phase and she's a great talker. She is actively violent toward other people at times but again a lot of rolling around flailing type tantrums when she doesn't get what she wants... less often now then when she started with this behavior a few months ago. I think the key is a firm zero tolerance for that act. I just say with an angry face, "this is not ok. I don't want to give you.../ do... Because your not listening."
I taught my oldest to react in the same way. It's helped a lot. It seems mean at first. However it teaches them both the proper way to act and express themselves when you are upset and/or being wronged. I put my youngest in time out in her room where we don't watch her carry on, and tell her to come out when she can be/play nice and listen. I tell her sternly that it is not ok to hit/bite/kick/throw things at other people ever! Then no cuddles and time out till she chooses to come out and be nice. Maybe this is too mean but its what has worked for us.
I found this solution works for all of us because otherwise I would find myself spinning out of control and having an adult tantrum myself. You have to look at your kid and see what they respond too and you can live with. Then do it every time! Everyone in yor family. Your 5 year old is watching and learning from you. Show them, teach them, how to deal with this type of behavior. It won't be the last time they see it. Kids that grow up permitted to get away with this early behavior grow up to be bullies. (Sorry for the generalization) Take control and model how to say enough is enough. Model that is ok to say, to set limits on what they will tolerate.
All kids this age want to be loved and want to test limits. Put them away from eyesite to cool off and reward their choosing to come out and play nice.
When my daughter gets a time out she eventually either takes a nap or comes out acting pouty. We make a big deal about her choosing to join us. We give lots of cuddles and say we missed her and she's usually better. If not then its the same thing over again. Just stick with it everyone in your family and you'll see result in as soon as a week. But you have to be consistent! They're going to try to be terrible once in a while and you have to give the same consistent message. Basiclly, "this is how you behave, or we're not playing anymore! This is how you share, this is how you ask for what you want, this is how you behave when your disappointed. You and everyone in your family have to send clear consistant messages."
This time will pass. It's all about learning now. Learning how to get what they want, and how to cope with not getting what they want. They're really looking to be taught these things.



answers from Denver on

Since you asked, I'll share that my son with Asperger's started exhibiting identical behavior by this age. He got better when his vocab grew, but until about age 5, it was violence before words if he worked himself into a rage.
Hang in there; I'm sure you've gotten some good advice below (didn't read yet.)



answers from Philadelphia on

My niece was like this. She is now 5 and has basically outgrown it. The worst time was about 18 months through about 3.5, and then it drastically improved. But during that time she was having violent tantrums and lashing out mostly against her mom and my son who is one year older than her. The smallest infraction would send her over the edge. She had absolutely no tolerance for things not going her way, which is to be expected at that age, but it was way beyond normal behavior. The strange thing that she only exhibited this behavior with the people that she was closest to. For example, in preschool with her classmates and teachers she was fine. My son is very passive and he would just cry when she would hit/bite/pinch him. It only improved when he started standing up for himself and hitting her back. I did not like the fact that he had to return the violence, but his confidence also improved when he realized that he could do something about her attacks, and it stopped very quickly after that. Her tantrums with her mom have improved, but it did take a long time. I don't really have much advice there because her mom has an extremely different parenting style than I do, but I can definitely say that she did not try to start dealing with it until it was too late, and it took her years to get the behavior under control. My niece does not have autism or aspergers and is a very social and intelligent child. Maybe your OT will have some suggestions for you.

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