One of the most frustrating parts of early parenthood is probably toddler tantrums. I know firsthand how hard they can be. Your angel goes from being a sweet baby to a complete nightmare — everything you do is a struggle.
You can feel like it’s impossible to even leave the house because of your screaming, unreasonable toddler. It can get to a point where you’re asking yourself, “Why am I so bad at being a parent?”
But there’s a lot more to tantrums than meets the eye. Your toddler isn’t a brat, and you’re not a failure.
Although tantrums are difficult, you must learn how to deal with them.
What Are Toddler Tantrums?
When you live with a toddler, it can often feel like you have a timebomb in the house. You walk on your tiptoes to avoid an explosion. Toddlers can throw a fit over practically anything, and it doesn’t always make sense.
They can love playing with their LEGO blocks one day, and then hate them the next. They can show enjoyment in eating a specific food, only to scream at it the following day.
Toddlers are unpredictable. That makes it a trying stage for parents. The best way to describe toddler tantrums would be as a massive wave of intense emotions (1).
Tantrums look different from child to child — some scream, and others cry. It’s not unusual for toddlers to bang their heads or hold their breath. Some will resort to hurting the nearest person by kicking, hitting or biting.
The tantrums that toddlers experience are typically different from those exhibited by children over the age of 3. It is also unusual for frequent tantrums to continue past the age of 4 (2). If they do, you should discuss this with your pediatrician.
Toddlers, aged 18 months to 3 years, will mostly have distress or emotional tantrums once they get upset. These are full-blown fits where your child is in complete anguish over something. Emotional outbursts should be responded to with care — your little one is vulnerable, and it requires patience to get them over it (3).
Older children, generally 3.5 years and up, can throw what is known as a “Nero” tantrum, referencing the tyrannical historic figure. These are sometimes a reflection of how a parent reacted to the child’s distress outbursts.
These fits aren’t as full-on as distress tantrums, and you can quickly recognize them by the lack of true emotions. Your child might cover their eyes to pretend to cry or exaggerate by stomping.
Note About Breath Holding Spells
Such tantrums are a way your child can make emotional demands. Your little one recognizes that when they yell and cry, it irritates you — they have the power to manipulate your emotions. If you give in, they’ll probably continue using this tactic to get their favorite toy or snack.
Because Nero tantrums are more common for children outside of their toddler years, we’ll focus on how to deal with distress tantrums.
Why Tantrums Occur
Tantrums are completely normal — don’t get fooled by the Instagram moms, displaying their “perfect” toddlers. Every child is different — some toddlers throw many fits while for others, it’s only on specific occasions.
Exactly why your toddler throws a tantrum is challenging to answer. For the most part, it’s due to unmet desires and needs (5).
During the toddler years, it’s a time of transition and developing an individual personality. Your child is slowly learning to become independent. Perhaps they want to tie their shoes or pour a glass of milk for themselves.
However, not many 2- to 3-year-olds can adequately vocalize what they want at this age. When caregivers don’t understand what they’re trying to communicate, this leads to frustration. In situations of delayed speech, the frustration is even worse (6).
Since we don’t provide the response they want, their frustration builds up until it finally boils over. Cue the tantrum of screaming, crying, jumping up and down, or banging their head against the floor.
What Your Toddler Goes Through
A toddler’s life can seem like a walk in the park, but it’s not. Your child is going through a turmoil of changes, emotions, and needs. Inside that tiny body, a human being is still developing.
Babies come into this world with absolutely no knowledge of dealing with feelings, how to behave, and so on. They need to explore, touch, and taste everything.
If they are learning how to hold something and their motor skills still require fine-tuning, they don’t get the outcome they want. The end result is that what they’re trying to accomplish doesn’t happen.
This is where they generally look to us for reassurance and safety. This need of theirs is often met with words like “no,” “stop,” and “bad,” as opposed to praising.
Because their self-regulating skills aren’t yet fully developed, their emotions come off a lot stronger.
It’s Up To Us
These tantrums are a way for your toddler to tell you how much distress they’re in. It’s essentially a cry for mom or dad’s help.
What Occurs Inside Their Head
As emotions flood your toddler’s head, an alarm called the amygdala, goes off inside the emotional part of the brain (limbic). The amygdala is the brain’s integrative center for motivation, emotions, and emotional behavior. It’s where our brain processes different signals from our various senses (8).
Babies are born with a mature amygdala. They need it to sense distress when hungry so they can signal the parents. Crying is typically the signal they use.
So, toddlers have a sophisticated alarm system for distress, but the part designed to manage reactions hasn’t developed yet.
As the stress hormones rage through your toddler’s body, the emotions become intense. This causes anguish as well as emotional pain, snowballing into physical pain.
