How to Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums

Temper Tantrums: “A Challenging Norm”

No discussion of toddlers would be complete without mentioning temper tantrums since they are a very common, yet challenging aspect of child development.  This article will:


Understanding Temper Tantrums

When you envisioned being a parent, you probably imagined yourself playing games with your children, teaching them, caring for them, and even patiently comforting them. You probably did not plan on trying to calm an out-of-control, inconsolable, raging toddler. Few things prepare you for the intensity of a temper tantrum.

Crying girlIf you had previously been able to meet your baby’s needs, you may feel confused by your sudden inability to keep your toddler happy.

If the temper tantrum takes place in public, you may feel embarrassed by his behavior and your seeming inability to control your own child. You may assume that those around you are judging you and that everyone else would and could do a better job.

Those thoughts can add to your feelings of ineptitude. Even if occurring in private, a steady stream of temper tantrums can leave you exhausted and feeling as though you are walking on eggshells, fearing that any misstep may trigger the next outburst.

Research – Tantrums: Typical Toddler Behavior

Temper Tantrums, however, are a very typical part of toddler behavior.  Research reported in Nelson Essentials of Pediatrics (6th edition, 2010) states:

  • This behavior is common in children 18 months to 4 years of age.

  • In U.S. studies, 50% to 80% of 2- to 3-year-old children have had regular tantrums, and 20% are reported to have daily tantrums.

  • The behavior appears to peak late in the third year of life.

  • Approximately 20% of 4-year-olds are still having regular temper tantrums, and explosive temper occurs in approximately 5% of school-age children.

  • Tantrums occur equally in boys and girls during the preschool period.


Factors that Contribute to Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are often your children’s only way to communicate their overwhelming emotions to you, since they frequently lack the necessary verbal skills to express their strong feelings.

  • They may be trying to tell you that they are tired, hungry, in pain, getting sick, sad, disappointed, or impatient.

  • They may need attention from you or activity to release built-up energy.

  • Sometimes the temper tantrums are their way to inform you that there are too many rules and they want more power or control over a situation.

  • Temper tantrums also peak when children are mastering a new skill, an effort which can cause a great deal of frustration.


Why are temper tantrums so common?

Part of the answer lies within the five areas of development and in the children themselves. Understanding toddler behavior can help you to take their behaviors less personally.

1. Developmental Tasks

During the toddler years, children are working on separating from you and are driven to say “no” and to resist. This push toward independence, however, causes them anxiety.  In part, to help themselves feel more secure, toddlers are rigid and want things exactly as they expect them to be.

  • Beginning at 7 1/2 months, you need to balance teaching social norms with encouraging curiosity and motor activities. It is a difficult and continuous set of trade-offs between allowing your toddlers to explore and keeping them safe; between giving them attention and promoting independence.

  • Older toddlers (3+) are still struggling with impulse control, but they are increasingly in situations where they are expected to hold themselves together (preschool, classes, play dates). Because it takes so much effort and energy for them to do so, they often fall apart when they are back in the safety of their own home.


2. Ages and Stages

  • 14 – 18 months begins a period of negativity and stress, known as disequilibrium, which usually lasts for three to six months.

  • Periods of disequilibrium are usually marked by an increase in irritability, anxiety, and temper tantrums. Other peak ages are 2 ½, 3 ½, 4 ½, 5 ½, and surprising to many parents, age 7.


3. Temperament

Some children have a more “difficult” temperament that makes them by nature more rigid, persistent, intolerant of new situations or change, active, negative, sensitive (emotionally or to outside stimulation), and/or expressive of their displeasure. Such children are given to a greater number of and more intense temper tantrums.


4. Situational Factors

Parental or caregiver style can impact the severity and number of temper tantrums.

  • Some parents are very rigid and have many rules in place. In the toddlers’ push toward independence and desire to have more control over their lives, they often resist rules. If parents of toddlers don’t pick their battles carefully, there are more areas where clashes might occur.

