How to deal with temper tantrums in toddlers

October 15, 2014 Michelle Cole, MD

We’ve all been there during that screaming fit in the grocery store because your 2 year old just HAS to have that particular treat off the shelf, and when we say no….it (a temper tantrum) all begins.

Why do toddlers tantrum?

A tantrum is the expression of a young child's frustration with the challenges of the moment and their inability to manage that frustration in any other constructive way. This is part of the normal development of children. For some toddlers, tantrums happen when they can’t figure out a particular task; for others they just can’t find the words to express his or her thoughts or feelings. Whatever the challenge, frustration with the situation might trigger anger — resulting in a temper tantrum. Since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, toddlers who feel some control over their lives may have many fewer tantrums. Remember, if your child is thirsty, hungry or tired, his or her threshold for frustration is likely to be lower — and a tantrum is more likely.

Can I prevent tantrums?

  • Toddlers thrive with consistency. Establish a daily routine including meals, play time, naps, and bedtimes. Set reasonable limits and be consistent.
  • Plan ahead. Don’t try to squeeze in that one last errand if you know your child is hungry or tired, you are setting yourself up for a meltdown.
  • Let your child make choices. Give them a sense of control in their world. Children do better with “this or that” choices. “Would you like to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt” rather than “what shirt do you want to wear”?
  • Give your child plenty of love and attention. Needy kids are more likely to tantrum.
  • Encourage your child to use his or her words (verbal or sign language). The better the child can communicate, the less likely they will tantrum.
  • Use distraction to change your child's focus. If you sense frustration brewing, try to distract your child. Suggest a new activity or change location.
How to handle the toddler’s tantrum when they happen.
  • Stay calm. Ignore the tantrum if possible. When the child realizes they are no longer receiving attention from you, they will likely calm down. When they are calm, explain "Tantrums won't get my attention. If you want to tell me something, you have to use your words."
  • Validate and acknowledge your child’s desire. Let them know you understand they are mad. “You wish you could have that toy, but it is your brother’s turn.” “That does make you mad/sad, doesn’t it?”
  • Make sure they know they are safe and loved. Stay nearby. “I will be right over here when you are finished with your tantrum.” Be calm and reassuring; don’t try to reason with them.
  • Be firm with your limits. “We don’t hit, sit down”. Keep the number of words you use pared down.
  • Consider timeouts. Have a designated safe spot. Set a reasonable time limit. If the child wanders or misbehaves, start the time out over until completed properly.
After the tantrum

Praise the child for calming down and behaving. Hugs and snuggles often help during this emotional time. However, do NOT give in to the initial request that started the tantrum. Kids need to understand that requests are not even considered once a tantrum ensues. Talk to your child about how they could handle the same situation better next time.

What if I need help?

If you feel that your child’s tantrums are out of your control, or especially severe, talk to your primary care physician. Depending on the circumstances, you might be referred to a mental health provider or, in some cases, a school or community program. 

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