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Understanding Temper Tantrums and Aggression

Posted on July 28, 2019 by Ann

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Jim’s story

Jim is non-verbal and has severe intellectual disability. At times, he would become agitated and proceed to scratch himself and his classmates. He would also shriek loudly. His teacher later found out that he often has bouts of heat rashes and may be feeling uncomfortable. At home, he often grabs his 7 year-old sister’s toy and hits her with it.

What are temper tantrums and aggression?

Temper tantrums are abrupt and violent outbursts which are often caused by a loss of emotional control. They may sometimes escalate into aggressive behaviours, which may in turn pose a danger to the child himself, others and/or property.

Some examples include:

  • Whining, crying, shrieking, screaming, shouting obscenities
  • Flinging oneself onto the floor and flailing of one’s limbs
  • Hitting, pinching, biting, pulling and throwing

Your child may throw tantrums when he or she is frustrated, especially if he or she lacks the ability to communicate and control his impulses. Individuals with more severe intellectual disabilities may display tantrums in the form of physical aggression. With age and maturity, some of these behaviours may subside.

Help your child through these outbursts by using firm and consistent management.

As you do so, always note the time of occurrence, duration and the reasons behind your child’s display of the tantrums or aggressive behaviours.

Why is my child throwing tantrums or behaving aggressively?

1. Physiological causes and environmental influence

Tantrums may surface when your child experiences fatigue, hunger, fear or discomfort due to an illness or when your child is overwhelmed by noise, heat or people. In the case of Jim, his heat rashes caused him discomfort, which resulted in him scratching himself and others.

Your child may also display tantrums and/or aggressive behaviours when he or she does not understand task demands or when there are changes in the family situation, such as the sudden arrival of a younger sibling.

2. Limited communication skills

Tantrums and/or aggressive behaviours can be your child’s way of communicating basic needs and wants. Tantrums may be the only way your child can say “no” or “I don’t want!”

If a child’s caregivers are unable to understand him or her, the child may become more frustrated and behave more aggressively by acting out in frustration.

3. Inadequate coping skills

Simply accepting a “no” may be difficult for the child. The child may resort to tantrums to express his or her frustration and even use physical force if he or she becomes extremely agitated.

In addition, your child may display tantrums and/or aggressive behaviours if:

  • he or she is overwhelmed by demands and expectations that he or she has difficulties fulfilling, or
  • he or she is unable to handle criticisms, frustrations or disappointments.

4. Learned behaviour

Your child learns certain behaviours by observing significant people in your child’s life, such as caregivers, siblings and peers. A child, who is brought up in an environment of violence or who has been bullied by peers or siblings, may model these behaviours when interacting with others.

If your child is used to having his or her own way when he or she displays tantrums and/ or aggression, your child may continue to display these behaviours to meet his or her needs. In other words, the child has learned to use tantrums or aggression to get what he or she wants or to avoid doing something.

5. Medical conditions

A person with intellectual disability may develop mental disorders that may be responsible for his or her aggression. The person may experience hallucinations, distortions in perception and unfounded fears. There may also be bouts of aggression, which would require him or her to consult with a psychiatrist or a psychologist for assessment and/or treatment.

How do I manage my child’s temper tantrums or aggressive behaviours?

1. Take action before the tantrums or aggression begins

Avoid situations in which your child is likely to lose self-control.

• Be aware of your child’s needs and the factors that will lead to his or her tantrums and/or aggressive behaviours. If your child dislikes noisy places, bring him or her to the shopping centre at a less crowded time. You can also bring along a favourite toy as a distraction.

Teach your child appropriate behaviours and new skills

• Your child may require reminders to cope with changes in the environment. This can be in the form of verbal reminders or pictures. For example, show your child pictures of him or her sitting quietly at a table to remind your child of the appropriate behaviour at a particular place.

• Stop your child and say “no” firmly to demonstrate that the aggressive behaviour is wrong. Suggest an alternative behaviour. (e.g. teach your child to tap your hand instead of grabbing your arm when he or she needs help)

• Teach your child appropriate ways to communicate better through the use of gestures. For example, teach your child to nod his or her head to indicate “yes”. Some basic words include “yes”, “no”, “help” and “break”. For a non-verbal child who throws toys to obtain attention, use picture communication, such as teaching him or her to raise a card that says “Please sit with me” to get your attention.

• Teach your child appropriate play skills such as turn-taking, cooperating and sharing. Reward your child for non-aggressive acts. For example, each time your child finishes 15 minutes of play without displaying aggressive behaviours, reward him or her with a sticker on a chart. Give him or her a big treat after your child accumulates a certain number of stickers at the end of the week.

• Teach your child self-management skills if he or she is able to understand his or her own actions. Your child can learn to repeat verbal reminders such as, “I will not hit back if Kitty pinches me. I will tell mummy.” Give your child a chart to mark off the list of good behaviours that he or she displays, such as “play nicely” or “no slapping”. Reward him for accurate self-monitoring at the end of the day.

• Teach your child relaxation skills, such as counting slowly from 1 to 10 while taking deep breaths or clenching and unclenching fists slowly and repeatedly as a way to release the tension in the body. Set up a “cool down” corner to help him know where to go and calm down.

2. When the aggression occurs

Re-direct your child’s attention. Try to remove him from the situation or the person he is frustrated with and lead him to a quiet corner to calm down.

Try ignoring

• Your child may use tantrums or aggressive behaviours to get your attention. Ignore the behaviour if the level of aggression is low, such as when your child tries to grab your hand to gain your attention. Avoid using physical punishment to punish your child as it is only a temporary solution. Your child may become more aggressive or learn that aggressive behaviours are acceptable.

• If your child has hurt another child, give attention to the hurt child and ignore your child. Avoid talking about the action at that time as this means your child can get the attention your child wants from you and he or she may repeat such aggressive behaviours in the future. Instead, talk to your child after he or she has calmed down to find out the cause of the tantrum.

Change the activity

Your child may behave aggressively to escape from a particular task. Try not to end the task but firmly redirect your child back to the task at hand.

If the aggressive behaviour continues, stop the task to calm your child down. After he or she has calmed down, it is important to direct your child back to the original task.

Use the following strategies based on the nature of the tasks:

• For an overly difficult task, break the task into small steps. Let your child complete the easier first step and then complete the remaining steps together with him or her.
• For an overly unpleasant task, give your child a few enjoyable tasks first, followed by a less preferred task.
• For an overly boring task, provide options that are motivating for  your child. For example, let him your child play with a nice puzzle or read a picture book.


MINDS is an All In Preferred Partner.

Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) is one of the largest Voluntary Welfare Organisations in Singapore, serving some 2,400 clients from past the age of six to their ripe old age. MINDS’ services include four special schools, three employment development centres, three day training and development centres, and one multi-service residential home.

This guide was originally published by MINDS’ Allied Health Professionals unit and republished with minor editorial amendments by All In.

All content found on the All In website, has been created for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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