Toddler tantrums

It’s safe to say your toddler will have a temper tantrum at some point – or even quite often. Temper tantrums during toddlerhood are part of growing up. At first, it might be difficult to predict when one of these outbursts is about to happen, but in time, you’ll probably be able to tell that a tantrum is brewing. Read on to learn what signs to look out for, how to deal with toddler tantrums as they happen, and tips on how to reduce them in the future.

What Are Toddler Temper Tantrums?

Toddler tantrums are a normal part of emotional development in toddlerhood and a common response when toddlers are faced with certain feelings, such as hunger, jealousy or frustration, which they can’t yet express verbally. Even if you, as the parent, are simply enforcing a rule or doing something to keep your little one safe, your toddler may show aggressive behaviour or respond with a bout of anger.

Tantrums come in many forms. For example, your toddler may

  • emphatically say ‘no!’ and then begin screaming or crying

  • drop to the floor, kicking and pounding their fists

  • hold their breath during a tantrum.

It may all seem like an overreaction to you, but, in fact, it’s a result of internal conflict. Your toddler is growing ever more independent and can do more things without your help, including eating, getting dressed or perhaps using the potty. When being told not to do something, a toddler will struggle to understand why their precious independence is suddenly limited.

When and Why Do Tantrums Happen?

A tantrum usually occurs because your toddler can’t express themselves verbally, and the easiest outlet for frustration or disappointment is physical, such as crying, kicking or stomping. Additionally, when children want something they can’t have, they may use a tantrum to try and test the limits or push boundaries.

Tantrums tend to happen more frequently when toddlers are

  • over stimulated

  • tired

  • hungry

  • frustrated (such as wanting something they can’t have)

  • noticing parents or guardians under stress

  • dealing with life changes (welcoming a new sibling, moving house, starting nursery, etc.)

  • simply in need of an extra cuddles or attention.

Although temper tantrums can get physical with kicking, stomping or hitting, very rarely will these outbursts cause any harm to your child – though they’re often unpleasant for you, especially when they happen in public. Know that your child’s tantrum behaviour is not a reflection of your parenting skills and try not to blame yourself. Also, tantrums are not ordinarily a sign that your child has a severe emotional issue, even if your toddler appears to have a meltdown! So, rest assured that this is a typical stage in childhood development.

At What Age Do Tantrums Start?

Almost every child has temper tantrums occasionally, starting around 18 months and lessening by 4 years. Therefore, your 2-year-old, 3-year-old and even 4-year-old can have tantrums from time to time.

However, that doesn’t mean your toddler will throw temper tantrums only or mostly at this age, as tantrums can crop up before or after. So, although rare, babies and 1-year-olds might have temper tantrums, too. Every child has a unique temperament and develops at a different rate.

How to Anticipate a Temper Tantrum

You know your child better than anyone else, so, in time, you’ll likely learn to see a temper tantrum coming before it even starts. Some common signs that a tantrum could be on the way or escalating include your toddler:

  • seeming more irritable than usual, especially if feeling frustrated about something

  • feeling tired, lonely or hungry

  • wanting something they can’t have or can’t accomplish due to limitations, such as playing with a toy that’s meant for an older child

  • beginning to cry, and nothing you do can comfort or even distract them

  • crying more than usual, which often transitions to flailing arms and kicking legs

  • falling to the ground or even holding their breath.

In Summary

Toddler tantrums are a normal part of your toddler’s emotional development. At this point, your child doesn’t yet have the tools to deal with frustration or conflict like an adult would, and may react with a tantrum by crying, screaming or kicking.

Pay attention to your toddler’s emotional state. Being moodier than usual may indicate the onset of a tantrum. Other things to look out for include your toddler being

  • irritable or frustrated
  • sleepy
  • hungry
  • overstimulated
  • crying about wanting something they can’t have or do.

