The Five Year Old Tantrum

No, I’m not talking about a tantrum that has spanned five years. Now that would be epic and quite painful. Today’s Ask Dr.Mom is all about the dreaded tantrum. That unwanted and yet inevitable badge of motherhood. We have all found ourselves in the eye of the storm at one time or another, and one of my readers posed this question:

Dear Dr.Mom

Is it normal for a five year old to have tantrums?


The short answer is yes. However, we will have to delve into this a little deeper to see if perhaps there may be any reason for concern.

Tantrums are generally thought to be more common in toddlerhood and with good reason: they are more common in toddlerhood. This really comes as no surprise if you think about what is at the core of a tantrum…frustration. Toddlers have plenty of reasons and opportunities to become frustrated. They have limited vocabulary, they want to do things themselves but often lack the coordination to do so, and they often feel misunderstood.

That being said, toddlers aren’t the only ones prone to frustration. Heck, we all get frustrated every now and then. Adults have tantrums too, they just manifest them differently (hopefully). So it should also come as no surprise that your five year old may have a mini meltdown from time to time. Think about being five for a minute. It’s a whole new world in so many ways. Starting kindergarten, having more responsibility, possibly losing their first tooth, learning how to ride a bike without training wheels, making new friends, learning a new sport, and the list goes on. Five year olds have a lot of new things on their plates. Throw them a little curve ball and all can come tumbling down if the circumstances are just right.

The trick is to figure out what the tantrum triggers are for your child. For my five year old, I can usually spot a meltdown coming down the pike and I’ll try to be proactive and head it off before it explodes into a huge crying meltdown mess. Here are the most common tantrum triggers:

Fatigue: This is probably the number one trigger. Even if your child no longer naps during the day, five year olds still need some down time. Encourage some quiet time during the day. I recall vividly a day in the not so distant past, when my son had a super busy, no rest day, culminating in a dinner soccer party. Long story short, we suffered through agonizing cries all the way home. He was simply tired and the loss of his balloon was what tipped the scale in the tantrum direction.

Hunger: Again, a common culprit. Five year olds may not recognize yet that the reason they are feeling grumpy is because they are hungry. They need a snack. When the whining starts and you’ve figured out hunger is the cause, say to your child “you are hungry, you need a snack”. This will help her recognize why she is feeling this way and hopefully next time, instead of whining about something, she will simply ask for a snack.

Overstimulation: Ever been to one of those birthday parties where the noise is so loud you can’t even hear yourself think? Next thing you know, your child is a mess of tears running in your direction because someone spilled her drink. Sure, kids love birthday parties but they can quickly become overstimulated and prone to meltdowns.

Extreme frustration (usually in the eye of one of the above): My son had a mini meltdown trying to tie his shoelace. He didn’t want help, he didn’t want me to talk, he wanted to do it, and he was getting more and more frustrated with each attempt. It didn’t help that we were approaching the end of a long day. Diversion was my best tactic in this scenario.

Feeling misunderstood: This leads right back to frustration. Even though five year olds have a fantastic vocabulary and are easy to understand, they still have difficulty communicating about emotions. Help her express her emotions, echo what she is saying, and let her know you are trying to understand. Even if you don’t quite get it, a little empathy can go a long way.

Food insensitivity: could your child have an unknown food sensitivity? If you suspect this may be the case, keep a tantrum diary. Record events surrounding the tantrum as well as foods eaten at or around that time.

Still unsure if your five year old’s tantrum falls into the realm of “normal”? Here are some red flags to be aware of:

-Physical aggression toward others or self injury
-Frequent tantrums with unknown cause or trigger
-Inability to calm self down
-Your child exhibits signs of low self esteem
-Your child is consistently destructive in the throes of a tantrum

If your child persistently displays any of these, contact your child’s pediatrician for further evaluation.

*Keep in mind that children with hearing or vision loss, a chronic medical illness, or a learning/behavioral disability will be prone to more frequent tantrums. Again, the culprit is usually frustration and/or the inability to communicate effectively. If you suspect any of these in your child, have her evaluated by her doctor.*

Five year olds crave independence but at the same time they crave consistency and limits. This can certainly be a fine line to tread. The good news is, at five, your child usually wants to and can talk about what is bothering her. Once the storm has passed, take the opportunity to discuss with your child what happened. Don’t belabor or harp on her behavior, instead figure out together how you can help her feel more in control. Hopefully, in time, these tantrums will decrease and evolve into “moments of frustration” that you can both work through together.

Do you have any tips for diffusing or preventing a tantrum?

14 Responses to The Five Year Old Tantrum
  1. Mrs.Mayhem
    December 15, 2010 | 6:56 am

    Thank you for this post! My five year old has been having tantrums lately (which she hasn't had for a very long time). I have been at my wits end, unsure how to deal with her fits. None of my other kids had tantrums at 5, so this has been confusing. I'm glad to hear that it isn't abnormal!

