Toddler tantrums

It’s safe to say that your toddler will have a temper tantrum at some point—or even quite often. Temper tantrums during toddlerhood are part of growing up. Initially, it can be difficult to predict when your kid may have one of these outbursts, but in time, you’ll be able to tell that a tantrum is brewing. Read on to learn what signs to look out for, how to deal with temper tantrums as they’re happening, and how to prevent them in the future.

Toddler Temper Tantrums Explained

So, what is a toddler tantrum? It’s a normal part of emotional development in toddlerhood—a common response when toddlers are faced with conflict. Even if you, as the parent, are simply enforcing a rule or doing something to keep your kid safe, your toddler may take this as a full-on battle.

They may emphatically say “no!” and then begin throwing a tantrum, one that may involve screaming, stomping their feet, dropping to the floor, kicking, and pounding their fists. Some toddlers even hold their breath during a tantrum. It all may seem like an act to you, but, in fact, it’s a result of internal conflict.

Your toddler is growing ever more independent, and can do more things now without your help, including eating, getting dressed, and perhaps using the potty. However, when being told not to do something, a toddler will struggle to understand why their precious independence is suddenly being limited.

Since toddlers have trouble expressing themselves verbally, the easiest outlet for frustration or disappointment is by acting it out in a temper tantrum. Very rarely are these outbursts dangerous, though they’re often unpleasant for you, especially when they happen in public.

Know that your child’s tantrum behavior 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. So, rest assured, this is a typical stage in childhood development.

In Summary

Toddler tantrums are a normal part of your toddler’s emotional development. Hearing your child say “no” to your requests will be the rule during this stage in their life. At this point, your child doesn’t yet have the tools to deal with frustration or conflict like an adult would, and may react by crying, screaming, stomping, or kicking.

At What Age Do Tantrums Start?

Almost every child has temper tantrums occasionally, particularly between the ages of 2 and 3 years old. This period is often referred to as the “terrible twos.” However, that doesn’t mean your toddler will throw temper tantrums only or mostly at the age of 2, as tantrums can crop up before or after that. Every child has a unique temperament and develops at a different rate.

How Toddler Temper Tantrums Vary

The intensity of your toddler’s temper tantrums can vary depending on their temperament and personality:

  • If your child is easygoing and adaptable, they may just say “no” and walk off, easily distracted by something else

  • If your child has generally been active and persistent since infanthood, they may channel that into temper tantrums, resulting in an on-the-floor kicking and screaming fit.

Foreseeing a Temper Tantrum

As you know your child better than anyone else, you’ll likely be able to foresee a temper tantrum as it’s about to start. Here are scenarios that suggest a temper tantrum is on the way or escalating:

  • Your toddler may seem to be brooding or more irritable than usual

  • They may be tired, lonely, or even hungry

  • After trying something they’re not allowed to do, or can’t accomplish due to limitations, such as playing with a toy that is meant for an older child, they turn to whimpering, whining, or demanding

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

  • The crying turns to flailing arms and kicking legs, and your toddler may end up on the ground—and may even hold their breath.

Tip

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:

•    irritability

•    sleepiness or tiredness

•    hunger

•    whimpering or whining

•    crying

When and Why Temper Tantrums Usually Happen

You may notice that your toddler starts throwing a tantrum only when you’re around, or when other family members are around. But it may be rare for your toddler to throw a tantrum in the presence of someone they don’t know well. No matter how ironic this may seem, your toddler trusts you enough to throw a tantrum in front of you.

A tantrum may occur because your toddler is trying to test your limits and to see how far they can push the boundaries. But, when you don’t bend to their wishes, they burst out in a tantrum.

After your child has had a tantrum, they may become tired and fall asleep quite easily. After a rest it may seem as if the temper tantrum never happened—your kid may be calm and pleasant now. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t get frustrated and have another outburst soon, especially if there’s a lot of stress in the household.

Tantrums tend to happen more frequently when toddlers are

  • anxious

  • ill

  • tired

  • temperamental

  • under stress at home.

In Summary

Toddlers tend to launch into temper tantrums when there’s someone familiar around, such as you, the parent, or another family member. A tantrum may end with your toddler becoming sleepy and taking a nap. After waking up, it may seem as if the tantrum never happened.

Coping With 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. The following strategies, along with a big dose of patience and perspective, may be helpful for you and your child. Here are the best ways to deal with temper tantrums:

Tantrums at Home

One way to cope with this behavior at home is to think of temper tantrums as performances. In this “performance” your toddler is putting on a show in your presence. How do you stop the performance? The audience, meaning you, has to leave.

Here's what to do: During an episode, leave the room (as long as you’re not endangering your child by leaving them alone). If they follow you, you can put them in their play room or call a time-out. If your child becomes physical—that is, tries to hit, kick, or bite—call a time-out immediately.