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13 Ways to Manage and Lessen Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrums

No matter where they happen or how long they last, toddler tantrums are a challenge to deal with as a parent. Having a strategy in place ahead of time can help minimise a full-blown tantrum. Although there’s no method to completely prevent or stop tantrums from happening, the following strategies – along with a big dose of patience and perspective – may be helpful for you and your child when dealing with tantrums.

Try a few different tactics to determine what works best for you and your child. Once you’ve developed your strategy, it’s a good idea to share it with other caregivers, such as childminders or grandparents. Try one, some or all of these methods for managing your toddler’s tantrums:

  1. Anticipate tantrum-triggering scenarios. Toddlers often have patterns. Yours might always throw a tantrum when out grocery shopping, for instance. Be aware of any scenarios that could prompt an outburst and plan around them. You may want to find ways to reduce your child’s stress when out shopping or have your little one stay with a family member instead of joining you.

  2. Understand your child’s mood and energy level. A toddler who is too tired, anxious, jealous or frustrated can easily erupt into a tantrum. Sometimes, all your little one needs is some rest or a distraction. Use common tips to help your baby sleep, put them down for a nap or, if your child is past the napping stage, have daily quiet time. This could be lying down or looking at a book together quietly.

  3. Be firm and consistent with rules. Being too strict or too easy-going with your child might not help you manage temper tantrums. At this stage in your toddler’s development, it’s better to be firm and consistent and try not to give in, even when the tantrum is more severe or in public.

  4. Stay calm. Although it’s easier said than done, staying calm means staying in control of the situation and the tantrum. For example, when asking your toddler to do something, such as putting away their toys, speak in a calm tone and try to model patient and kind behaviour when speaking. If a tantrum ensues, remain calm. This makes it clear to your toddler that their reaction won’t change the rules or affect your mood.

  5. Avoid overreacting. There may be a time when your toddler will say ‘no’ to anything and everything or throw a tantrum at the drop of a hat. Believe it or not, by keeping your voice low, calm and gentle, your consistent energy level will eventually calm the situation down, even if your little one can’t hear you over their screaming.

  6. Focus on the positives. It can be difficult when your child’s behaviour is less than ideal, but do your best not to always focus on the negatives. Instead, communicate through words, hugs or smiles when you’re pleased with your little one’s actions and reactions.

  7. Avoid bribes and deals. Although it helps to praise positive behaviour, as mentioned above, remember that there’s a difference between rewards and bribes, and you want to avoid the latter. Rewarding good behaviour means taking notice after the fact and offering something to your child for making a good choice. Bribing is making a deal with your child beforehand, which doesn’t make the choice theirs or teach them to behave well.

  8. Talk it out. If your toddler is apprehensive about something, such as having to hold your hand when crossing the street, explain why it’s important. Even if they’re too young to respond verbally, they can still understand. Then, once your child is able to express themselves with words, ask your little one to explain why they feel upset.

  9. Try holding or distracting your child. Gently restraining your child with a tight hug while rocking them or speaking to them quietly may help stop a tantrum. This works best when your little one is more upset than angry. You can also try the distraction method at the same time, such as saying something like ‘Look at the cat over there’ in a surprised and interested tone.

  10. Find a different emotional outlet. Sometimes, your toddler might just need to burn off some energy or express their feelings, and you can offer an alternative outlet. For example, take your child to a park and give them permission to run and shout. Not only can this release pent-up anger, but it also might make your little one laugh or cope with future emotions better.

  11. Make the distinction between your child and their behaviour. If your child is throwing a temper tantrum because they aren’t getting the attention they want or need, assure them that you love them, but you don’t love their behaviour. Then, when they practice good behaviour, give them some extra attention so they learn the distinction.

  12. Never smack your child. Remember that the behaviour you model as a parent is what your little ones will emulate. Staying calm, modelling kindness and praising your child for good behaviour are all part of the strategy, but so is refraining from physical discipline. Even if your child’s temper tantrums come with hitting and kicking – or even if your toddler bites you – it’s best to tell and show them that hurting others is unacceptable.

  13. Encourage play. Kids learn a great deal from play including emotional development. Encourage play at home, at nursery or with friends on play dates. These exercises may help your little one learn how to express themselves and deal with conflict.