  2. Gigi
    December 15, 2010 | 7:28 am

    Great post. My daughter had them severely when she was 4 to 4 1/2 and I actually took her to see a psychologist for a bit (who sucked, so we stopped seeing her). She seems to have really calmed down since kinder started. I think the routine and c hallenge is really good for her. Like you, I try to anticipate knowing her triggers and can now usually head tantrums off before they start.

  3. Making It Work Mom
    December 15, 2010 | 9:03 am

    Oh the tantrums. I have to agree with everything you said and even go on to say that with your five triggers it usually is a combination of things. I think sometimes because the 5 year old does appear to be "so big" we forget that they are no mini-adults and do still need snack times and rest time and for the most part can not regulate these themselves.
    My 10 year old has meltdowns when she is tired, hungry, or overstimulated. I usually force her spend some down time in her bedroom after a sleepover because I know she is going to be tired and overstimulated. It usually works.

    Thanks for giving such great tips heading into the Holiday season

  4. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    December 15, 2010 | 9:09 am

    I've been waiting for this post as it was my question. Thankfully it's been a while (knock on wood) since the last tantrum. She is set off by the tiniest things, I'm sure it's about hunger or fatigue. What really clued me in to the normalcy of the 5-year-old tantrum is the day I volunteered at school. The teachers kept telling the kids that their crafts "might not make it home in one piece" and that if something bad happened "at least they had the joy of making it."

    The experts try to diffuse in advance. They are so smart.

  5. Cheryl D.
    December 15, 2010 | 11:50 am

    Great, informative post!

  6. Liz
    December 15, 2010 | 1:16 pm

    Any major freak outs from Kate go back to frustration and her overwhelming emotions.

  7. Ameena
    December 15, 2010 | 2:46 pm

    Maya has never had a tantrum. Not a real one anyway. This mystifies me, mainly because it appears I am doing something right. I just wish I knew what it was! :)

  8. Melinda
    December 15, 2010 | 6:07 pm

    I did a great book with my son called "What To Do When Your Temper Flares." It's a workbook that you go through together. We did it when he was 8 years old and three years later, he still refers to it and uses the "tools" he got from that book. You are so right — kids with chronic illness often suffer from more frustration than the average kid, which results in more tantrums even as they get older. At least I have found that to be true with my son. Great, insightful advice as usual, Melissa. I mentioned you in my post today. :)

  9. Anonymous
    December 15, 2010 | 8:36 pm

    I have an eight-year-old that has all the red flags you mentioned when she gets angry–usually when things don't go her way. What exactly would her doctor do if I mentioned it to him? I'm going to check out the book that Melinda mentioned. In the meantime, now I'm scared…is my kid o.k.?

  10. Amy
    December 16, 2010 | 6:58 am

    This is great! Bookmarking this post. My 5 year old has been difficult lately. It's usually the perfect storm of tired, frustrated with her 3 year old sister & just feeling misunderstood.

  11. Lady Jennie
    December 16, 2010 | 2:27 pm

    I read this with interest. I often wonder about food allergies since I am intolerant to gluten (even as an adult, if I eat it, I can struggle with low self esteem and anger, so how much more a child who can't make the link). Anyway, my five year old son is sometimes hyperactive, sometimes whiny, but can otherwise be a super adorable kid and one who concentrates well. That's why I'm not sure. It's also really hard to go through food testing, especially since children in France are not allowed to bring their lunch. Anyway, long topic, but I was at least reassured to read that tantrums are still normal at this age.

  12. adriel, from the mommyhood memos
    December 16, 2010 | 11:52 pm

    I'm afraid we've now entered into the realm of tantrums. I honestly thought they started a bit later! (Naive FTM here, I guess.) At this age (10 months) I'm just trying to figure out what discipline looks like… and when it's just beyond his control due to tiredness or sickness or whatever. It's clear that sometimes it's purely behavioral… and other times it's a reaction he has no control over yet. I have lots of questions… and lots to learn!!!

  13. Annette
    December 19, 2010 | 8:37 pm

    This is great information and so true. My little two year old is always having mini-tantrums, and it is because he's frustrated and has a limited vocabulary. They do stem because he's tired, hungry, or simply wants to be able to do things on his own or without permission. I have empathy because my angry moments usually stem from the above too :)

  14. Betsy at Zen-Mama
    December 20, 2010 | 9:32 am

    Great information! I wanted to add (as a preschool teacher) that tantrums should be less and less by 5 years old. We work with kids by saying "Use your words". Infact we often say what we want them to say. For instance, we'd say, "Now tell Joe can I have that when you're done." Then they say it. Sometimes they can't access their language part of the brain that is on the opposite side of the action part. This is very effective because you're validating their feelings, too. Stay calm if they have a tantrum, too.