The Five Year Old Tantrum

Today’s Ask Dr.Mom is all about the dreaded tantrum. We have all found ourselves in the midst of this great storm at one time or another, and unfortunately toddlers aren’t the only ones prone to them. One reader had this question:

Dear Dr.Mom

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

–Joey

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 experiences and milestones to contend with. 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. He was beyond tired.

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 their 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?

**Do you have a parenting or child health related question? If so, e-mail me at mommamd4two(at)aol(dot)com so I can answer and feature it on my Wednesday Ask Dr.Mom series.**

Original publish date: 12/15/10
Updated: 4/20/11

16 Responses to The Five Year Old Tantrum
  1. Liz
    April 20, 2011 | 10:21 am

    It definitely seems like the older they get the less frequent the tantrum. We've always been very schedule oriented – both for sleep and food – so I think that really helps.

  2. Hungrigyrl
    April 20, 2011 | 10:25 am

    My oldest is SO sensitive to hunger/fatigue/over-stimulation. We have to be really careful. We have had some doozies over the last 4 years!

  3. Kristin
    April 20, 2011 | 10:35 am

    I'm so happy for 4. So far the tantrums are much fewer and far between. Here's to hoping we continue on that path!

  4. Laura@OutnumberedMom
    April 20, 2011 | 2:10 pm

    Those 5 reasons are spot on, Dr. Mom. By the way, I teach high school, and those are pretty much the top 5 reasons teen melt down, too!

  5. Paula @ Simply Sandwich
    April 20, 2011 | 4:47 pm

    Okay…this applies to my teenager's melt downs too! Perfect! :)

  6. Cheryl D.
    April 20, 2011 | 11:53 pm

    I hate tantrums. I really really hate them!

  7. Skinny Mom's Kitchen
    April 21, 2011 | 4:22 am

    As I read this post I thought wait this could explain the temper tantrums of my 40 and 50 year old colleagues!! Or even myself. Ha!

    I think it is important to know tantrum triggers to help minimize or prevent especially when in public :)

  8. Tina @ Life Without Pink
    April 21, 2011 | 4:29 am

    I always feel like you are talking to me! Every time I come to your place you have an issue I am dealing with, love it! My 5 yr old has been having a lot of melt down lately. I've found its when he is extremely tired, he gets frustrated and starts having tantrums. I often get frustrated myself because I feel like he shouldn't be having them at this age…but then I realize he is still little :)

  9. Jessica
    April 21, 2011 | 5:45 am

    I was really hoping the answer was going to be "no." With my kids being 3 and almost 2 I am up to my eyeballs in tantrums and would love for them to be over in the next year or so!

  10. Barbara Manatee
    April 22, 2011 | 8:43 pm

    Very true post…and it ties in a lot with the behaviors we see in my students with autism.

    ~*~*~*~
    April is Autism Awareness Month. I'm dedicating my blog all month long to Autism.

  11. Lady Jennie
    April 28, 2011 | 4:10 am

    This was a must-read for me as soon as I saw the title. My 5 yr old whines a lot (sometimes tantrums, but mostly whines). It doesn't help being the middle child I think, but it was good to check out some of these reasons. I hadn't thought about all the milestones and all the things that could frustrate him.

    He became obsessed that we look at his "work" from school the same day be brought it home (as we were preparing for a vacation). I told him that we wouldn't have time to properly look at it until after the vacation, and oh – the tears. When we were getting in the car I asked my husband why he packed our son's seat with so many things, and it turned out he was trying to bring his "work" (a huge bag with notebooks and drawings from the semester) on the trip with us!

    Kind of funny, but the kid gets obsessed.

  12. [...] and knowing that fatigue, hunger, over stimulation, and frustration are common tantrum triggers (no matter what the age), is there anything else we should know about [...]

  13. [...] The Five Year Old Tantrum [...]

  14. Jill Pontiere
    December 30, 2011 | 2:18 pm

    My 5 1/2 yr old grand daughter threw a fit today in public at a science museum over the cafe not having any more choc chip cookies. When she began kicking and hitting and screaming, we left. No treat at the gift shop either.. Stuck to my guns and will continue to do so. I told her Grandma loves her very much but will not put up with the way she was acting. I will continue to stick to my guns….I’ve been far to easy and I feel responsible for a lot of her frustration. No more….not fair to her. I feel ok about the whole situation. She ended up hugging me, but when her mom asked about it…she was upset again.

  15. [...] The five year old tantrum [...]

  16. Jenny
    January 5, 2013 | 8:47 pm

    Thank you for the advice. I wish I knew more about the inner workings of a 5 year old’s mind. I am the mother of three children, ages 5, 3, and two. I find that we go into survival mode often, and that’s when we get these emotional eruptions from my 5 year old. I know she needs more alone time with us, and away from her siblings. This is super hard to do, but from your article I can see how very important this must be to her. I will have to figure out a way to give her what she needs. She really enjoys spending te with her grandma, and grandma is great, but this is a trigger for several of her temper tantrums. Any advice to head these off without compromising the time she can spend with her grandma?

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