  • On the other hand, studies reported by Burton White in Raising a Happy, Unspoiled Child show that at 13- 14 months, children begin to whine. If parents give in to the begging by giving them what they were whining for, toddlers often learn that such techniques work and may progress to the other negatives behaviors such as frequent temper tantrums.

Also, any situation within the home that causes anxiety to parents or caregivers could also affect a toddler. Examples include illness, marital discord or divorce, move to a new location, loss of job, change of a caregiver, and birth of a new baby.

5. Maturity

Children mature at different rates in different areas. Language skills often do not match their abilities or thoughts, which causes frustration. Often, they want to “do by myself” even when it isn’t safe or they are not capable.

Additionally, toddlers do not have the ability to understand danger or to use advanced reasoning – even if they have the words to explain what they want.

It is also important to note that children’s behavior often falls apart before a major developmental step forward.

Putting These factors Together

sad toddler girlAn intense child who is in a state of disequilibrium and experiencing frustration due to his inability to master his environment is primed for temper tantrums.

Add to that one or more of those strong emotions that he can’t express and a full-blown temper tantrum ensues. It is as if all of his frustration, anger, fatigue, insecurities, and angst spews out of him.

Some parents worry that they are being manipulated by their children who are throwing a temper tantrum to get their way.  It is true that children can learn that stomping their feet, throwing things, and crying can get them what they want.

That is different from a true tantrum. For a true tantrum, children cannot easily stop it, even if they are given want they requested.

For example, let’s say your child wanted a lollipop and you say “no.”  A temper tantrum follows.  If you cave-in and give him the lollipop, does he stop crying?

  • In the case of a true emotional melt-down, your child would still be upset even after being given the lollipop and would need your empathy and firmness to get over his upset and learn more appropriate ways to handle his emotions.

  • If he does turn off the waterworks, your child may have learned that his tears are effective.  In that situation, you can remind yourself to hold on to your limits the next time, so as not to reinforce such behavior in the future.

Remember that your children are not out to get you. They are doing the best job they can to get their needs met. During the toddler years, they won’t be able to differentiate needs from wants – both may be expressed with equal intensity.


More Points to Understand

You can plan for temper tantrums and anticipate them intelligently, or you can fear them. By learning about child development, you can understand typical toddler behaviors.

  • Sometimes, just knowing that a behavior is “normal” can reduce some of your concerns, enable you to stay calm and engaged with your child while still setting appropriate limits.

  • crying boy

  • Temper tantrums are not a result of poor parenting or of a spoiled child. Tantrums are a way for toddlers to express themselves. It is a long and difficult road from helpless baby to capable child.

  • Temper tantrums are the result of your children’s working so hard to master their environment, learn to be adaptable, tolerate frustration, and delay gratification.

  • Don’t buy into guilt. If you feel good about buying your toddler a toy, then do it. But if she pleads or tantrums until you give in and say “yes,” then that is spoiling and teaching your children that begging works.

Understand that much of this behavior will correct itself in time. In the meanwhile, there are techniques you can employ to shorten the duration and frequency of such behavior.

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Tips to Avoid or Reduce Temper Tantrums

A certain number of temper tantrums are inevitable; however, there are things you can do to reduce the number and frequency of temper tantrums.

Monitor your children’s feelings.

Catch the emotions when they are still small. While children need to experience and cope with a certain amount of frustration, when you see it building you can step in and ask: “Can I help you?” Once you get them over the hurdle, perhaps getting the one piece of the puzzle in place, you can step back and allow the child to resume his work independently.

Stop and listen to them the first time they ask.

They are going to need your time and attention. Are you going to stop and listen when they call “Mommy” or will they need to throw a fit to get your attention? Think about how you want your children to interrupt you because one way or another, they will.

Allow enough time for transitions or to complete a task.

Switching from one activity to another is notoriously hard for toddlers. When you plan with that in mind and have time to transition slowly, you will be more patient and better able to handle their requests to do it themselves, to redo an action to their liking, or simply to stop and smell the roses.