In Summary

There’s no sure-fire way to stop a tantrum from happening, but there are ways you can manage the progression of your toddler’s temper tantrum, and perhaps even prevent one from happening in the future.

Here are 13 tips for managing your toddler’s temper tantrums:

  1. Try to anticipate the tantrum
  2. Pay attention to your toddler’s mood
  3. Be firm and consistent
  4. Stay calm
  5. Avoid overreacting
  6. Focus on the positives
  7. Avoid bribing your toddler
  8. Talk it out
  9. Hold or distract your toddler
  10. Find an alternative outlet
  11. Show love
  12. Avoid physical discipline
  13. Encourage learning through play.

Extra Support for Your Toddler’s Tantrums

Although temper tantrums are common throughout toddlerhood, remember that you don’t have to cope alone. Consider the following additional support if you or your child are having trouble managing tantrums:

  • Your GP or Health Visitor. If you’re at your wit’s end, contact your GP or Health Visitor for some additional support and advice. Perhaps there’s a strategy for your toddler’s specific behaviour that you haven’t tried yet or maybe your child needs some extra support.

  • Create a support system. Meet with family, friends or other parents in your neighbourhood or use an online forum to get support. Chances are, other families have tried all the tactics for managing behaviour problems and can offer advice, or they might be experiencing these issues at the same time and you can lean on one another. Ask your Health Visitor or GP what’s available in your local area.

  • Take care of yourself. Sometimes, you just need a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your toddler’s temper tantrums, arrange for some time alone and go for a walk, read a book, enjoy a cuppa or have fun with friends.

  • Find additional resources. Parenting is hard work, and you’ll find myriad of resources to support this journey. Ask your GP or health advisor about where to find resources like parenting guides, hotlines or other common means of support.

FAQS AT A GLANCE

  • Temper tantrum behaviour can vary from child to child, but it often includes

    • pouting
    • saying ‘no’
    • whimpering
    • crying
    • screaming.

    If your toddler has more severe temper tantrums, they might also

    • hit
    • kick
    • bite
    • fall to the floor
    • pound their fists
    • stomp their legs.
  • Tantrums mostly occur when children can’t verbalise their feelings. Instead of talking about how they feel, kids scream, cry, kick, hit, bite, etc. Tantrums can also occur when children are hungry, tired, overstimulated or going through life changes, like starting nursery or welcoming a new sibling.

  • Here are a few things you can do to help manage and/or prevent a temper tantrum:

    • Try to anticipate the tantrum
    • Pay attention to your child’s mood
    • Try not to overreact
    • Stay calm
    • Talk it out
    • Avoid bribing or making deals
    • Try to distract your child
    • Find another emotional outlet.
  • Temper tantrums vary, but they often include crying, pouting and screaming. For example, if your child can’t do something, they might whimper and pout. Then, as you stand firm, the tantrum might escalate to crying, screaming, falling to the floor, kicking, stomping or hitting.

The Bottom Line

Temper tantrums are a normal part of toddler development, typically occurring between 18 months and 4 years. Toddlers are unable to clearly verbalise their emotions at this stage of development; instead, they might burst into a temper tantrum that may include crying, screaming, kicking, biting, holding their breath, etc.

Your toddler’s temper tantrums can range in frequency and severity. After a while, you may notice a pattern – anticipating a tantrum can greatly help you prepare for one and take steps to manage it.

No matter how intense your toddler’s tantrum may be, it’s important to not overreact. Stay calm and use a gentle voice when you respond. Try distracting your child or providing an alternative emotional outlet. Avoid bribery or deal-brokering, neither of which will help the tantrums improve, but do make a point of praising good behaviour after it happens.

If you or your toddler are having difficulty coping with tantrums, it may be a good idea to consult your GP or Health Visitor. Children will outgrow temper tantrums eventually, but, in the meantime, you or your little one might require a little extra support, and that’s OK!

How We Wrote This Article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.