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Tantrums in Public

Toddler tantrums can be hard enough at home, but what about when they take place in public? Obviously, you can’t walk away from your child and leave them alone in the supermarket aisle or at the playground.

The best solution is to calmly remove your toddler from the situation. Take them to the restroom, your car, or another place away from other people so that the tantrum can finish in private. Another option is to restrain them with a big hug, which may stop the outburst. Follow that up by talking to them in a quiet, soothing tone.

When the Tantrum Is Over

Once your toddler’s tantrum is over, simply move on. If the tantrum was the result of something you told your child to do, repeat the request calmly and firmly; in time, they’ll realize that acting out again won’t have any effect.

If your toddler tends to hold their breath and pass out toward the end of a tantrum, be sure to protect them until they awaken about 30 to 60 seconds later. But resist the urge to overreact, because that response may likely reinforce your toddler’s breath-holding and fainting episodes. Act like it’s no big deal and this behavior may go away in time.

Tip

Think of your toddler’s temper tantrum as a “performance.” This will help you remain calm and respond appropriately. Taking yourself out of the picture, as if removing your toddler’s audience, can help end a temper tantrum.

If the tantrum happens in a public space, remove your child from public view and take them someplace away from others to finish the tantrum in private.

12 Ways to Manage and/or Prevent Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrums

You know your toddler better than anyone, which means you know what's likely to trigger an outburst and thus can predict issues even before they happen. Having a strategy in place ahead of time can help minimize, or sometimes prevent, a full-blown tantrum.

Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof method to prevent or even stop every single one of your toddler’s temper tantrums. However, you can take steps to help reduce the frequency and even the duration and intensity of these episodes.

Below are some guidelines for determining what to do when your toddler throws a temper tantrum. See what works for you and your child. Once you’ve come up with something, it’s a good idea to share your strategy with other caregivers, such as babysitters or grandparents.

Try one, some, or all of these methods for dealing with your toddler’s tantrums:

  1. Anticipate tantrum-triggering scenarios. Toddlers often have patterns. Yours might always throw a tantrum when you’re out grocery shopping, for instance. Be aware of any scenarios that could prompt an outburst and plan around them. For example, you may want to have your child stay with a babysitter the next time you go shopping.

  2. Pay attention to your child’s mood and energy level. A toddler who is too tired, anxious, or frustrated can easily erupt into a tantrum. If your child is still taking naps, stick to the usual nap times; if your child is past the napping stage, have daily quiet time. This could be lying down or looking at a book together quietly, but not playing or talking. Resting for a short while can keep your child from becoming too exhausted, which could lead to a tantrum.

  3. Take a moderate approach to discipline. Being too strict or too easygoing with your child could lead to more frequent or more severe temper tantrums. At this stage in your toddler’s development, it’s better to have fewer rules and limits but be firm and consistent in how you carry them out.

  4. Use an inviting and reassuring tone. When asking your toddler to do something, such as putting away their toys, speak in a friendly way and phrase your instructions as a request rather than a command when possible. Just as you'll want to teach your child good manners such as saying “please” and “thank you,” you would want to model that behavior when speaking.

  5. Avoid overreacting. There may be a time when your toddler will say “no” to anything and everything. When this happens, calmly repeat whatever request you may have—don’t argue or punish your child for responding with “no.”

  6. Pick your battles. Unless it’s really worth fighting with your toddler about a certain issue, don’t push or provoke them. For example, safety is a priority, so staying buckled in the car seat is nonnegotiable, but letting them wear their favorite pyjamas to the store could be OK. If, for example, you’ve asked your child to put away their toys, and they’re being reluctant, you might offer to help. This can help soften conflict.

  7. Avoid bribes and deals. Offering your child a reward if they go to bed on time, or making a deal that if they behave during a shopping trip, they’ll get an ice cream cone, will only teach them to break rules, not abide by them.

  8. Limit choices. It’s great to give your toddler choices when possible, as it can give them a sense of control, but keep the choices limited to two options you can live with, like which bedtime story to read at night, or what color T-shirt to wear (red or blue). This bit of reined-in independence can have a positive effect on future interactions.

  9. Try holding or distracting your child. Gently restraining your child with a tight hug or saying something like “Look at the doggie over there” may help stop a tantrum.

  10. Try injecting some fun and humor. Sometimes, you can use humor to turn an argument around before it morphs into a tantrum. Try making a funny face when you ask your toddler to pick up his toys, or if they don’t want to brush their teeth, tell them you’ll race them to the bathroom. This can work in many instances but isn’t the best choice when your child is tired or irritable.

  11. Institute a time-out. If none of the above options seem to work, you may consider giving your child some alone time in order to calm down and regroup. This obviously works better if you’re at home. You can start using time-outs as early as 18 to 24 months, but they work best with 3- and 4-year-olds who are old enough to understand why they received a time-out. Here’s how to do a time-out:

    1. Have your child sit in a quiet place

    2. Briefly explain why their behavior was unacceptable, and tell them that you, of course, still love them

    3. Once they’re quiet and still, end the time-out

    4. Briefly repeat what they did wrong and let them know what behavior you expect the next time.

  12. Reward good behavior with praise.Notice your child being good and reward their behavior by praising them and offering hugs, kisses, and together time. You could do something as simple as sitting down and reading a book together. Just being in your child’s company sends a positive signal.

