I feel like my youngest has so much willpower when he wants something. He will kick and scream for what seems like forever. I try to have patience, but I feel outmatched sometimes. How long is too long for a temper tantrum?
I tend to avoid the term “temper tantrum” because of the negative connotations associated with this phrase. Especially in circumstances when a child is very distressed and inconsolable for a prolonged period. Instead, I encourage parents to recognize their child is having a “stress response” and has gone into fight/flight/freeze because they are too overwhelmed by the demands of a situation. They are melting down.
You will find suggestions about how long is too long online. I’ve read anywhere between 25 and 45 minutes suggested. I don’t think this type of information is helpful to parents because there are within-child factors that will impact the length of a tantrum, and there are contextual and relational factors that should also be considered.
First let’s consider the within child factors. Every child will experience the world differently for all sorts of reasons. For example, a child who is highly sensitive, sensory sensitive, or neurodivergent, is more likely to experience intense, lengthy meltdowns. Age is also an important consideration; experiencing intense meltdowns is normal in early childhood because the part of the brain responsible for controlling behavior and managing emotions is under construction. Children operate from largely limbic brains and the limbic system is very emotional and reactive.
Considering contextual factors, there will be “seasons” when emotional outbursts are more frequent and more intense. This is usually observed during periods of stress and change such as following the arrival of a new baby, or during the transition into school. Relationally, there are things parents inadvertently do during a tantrum that can prolong it. On those occasions an adult who is unable to regulate themselves, who joins their child in their distress, rather than meeting them with their calm, will often escalate the child; particularly if the parent yells, punishes or ignores the child.
I don’t have a prescriptive answer for your question here. There are too many factors I would wish to consider. However, if your instincts are telling you that your child’s tantrums are concerning, I always advise parents to speak to their primary physician or a psychologist. When it comes to navigating tantrums, I tend to advise parents that “too long” is best gauged by how long you can remain calm yourself. Once you can no longer hold space in a regulated way for your child’s emotional release then you might need to find a way to change the mood or shift your child’s emotional experience. I call this “shifting gears” and it might involve shifting their focus by reading a book together, going into the garden, having a snack, or having a cuddle. Hope this helps.