All of this silences the part of the brain that controls rational thinking. In other words, your toddler is experiencing an emotional brain freeze. Sometimes, grown-ups can experience this too, especially if they never learned how to handle their distress when young.
As parents, we must help our toddlers develop the required connections between the emotional and logical brain. When this is established, the logical side rationally calms the emotional side (9).
Why Care Should Be Taken During Tantrums
Inside a newborn’s brain, there are roughly 100 billion brain cells (neurons). Neurons are like building blocks, which start to develop at around three weeks following conception.
What also form are things called synapses, known as brain cell connections. These are what unite the logical and emotional parts of the brain. Unlike brain cells, synapses are few and develop over time as your baby grows.
Since the brain doesn’t want to waste space, it eliminates the brain cell connections which are rarely used (10). If we consistently meet tantrums with anger and punishment, the toddler doesn’t develop, or loses, the connections required.
Temper tantrums are a significant life experience for young children. They shape the brain, forming the right connections, establishing the neural pathways required to manage stress later in life.
Not learning how to deal with toddler tantrums properly can result in them internalizing problems (11).
Later in life, they may be more likely to experience anxiety disorders, depression, anger issues, and even drug or alcohol abuse.
It can also have a grave impact on your child’s social competence and academic performance.
When handled with care, tantrums teach your child emotion regulation, which can lead to resilience, academic success, social competence, and popularity (12).
How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums
Offer a Hug
One way to deal with a tantrum is to offer a hug or hold your child. When you do this, you’re calming them down by activating a feel-good chemical called oxytocin. This chemical helps create the bond between mother and infant, building trust and recognition (13).
A hug might even help you, too, if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
You shouldn’t force a hug or hold on if your toddler doesn’t want it. Remember that you’re trying to de-escalate the situation, not worsen it.
Try positive words or acknowledgments like, “I can see that you’re upset, and that’s okay,” or “I know.” Let your toddler know they’re in a safe environment and that you understand, even if you don’t.
By showing sympathy, you’re soothing your child and enforcing the pathways between the logical and emotional parts of the brain.
Stay Calm and Positive
Showing your toddler that you’re capable of controlling your emotions can encourage them to follow. Getting angry and frustrated like your screaming child isn’t going to help.
Yes, it’s absolutely how we all feel during tantrums, but we should do our best to conceal it.
When you get angry during your toddler’s tantrum, it can cause further stress to them, prompting the situation to continue. Anger is a contagious emotion, which your child will catch in no time.
If you’re yelling or getting angry, your toddler sees this as the correct way to react when something doesn’t go their way. It’s the same when you keep calm — your child will see that their parents face difficulties with calmness.
What It Doesn't Mean
If you’re out and about when your child throws a tantrum, change your location. Toddlers often get overwhelmed in the grocery store — it’s full of exciting and yummy things that they can’t have.
If a hug doesn’t help, take them to a quiet area where they feel safe. Then once they’re calm, continue your shopping.
Label Their Emotions
A toddler wants acknowledgment, a feeling that you hear and understand what they’re trying to say. So, sometimes, all it takes is for you to label their emotions for them.
Tell your child, “I know you wanted to go outside, and now you’re angry because I said ‘no.’” Then, offer them a hug.
It’s the same for adults — when we feel overwhelmed, it’s sometimes nice to have a friend or relative label our emotions. It gives a sense that the person you’re talking to listens and understands.
What Not to Do During Tantrums
Sometimes the source of the tantrum is a need for something like food or attention. If you continue to ignore this need, it turns into a tantrum.
Punishing is not a solution to tantrums. Time-outs should only be a last resort if your child intentionally hurts someone (14).
By punishing your toddler for having a tantrum, you’re essentially showing them that they’re not allowed to show emotions.
Yelling might stop their crying, but it doesn’t give them the needed comfort to heal their distress. Your child can still be stressed on the inside while appearing calm.
Don’t Give in
If your toddler is throwing a fit over something they want, like a piece of candy, don’t give in. Giving in when your toddler throws a tantrum will only teach them that this is the way to get what they want. Even when your toddler is young, they still catch on to this, blazing a path for them to later use the Nero tantrum.
Avoid giving in, even once in a while. Sure, when loads of people are judging, it’s tempting to give them what they want to diffuse the situation. Try to remind yourself, though, that this is for your child’s sake, and the opinions of others don’t matter.
Giving in once in a while will send mixed signals to your child — it will even enforce what you’re trying to prevent. You teach your toddler that, if they are persistent, you’ll cave in eventually.
Don’t Try to Reason
Trying to reason or talk some sense into your toddler during a tantrum will only lead to frustrations for them and you. Once the fit has started, and emotions begin to flood, it’s impossible to use reason.