In Summary

There’s no surefire way to stop a tantrum from happening, but there are ways you can manage the progression of your toddler’s temper tantrum, and, perhaps, prevent one from happening in the future. Here are 12 tips for managing your toddler’s temper tantrums:

  1. Try to anticipate the tantrum
     
  2. Pay attention to your toddler’s mood
     
  3.  Adopt a moderate approach to discipline
     
  4. Speak with a warm, inviting tone
     
  5. Avoid overreacting
     
  6. Pick your battles
     
  7. Avoid bribing your toddler
     
  8. Limit your toddler’s choices
     
  9. Try distracting your toddler
     
  10. Try injecting fun into the moment
     
  11. Call a time-out
     
  12. Praise good behavior.

When to Consult Your Toddler’s Healthcare Provider About Tantrums

Temper tantrums are common throughout your child’s toddler and preschool years; they typically become less frequent and intense around the middle of their fourth year. However, there are some signals that suggest a child may need intervention from a healthcare professional.

If you see any of the following, consult your child’s healthcare provider:

  • The tantrums continue or get worse after 4 years old

  • Your child attempts self-injury or injures others, or destroys property in the middle of a temper tantrum

  • They have frequent nightmares or become extremely disobedient

  • Your child regresses in potty training

  • They refuse to eat or go to bed

  • They have headaches or stomachaches

  • Your child exhibits extreme anxiety, aggressiveness, or clinginess

  • They hold their breath and pass out during a tantrum.

If passing out occurs during tantrums, your child’s healthcare provider may examine your toddler to see if the fainting spells may be due to something like seizures. The provider may also offer recommendations on effective discipline or suggest a parent support group that you may attend for guidance. If the provider believes your child’s temper tantrums are a result of extreme emotional disturbances, the provider may refer your child to a psychiatrist or psychologist.

In Summary

Your child may need to be seen by the healthcare provider if their temper tantrums last past the age of 4 years old. Other behaviors and symptoms to look out for include self-destructive or aggressive tendencies; extreme disobedience, anxiousness, or clinginess; and frequent nightmares, headaches, and stomachaches, among others.

FAQs at a Glance

Toddler temper tantrum behavior can include the following:


•   Screaming


•   Crying


•   Kicking


•   Biting


•   Dropping to the floor


•   Pounding fists


•   Breath-holding


•   Fainting.


Know that these behaviors don’t mean that your child has an emotional disorder. These are all quite normal responses during a toddler tantrum.


However, if your toddler does hold their breath and/or faints during an episode, be sure to protect them until they awaken 30 to 60 seconds later. If this behavior continues, let their healthcare provider know about the episodes.

There’s no single way to stop a temper tantrum from happening, but you can take steps to help manage and/or prevent your toddler’s temper tantrums from occurring as often or being as intense.


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 to their behavior


•   Take a moderate approach to discipline


•   Limit their choices


•   Avoid bribing or making deals


•   Try to distract them


•   Call for a time-out.

Temper tantrums are a normal part of toddlerhood. As your child is developing, they’ll be prone to the occasional temper tantrum, especially between the ages of 2 and 3 years old. Tantrums are considered normal during this time because your child is still developing emotionally and learning how to react to certain situations.

The Bottom Line

Temper tantrums are a normal part of toddler development, typically occurring between 2 and 3 years old. Toddlers are unable to clearly verbalize their emotions at this stage of development; instead they may burst into a temper tantrum that may include crying, screaming, kicking, and sometimes breath-holding and fainting.

Your toddler’s temper tantrums can range in frequency and severity. After a while you may notice a pattern. For example, the tantrum may happen when your child doesn’t get a favorite toy or when tired from an eventful day. Or, the tantrums may happen at the same time every day, such as at bedtime or during a meal. Anticipating a tantrum can greatly help you prepare for one.

No matter how intense your toddler’s tantrum may be, the most important thing is not to overreact, but to stay calm and resolute in how you respond. Try distracting your child or adding some humor to the situation. Avoid bribery or deal-brokering, neither of which will help the tantrums improve. It may also be a good idea to call a timeout so that your child gets some downtime to compose themself.

If your toddler still has tantrums past the age of 4, it may be a good idea to consult their healthcare provider, especially if there are other disruptive and self-destructive behaviors. Children will outgrow temper tantrums eventually, but in the meantime, it’s best to be prepared with a plan of action for when one happens.

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 American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 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.

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  • Book: Caring for your baby and young child, birth to age 5, Sixth Edition Paperback – November 2, 2014 by American Academy of Pediatrics (Author)