​​Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hello everybody. Welcome back to another Beyond the Session segment. Here on the Securely Attached podcast, I have Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, and she is the perfect person to talk about this question because literally, you wrote the book on it.

Dr. Rebecca (01:01):

I wrote the book every day as Elvis Castello would say.

Dr. Sarah (01:03):

Yes. So first of all, hi, it’s so good to see you again.

Dr. Rebecca (01:06):

Always, always.

Dr. Sarah (01:08):

But this parent writes in, hi, by what age should kids stop tantruming? What are some abnormal indicators to look for and what should I advocate for in terms of testing and support? Thank you.

Dr. Rebecca (01:24):

Boom. I mean, I can sort of start by saying what I say to every single parent who asked me that question, which is, when was the last time you had a tantrum? Because mine was probably sometime last week.


I think a tantrum is the way I define a tantrum in the book and kind of generally is it’s a behavioral expression of emotions that kind of feel too big to express in words or in another adaptive way. And as we get older, we get better at using our words. We get better at having coping strategies, and we don’t necessarily have a full on tantrum, but I think we can all point to adults who have tantrums and they just look different at different developmental stages. And I think that context is important as far as the kind of tantrum that I would imagine this parent is talking about. I think typically what we’re thinking about as a run of the mill generic tantrum tend to start around one, maybe a little before with the understanding. These are all averages and tend to kind of peter out usually by six or seven with a peak being four or five-ish.


Well, three, I would say, actually, and when I say one of my most popular social media posts is when I say, don’t panic if your 8-year-old still has tantrums. Right? But I thought you said seven, when kids are overwhelmed with big feelings, and obviously there’s a million things that can play into that, and there’s neurodiversity and there’s language, and there’s all kinds of things, but tantrums are kind of overwhelm or meltdowns, and there’s a lot out there right now that tries to separate them out, kind of what’s the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum and an overwhelm, and I don’t know that that’s useful. Tantrums are big feelings that your kid can’t really handle in the moment that manifest in behaviors that as a parent are really difficult to tolerate and manage. And absolutely, hopefully they get less frequent as kids get older because they gain more language skills and abilities to carry themselves, express themselves, cope, and looking for a specific age that they completely wrap up is not, I think, helpful or realistic.

Dr. Sarah (03:52):

Right. Well, that’s the thing I keep in my head going back to is when we say what age should they stop tantruming? I really think that a more accurate question, a more nuanced question is at what age do I expect my child to stop tantruming at a particular frequency, intensity, and duration, right? Because we never stop having moments where we lose it. But younger kids in that kind of window that you’d sort of listed, right, late ones to late sixes or sevens, you’re going to see them more frequently. You’re going to see them last longer and be more intense depending on your kids. Some kids have a lot, they have different styles with how they tantrum. Some kids, it’s like it comes on super fast, it’s super intense, it’s super short, and then they move on. Some kids, it’s like this rolling boil that eventually hits and then it lasts for a really long time, takes them a long time to kind of come move through it and get back to themselves. For some kids, the intensity is huge and acute, and for some kids it’s like a whiny, icky, and then they’re done.

Dr. Rebecca (05:14):

And I think parents oftentimes want, I certainly get in my office a lot, what’s normal, what’s normal and what’s not normal. And I wish there was a formula. When we look at frequency, duration, and intensity, which I agree are absolutely the hallmarks to look at. I wish I could say, well, there have to be within this number of tantrums a week, and they can’t last more than this amount of time, and they need to be this level of intensity. And then you’re okay. But if you cross over one of those numbers, there’s something to be concerned about. And unfortunately, there’s no algorithm. And you told me your child had one tantrum last week and it lasted 90 minutes and they tore apart furniture and they bit their skin. And that’s one really concerning tantrum. If you told me your child had 32 minute tantrums, I would be less. But for me, there’s absolutely things that I look at, and there are some red flags that parents should be aware of and we can talk about those. But as far as the duration, frequency, and intensity thing, I think it’s hard to kind of pin down exactly where normal stops and concerning begins.

Dr. Sarah (06:27):

And that brings up an important rule of thumb that I kind of use when I’m talking with parents kind of about anything. When they’re asking you what’s normal, what’s not normal, regardless is think about it in terms of when you go to the pediatrician and they take your child’s weight and height and head circumference, and then they chart it on that growth curve, and every single time they come back in the office, they do those same three measurements and they plotted against their own growth curve. They’re comparing your child to your child. Think of that same concept when you’re looking at behavioral issues or regulation issues. Are you comparing your child’s frequency, duration, and intensity of their tantrums to their own frequency, intensity, and duration of tantrums? Right? That’s a big thing for me. If my child falls off their growth curve or flies up and jumps really high over their growth curve, expected growth curve, that’s a sign like a big change has occurred.