Use physical activity to work off stress.

Plan time to run around. Don’t expect your toddler to be able to handle a long car ride, time in the stroller, and then to sit still for dinner. Their frustration and energy will build. Again, how do you want them to express it?  Running around may be preferable to a tantrum.

Find ways to stay calm yourself.

Model desirable ways to handle frustration and anger. Do you slam doors, stomp your feet, scream, or hit things when you are angry? Don’t be surprised if your children follow suit. They are watching and learning from you all of the time.

Use the power of a whisher.

If you sense your children’s intensity growing, rather than speaking louder to get them to hear you, try using the power of a whisper. Often a whisper speaks volumes.

Teach feelings and feeling words.

This will help your children communicate to you what they are experiencing. You can point out what characters in books or TV shows may be feeling. Use a wide variety of words to name your feelings.
feeling words chart

Allow them a way out.

For example, “You are tired. I’ll help you pick up your toys this time before bed.” Not everything needs to be a battle. They will grow into another stage in which they will be more cooperative.

Ignore what you can.

Sometimes, it is best to ignore certain situations that cause frustration on your part or theirs.

For example, if your child cannot pick out a toy for a friend’s party without demanding an item for herself, then go shopping without her in tow. In time, her more generous side will emerge and she will be able to think of her friend and purchase gifts without demanding one for herself.


Decide beforehand what you can/cannot say yes to

For situations that recur, decide beforehand what you can/cannot say yes to. It can help you to be proactive. Can you hold off a tantrum by offering other acceptable choices? Can you distract or redirect your children with such sensory-rich activities as water play, bubbles, music, a back rub, looking out the window?

Ask yourself: “What does my child need?”

Before things escalate, ask yourself: “What does my child need?” Food, sleep, help, or a change of activity? At times, you may need to put off an extra errand or cut your visit short. Better to leave on a high note than to push your children’s limits and have you all end up in tears.

A certain number of tantrums is inevitable.

Despite your best intentions and efforts, a certain number of temper tantrums will still occur. When they do, remember that you do not have to stop a tantrum. You need to treat your children with respect. While they are losing control, they need you to remain in control.

This is usually best accomplished by removing your children to a private location where you won’t feel pressure from on-lookers.
For example,

You can leave your shopping cart and go to your car. You can go outside, into a bathroom, or to a quiet space. Talk at eye level, affirm feelings, and use short phrases. For example, “You are mad that you can’t play with the toy on the shelf.  It makes you furious!” Use facial expressions and body language to match their intensity.


During a tantrum, keep your children safe.

Some need to be held to feel safe; others may find your touch too much for an already overloaded system. Once these toddlers are calming down, they may welcome and even need your hugs.

Use deep breathing.

This can help re-engage the thinking part of the brain. Some people keep a jar of bubbles on hand or open a window to let the wind blow in their children’s faces.

Use distraction.

For example, you can make a change in the environment. You can go to another room or outside.

Most importantly, don’t give in.

lollipop kissChildren need to learn that your “yes” is a “yes” and your “no “means “no.”  If you cave, you will be teaching your children to use temper tantrums to manipulate you.

At times, you may reconsider and think: “Why did I ever say no to a lollipop, would it really have been that big a deal?”  In such cases, wait until your child has calmed down. Acknowledge her upset. Talk about her reaction and how else she could have asked you for the lollipop.

Once you two can talk, then you can give her the lollipop. You don’t want it to look like the tantrum changed your mind.


In Summary

Celebrate that your children are trying so hard to grow up. They want to do more and can’t. Through this hard and difficult path, and with your support and understanding, they will learn, mature, and develop better ways to manage their emotions, tolerate frustration, be adaptable, and delay gratification.
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For more information about discipline check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
Without Spanking or Spoiling by Elizabeth Crary The Explosive Child by Ross Greene Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Laura Markham The No-Cry Disci;line Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums and Tears by Elizabeth Pantley

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