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Handling Toddler Tantrums

By staff
Read Time: 7 Minutes

What is a Toddler Tantrum?

Picture it. You're at the grocery store and you see a mom trying to convince her toddler to sit in the shopping cart. The mom tries pleading. She suggests they use the race-car cart. She offers a snack as a bribe. The toddler wants none of it. Finally, frustrated and out of options, the mom picks up the toddler and puts her in the basket. Then the wailing begins.

Most of us have witnessed toddler tantrums like these, and many of us have been that parent. At one time, we were all that toddler who didn't have the verbal or emotional skills to handle our frustration. As adults, we may have forgotten how it feels to lose control when we don't get our way, but we know a small child can cause big trouble by throwing a tantrum.

It may build slowly or explode suddenly, with a child going from calm to screaming and kicking in a few seconds. Kid temper tantrums are hard to watch and challenging to handle. However, they are a natural part of child development. Take a deep breath and read on.

mother comforts toddler boy throwing tantrum

What Causes Kid Temper Tantrums?

At its heart, a kid temper tantrum is your child's way of expressing deep frustration. A child having a tantrum is telling you, "I can't handle this! I need help!" Toddler tantrums are most common when children are between 1 and 3 years old. At this stage of development, children don't have the vocabulary to express their desires or emotions, but they know how to communicate with their body. Instead of saying, "I want you to read to me right now," or "I don't want to go yet," a toddler may scream, bite, or throw himself on the floor.

Good to Know

Temper tantrums tend to be more frequent when children are tired, hungry, sick, or off their regular schedule, but they can happen anytime you set a limit. Simply saying "no" can be enough to trigger a meltdown.

A tantrum gives you a peek at your child's inner world. He (or she) wants to please you, but he also wants more independence. He looks to you for safety, comfort, help, and approval, but he also lacks patience and self-control when things don't go his way. His brain is learning how to handle difficult situations, and at this stage he can be quickly overwhelmed by strong emotions.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, a toddler tantrum is not a sign that a child is spoiled or manipulative. Young children do not have the reasoning ability to manipulate their parents. However, they do need strong and secure relationships, especially when they are overwhelmed. What you need are strategies to help both of you get through it.

How to Respond to a Toddler Tantrum

Tantrums begin when a toddler's frustration erupts into a physical and emotional outburst. Most tantrums last about 10 minutes, but they are exhausting for parents and children alike. What's the best way to respond to a tantrum?

Parenting experts used to consider tantrums a way that children manipulate their parents to get what they want. Today we understand more about brain development and recognize that tantrums are a sign the child is emotionally overloaded. Parents may still be advised to ignore a tantrum, but only after verbalizing why the child is upset and making sure he is safe.

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little girl has tantrum

In-the-Moment Tantrum Guide

Here are some steps to get through those tough toddler tantrums:


Stay calm.

Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and think about how to handle the moment. Depending on the situation, you may be able to watch quietly and give your child a few minutes to calm himself. If that's not possible, try to keep your voice and manner calm. Using a loud voice or fast motions may make your child more upset.


Encourage your child to use words.

Even in the middle of a tantrum, you can help your child build a better vocabulary. "I can see you really want that cookie. You must be sad you can't have it before dinner. I'm sorry you are so upset." Your words should be sympathetic so that he feels safe and understood. Never criticize his behavior or threaten punishment when he is emotionally overloaded.


Try distraction.

Can you make a funny face or give your child something else to do so he forgets to be upset? Toddler tantrums can be intense, but for many children, they can end as quickly as they start.


Keep your child safe.

Make sure your child is not in danger of hurting himself or anyone else. If the tantrum happens away from home, calmly lead him to a quiet, less crowded place like the bathroom or the car. As a bonus, removing the audience can help you tune in to your child and help him calm down more quickly.


Try hugging.

Gentle physical contact can help a child calm down, regulate his emotions, and bring the tantrum to an end. Holding or hugging must be done calmly and with the child's cooperation. Don't try to restrain him if he squirms away.


Ignore the tantrum.

If your child is safe, try leaving the room or simply go about your business. On some level, a toddler tantrum is a plea for attention. When you ignore the behavior, it shows your child that tantrums are not the way to get what he wants.