Something isn’t kind of going the way we expected. If I have a kid who’s really moody and irritable and has a sensitive nervous system and has a lot of tantrums, and they always have, it, doesn’t mean they always will, but I would expect to see them with a relatively consistent level, maybe hopefully slightly tapering, but still consistent with their temperament and personality and coping strategies and age. But as they get a little older, would I expect them to show fewer perhaps? But is that fewer than Mary Jo who’s sitting next to them in their kindergarten class? Probably not. I’m looking at like, is my child getting slightly, are they showing a reduction in intensity, duration, and frequency overall in the aggregate as they get a little bit older and have the capacity to problem solve differently, regulate affect differently, communicate their needs differently and tolerate distress differently?


That’s what I’d want to see. But if my child’s increasing in any of those measures from where they previously were, I’d want to try to figure, it sounds to me that that kid is experiencing increased stress. Something is stress, and I don’t necessarily mean stress can be lots of different things. It could be a sign that they’re getting sick, or it could be a sign that something’s not feeling good at school, or it could be a sign that something’s happening in the home environment, whatever, but some type of stress on the system that’s making it go up in one of those domains or multiple of those domains like frequency, duration, and intensity. It wouldn’t necessarily be a sign like, oh gosh, something’s really wrong. It just says to me, Hey, I would want to do a deep dive on what could be stressing their system right now, but I want to compare a child to themselves to their regulation curve.

Dr. Rebecca (09:29):

Yeah, no, I think I haven’t heard that before, and I think that’s a really great analogy to the growth curve. I also, I encourage parents when I’m talking about frequency, duration, and intensity to actually monitor, or I shouldn’t say monitor, but record, not with the, I’m dating myself, not with a tape recorder, but keep track of it, there we go.

Dr. Sarah (09:51):

Yes, to track.

Dr. Rebecca (09:53):

And especially something like duration, right? Because when you are in it, it’s the same thing with parents who choose to do sleep learning with their child. And you’re like, Hey, we’re crying for two hours. And it’s like you look at a clock and it’s been seven minutes.

Dr. Sarah (10:06):

Right. And it feels like two hours.

Dr. Rebecca (10:09):

It feels so long, or it feels like your child’s average tantrum is just incredibly difficult and intense because you remember that time at the airport when blah, blah, blah. But the fact is that was that time at the airport. And so really if you start to feel like, oh my gosh, my child’s not getting better, my child’s getting worse, to really take a step back and start logging it for those three variables, because you might be surprised at what actually comes through.

Dr. Sarah (10:38):

Yeah, no, I think that’s true. In fact, when I work with families, I always have this observation tracker form that I have them use. In fact, I think I can link that in the show notes.

Dr. Rebecca (10:47):

Is that from Mona Delahooke’s book or no?

Dr. Sarah (10:51):

No, I love her stuff too. Mona Delahooke has a book called Beyond Behaviors, and then another one that’s called Brain Body Parening.

Dr. Rebecca (11:01):

Brain Body Parenting, I think.

Dr. Sarah (11:03):

Yeah. And she talks a lot about this as well, but she has a different talks, I think a little bit more about tracking their sensory stuff. And the observation tracker that I have parents use is way more rudimentary. It’s super basic. It’s kind of like a food tracker or a mood tracker. It’s like time of day. What did you observe happen? What was your response? What were some of the antecedents and consequences that you could maybe identify afterwards and looking backwards, and then any other notes. But my thought is I really want parents to start paying attention and actually logging throughout the day what’s happening. But one to your point, to get a realistic sense because we have a distorted sense very often of what’s actually going on, so overwhelming when it’s happening. But the other reason why I always want parents to for a week, not forever, but just for a week really track is I want to look for patterns.


I want to know is it always happening at certain times of the day? Is it always happening around certain types of transitions? Is it always happening with a certain parent or not the other parent, or when a sibling’s present or whatever. But I’m looking for patterns because I think those patterns help us understand that other question I was asking, which is what might be stressing the system, even if there aren’t major changes in your child’s tantrums, but you’re just trying to figure out, okay, how do I help them build those tools to reduce them? You kind of have to figure out, well, what tools are missing? And so knowing what’s triggering it.

Dr. Rebecca (12:51):

And complicated result of it, I mean, I would actually say not to negate the fact that you might see, okay, it’s every time in the late afternoon, it looks like there’s a long time between lunch and dinner. What if we move dinner up a little bit and suddenly your kids throwing a fewer time? I mean, you can actually come up with some really concrete, you don’t need to have a PhD to figure out, you know, like what…

Dr. Sarah (13:12):

Right, but you do need to actually map it because it’s hard to see it when you’re in it. You kind of need to look at it on paper. That’s why I always start with the observation tracker. There’s a episode that I did a while back, I’ll have to link to it in the show notes, but it was like, how to change your child’s behavior in three weeks or something like that. And it was a little tongue in cheek because as anyone who’s listening to this podcast knows, I’m not a big fan of focusing specifically on changing a child’s behavior. However, I do walk you through how do identify a behavior that’s not working and how to work to change it. How you change it is to track the behaviors and figure out how you are showing up and kind of shift the way you are showing up.