If they are in a full screaming, head banging and kicking mode, it is best to make sure there is nothing nearby that could cause injury, and to walk away. Ignoring the tantrum in this way gives your toddler time to release the frustrations. I recommend this technique to my parents in practice. It also seems to shorten these outbursts and decrease how frequently they occur (15).
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
If you begin to ask complicated questions about how they feel or why they’re crying, you can worsen the tantrum. Instead, offer words of acknowledgment, reassuring them that they’re safe.
How to Prevent Tantrums
Present Simple Choices
When you feel a tantrum is about to begin, sometimes it helps to distract or present a more straightforward choice. If your little one doesn’t want to sit by the dinner table, avoid forcing them to do it. Instead, ask which chair or at what end they want to sit.
By presenting a simple question like this, it triggers the thinking part of the brain, allowing you to stay in control.
Sparking curiosity tickles the logical brain, which then releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine. That’s the same chemical that makes us addicted to drugs and alcohol (17). It works as a reward that the brain gives itself when we’re curious, enabling us to learn more.
Not only that, but it also reduces stress while increasing your toddler’s interest in the new event you’re presenting.
Teach Expressive Words
Once the tantrum is over, and your toddler is calm, have a quick review of what happened. Tell your child that next time they want something, they should use their words. So, show them how to express their feelings, instead of them hitting or biting.
An excellent way to do this is by describing to the child how you felt during their outburst. Explain that you felt angry or sad because they were visibly upset. This will also show them their actions affect others.
Don’t blame them. Avoid saying things like, “You made Mommy upset,” or, “It’s your fault Dad is angry.”
Circling back to what happened can help your toddler feel better. You can try to re-enact the situation with them. Pretend you’re upset and stomp your feet — then ask if this is the way to react.
Try a Snack
My little one would always throw a tantrum when he was hungry. Hunger is a common trigger of tantrums. Once their tiny tummy’s empty, all it takes is a little mishap, and they can react.
A way to avoid such a situation is to keep small snacks with you, such as raisin boxes or fruit. Then when you’re running errands and your toddler gets irritated, offer them a treat.
Avoid sugary treats — children under the age of 2 should have little to no sugar (18). Too much sugar may make them hyper, which can later lead to overtiredness, another tantrum trigger.
Don’t Skip Naps
Toddlers require extra sleep, and many are still on their nap schedule (19).
It’s easy when you’re out running errands to forget nap time. This can trigger a tantrum — imagine how you’d feel walking around the grocery store feeling tired.
When we’re tired, we often feel cranky and irritated — toddlers are no different. However, feeling forced to stay at home all day due to nap time isn’t ideal either.
If you’re going out, perhaps take a stroller that your little one can rest in. If not, look for signs that they’re getting tired, such as yawning, rubbing their eyes, or agitation. Then head home or to a place where they can rest.
Sometimes, we get to pick our battles, even with toddlers. If your little one is asking for something, think twice before you say no. Don’t say yes to every request — but if it isn’t too extravagant, then try to consider it.
If their request is too crazy, you could provide them with an alternative. If they ask for ice cream for dinner, tell them they can have some afterward.
Off Limit Items out of Sight
Many times, toddlers get frustrated if they don’t get that item that caught their eyes. The best way to avoid a tantrum is to keep all off-limit things out of sight.
Store everything you don’t want your toddler to touch in closed cabinets or on high shelves. This will also prevent them from playing with something dangerous or fragile while you’re not looking.
Similar to this concept, for shopping trips, consider ordering in advance and using the drive-thru or pick up service. This prevents the temptation of everything on store shelves that your toddler may want.
When to See a Doctor
Although toddler tantrums are common and often a good thing, there are instances where they’re a cause for concern. Consult your doctor if:
- You feel the outbursts cause extreme tension between you and your child.
- It’s getting harder for you to keep your cool, or you’re getting angry more often.
- The tantrums occur more frequently, they intensify or last longer than usual.
- Your child often hurts themselves or others.
- You continually give in to unreasonable demands from your toddler.
- Your child hardly ever cooperates, seems disagreeable, and argues a lot.
- You’re worried you’re not handling the tantrums right, or you have further questions.
- The tantrums are occurring over the age of 4.
Although uncommon, your child’s pediatrician may want to check for health problems, which can trigger or worsen tantrums. Conditions like vision or hearing problems, autism, learning disabilities, language delays, or chronic illnesses can all make your toddler prone to outbursts (20).
Toddlerhood is a trying time full of frustrations, doubts, and meltdowns. It’s something every parent goes through.
Learning to deal with toddler tantrums involves understanding the reasons behind them. They’re often a way that your child expresses their distress and needs, which is why care should be taken.
Always meet tantrums with calmness and acknowledgment, never anger or punishment — soon, your toddler will outgrow them.