Do not give in.

When you give in to a toddler's screaming and crying, the child learns that tantrums work. Read on for tips to prevent tantrums from happening in the first place.

mom scolds girls in store

Preventing Toddler Tantrums

One of the greatest tools for preventing toddler tantrums is positive reinforcement. Make it a habit to reward your child's good behavior with attention, praise, and smiles. This teaches your child that words are the best way to get your attention. Here are 6 ways to prevent kid temper tantrums:


Offer choices.

"Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your red shoes?" "Which book should we read tonight?" Offering choices helps your toddler feel more in control and explore his independence. This can make him more willing to follow rules and directions when it's necessary.


Give invitations, not orders.

As parents, we are constantly telling our kids things they need to do. Phrasing these requests as an invitation and not an order can make your child more agreeable. For example, instead of saying, "Pick up your toys," you might say, "When you finish picking up your toys, we can go see grandma."


Stay on a schedule.

Tired, hungry children are more likely to have kid temper tantrums. Make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep, including naps, and eating enough, including healthy snacks. During growth spurts, toddlers can eat and sleep more than they normally do.


Let the little things go.

Pick your battles. Is it worth struggling with your child about whether he wears rain boots to school or only wants to read one book over and over and over? If he wants to do something unsafe, standing firm in your decision is always worth the risk of a toddler tantrum. Otherwise you may want to let him make his own decisions.


Identify your child's trigger points.

If your toddler tends to have tantrums when he's hungry, be sure to always have snacks handy. If he fusses about leaving his favorite places, give him several advance warnings that it will soon be time to go. This will allow him to be more prepared when it is time to go, and he can start to let go of the situation on his own. Understanding what triggers your child and helping him get through these difficult moments helps him learn how to deal with disappointments and makes tantrums less likely.


Try time-ins.

A time-in is when you reward positive behavior with your attention. Try to "catch" your child being good and make a point of praising him. The more attention you give your child through time-ins, the less appealing tantrums will be. A time-in could include:

  • Praise, such as, "What a good job you're doing cleaning up!"
  • Reading a book
  • Snuggles
  • Playing silly games
  • Singing songs
  • Talking and laughing
little girl crying

When to Use Time-Outs

In most cases parenting experts recommend against the use of time-outs for toddler tantrums. Time-outs may be helpful when children are hitting, kicking, spitting, or otherwise losing control, or when you need a few minutes to calm down and regain control before talking with your child. Let's face it, very little is more upsetting for a parent than a tantrum.

Time-out requires your child to be quiet and still on his own, either in your lap or in a chair. The idea is to ignore him until he can calm himself and leave time-out. It takes time and patience to use time-out as a teaching tool instead of punishment.

Help Your Child Handle His Emotions

After a meltdown, toddlers need to be comforted rather than isolated. Throwing a tantrum is one of the first ways children deal with disappointment and strong emotions. Toddlers need help learning how to handle their big feelings.

You can help by giving your toddler time to calm down from the tantrum and taking care of his immediate needs, such as a snack or nap. When you are both settled, spend a few minutes reviewing what happened. Praise him for regaining control. Practice ways he can use words in the future to tell you what he wants. Teach him some words to use when he feels like yelling or throwing things. Use words to tell him how his tantrum makes you feel. It isn't too early to teach your child by having a conversation. You can help your toddler learn better ways to handle his emotions and also show him how his actions affect others.

When to Get Help

The toddler years are a challenge for most parents, so don't be too hard on yourself. Do your best, and if you or your child has a bad day, know that you'll get a chance to try again tomorrow. Don't be afraid to take a break or to ask your partner, a friend, or family member for help if you feel overwhelmed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you talk to your doctor if:

  • Kid temper tantrums get worse after age 4.
  • Your child intentionally hurts himself or someone else during a tantrum, or if your child breaks things during tantrums.
  • Your child holds his breath or faints during tantrums.
  • Your child has nightmares, trouble potty training, headaches, stomachaches, or other signs of worry or anxiety.

The Texas Youth Helpline is available to help parents with younger children as well as teens. Contact them at 1-800-989-6884.

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This article was written by staff.

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