But it’s a really helpful strategy, and I’ll link to it because if you’re listening to this podcast episode because your kids having a lot of tantrums, this might be a helpful way to think about it. But also, we were talking earlier, Rebecca, about red flags. Yeah. I almost feel like we could talk about, mean you and I, God, we love tantrums it. It’s like our love language butter. I know. So we probably could do a lot more episodes on this, which I’d be happy to at any point ever to do this. But do I think we can talk about what’s normative, which we did. We talk about ways you can try to really get objective data on what’s going on. And then I do think we can talk about what you can do to build your child’s skillset. But that’s a probably longer episode. But I do think we should talk about red flags because like you were saying, signs that something is like, this is not just about developmental regulation building, right? It’s something else, right?

Dr. Rebecca (15:03):

Teams are typical and expected unless they’re not, and how do you tell the difference? And every parent will say, no, you’ve never seen a kid tantrum like my kid tantrums. And there are actually, that’s not true. Most kids tantrum, and yet there are signs not when we say red flag, I just want to be clear, not that it’s a five alarm fire and that there’s anything really horrifically wrong, but just that it would be helpful perhaps to get a set of eyes on your kid or to speak with a professional who knows more about this kind of thing. One is that’s been born out in the research is duration. So if your child is regularly having tantrums that are, I think upwards, if I’m remembering correctly, and don’t cite me on this and the citations are in my book, I think, but upwards of 25 minutes regularly, I think is something to be aware of if your child is having tantrums regularly in a setting outside of their home or with their caregivers, if your child is engaging in aggression to themselves or other people. And again, that’s why these red flags are so dicey because I can picture parents listening and being like, oh, mom, my kid hits all the time, or my kid pushes all the time.


It’s just a qualitatively different kind of aggression. Your child is scratching his own arm really hard.

Dr. Sarah (16:39):

Biting themselves or…

Dr. Rebecca (16:41):

Destroying something really deliberately and purposefully.

Dr. Sarah (16:46):

Pulling their hair out. I’ve seen that.

Dr. Rebecca (16:50):

And then the last is not being able to soothe themselves without sort of extensive assistance. And again, not it’s appropriate for a two-year-old having a tantrum that they may need a parent to come and hug them and help calm them down and co-regulate sometimes. But the idea that every time they’re distressed, they cannot kind of get themselves back into regulation without some kind of extensive intervention from a grownup. I’ve seen plenty of kids who get into a rut though, where not by their own volition, but where they actually could, but a parent is so anxious that doesn’t let that. So each of these red flags, I just want to really caution parents from taking at face value because even though we’re trying to list them as things to be aware of, it’s also you actually need someone who can potentially ask them more further probing questions to really get at is this what the researchers meant?

Dr. Sarah (17:56):

Right. I think what we’re saying is if those things are happening, worth exploring some sort of professional evaluation, not so that you can then get extensive treatment for your child who is very much for sure, definitely having an issue that needs help, but maybe for them to be able to get into the more specific nuanced questions of how do I really ask this very unique family, this very unique set of parents and this very unique child? How do we really discern whether this is something that is a sign that something is more complicated going on, or perhaps, Nope, this is still developmentally appropriate. This is your child’s growth curve, if you will, and maybe there’s some strategies that we could do to support it, but also you don’t need to freak out. And frankly, even if they say, this is a big problem, this probably suggests some underlying issue.


Also, not a, we need to freak out moment. We treat this in our practices all the time, and with relative easy success, I think this is solvable. It’s not, and some of the solving it is increasing parents’ tolerance for it. Some of it is modifying the environment to create less stressors on the system of the child. Some of it is waiting out the child’s developmental sort of growth so that they can withstand the distress in a different way. And some of it is giving the child strategies and different tools that are really targeted to help them. I mean, these are things that you and I do literally every single day with families, and it’s quite painless. It can be a pretty helpful experience.

Dr. Rebecca (19:42):

Yeah, it’s cool. You can see it’s like, how rare is it in parenting that I can say, which I can confidently about tantrums do these things, and I promise it will get easier. That’s a win, and it’s a win for parents who are like, wow, look at what we did. And so embrace it and learn about it and think, I mean, yeah, all that. Let’s do another episode on them.

Dr. Sarah (20:08):

Yeah. Oh my God, please send us your tantrum questions, and Rebecca and I will come back and answer them specifically, because I don’t know tantrums. I feel like I’ve done so many episodes on tantrums, and they’re all really different because tantrums are ubiquitous in that they’re in everybody’s family and every child, and also there’s a lot of nuance to it.

Dr. Rebecca (20:33):

Yep, absolutely.

Dr. Sarah (20:33):

We can geek out on tantrums anytime.

Dr. Rebecca (20:36):

I look forward to it.

Dr. Sarah (20:38):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

197. BTS: When should you start being concerned about your kid’s tantrums?