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Toddler Temper Tantrums

The Terrible T’s…

Toddler Temper Tantrums

What are temper tantrums and why do toddlers have them? Here we discuss how to manage these difficult moments and ways to support your toddler through them.

What are they:

Temper tantrums are brief episodes of extreme, unpleasant, and sometimes aggressive behaviors, disproportionate to the situation, in response to frustration or anger. These tantrums usually occur 1-2x daily and typically last anywhere between 1 and 15 minutes, with the majority lasting less than 5 minutes.

Toddlers encounter a new frustration every 3 minutes of their day. Tantrums are an expected, normal form of communication, and a necessary part of emotional development – it is how tantrums are managed that is more important than what they are about. You may not be able to prevent your toddler from feeling frustrated, sad, or angry, but you can provide the tools they need to cope with these emotions!

Reasons for temper tantrums:

1. Frustration

2. In need of attention

3. A physical issue: tired, low blood sugar/hungry, pain, discomfort, etc.

In other words, every tantrum is a result of a child not getting something they want or need. For children between 1 and 2, tantrums stem from trying to communicate a need but not having the language skills to do so. So, they get frustrated when you don’t respond to what they’re ‘saying’. For older toddlers, tantrums are more about a power struggle because by this age they have grown more autonomous and are aware of their needs and desires – and want to assert them more. And if you don’t comply, here comes the tantrum!

So, what can you do?

During a tantrum:

How you show up matters.
  • Stay calm. Use the tone and pace of your voice to help soothe and calm a stressed toddler, instead of matching them.

  • Wait (a reasonable amount of time) for big emotions to pass before moving forward.

  • Do not reward the tantrum to make it stop.

  • Ignore negative words and behaviors (that are not harmful to self or others), as reactions tend to promote these behaviors during a tantrum.

  • Avoid trying to reason with a child in the middle of a tantrum, especially in a public place.

  • Physically removing your child from the scene. Changing the venue sometimes changes the behavior.

  • Give your child some space. It helps children learn how to vent in a non-destructive way. They're able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together, and regain self-control.

  • For minor tantrums (or if you recognize one is coming) try creating a diversion. Get your child engaged and interested in something else. This can be something tangible or your questioning skills to divert their attention elsewhere.

Focus on your communication (or lack thereof).
  • Use short (3-4 word) sentences.

  • Don’t ask a question if it is not really a choice – use controlled choices.

  • Ignoring CAN work – reasoning does not help during tantrums. That part of a child’s brain is literally not functioning properly because their emotions are overriding the frontal cortex of the brain, the area that makes decisions and judgements.

  • Explain to the child you will talk to him or her when they calm down. For example, “I see you’re mad. I will talk to you when you’ve calmed down.” Once calm, praise this.

Safety comes first.
  • Take steps to prevent injury.

  • Do not discipline physically by hitting.

  • Toddlers need to know: “I am OK. I am taken care of, and my caregiver is here for me. I am not alone.” Sometimes a big firm hug during a tantrum can soothe, calm, and remind them you care, and it is a safe space for them to get their emotions out…even if you don’t agree with their behavior.

After a temper tantrum:

It is important to determine the cause of the tantrum. Identifying the cause will help you to predict and prevent future tantrums. Help your toddler label their feelings. Use those feeling words to help your child learn to identify the emotions by name. That will help put feelings into words so they can be expressed and communicated more easily, which helps children develop emotional awareness. Children who can recognize and identify emotions are less likely to reach the behavioral boiling point where strong emotions get demonstrated through behaviors rather than communicated with words. Talk with your child about the unacceptable behavior and let them know that you still care and love them. And don’t forget to notice any positive behaviors and choices they did make and praise them. Providing this positive attention reinforces the desired behaviors. Infuse your toddler’s life with more positives - there will always be more than enough negatives!

How to prevent tantrums:

Be a model.

Model appropriate positive behaviors to teach children appropriate ways to deal with their emotions. Toddlers are watching and listening to everything, so model what you want repeated.

Be consistent.

Toddlers thrive on consistency and predictability. Routines help toddlers manage their day, and the emotional turmoil that comes with it. Toddlers are more likely to follow along if they know the routine. Parents must be in charge and toddlers need to know this. They actually like it because it makes them feel secure and safe!

Be mindful of your communication.

Keep language simple and direct but remember toddlers can understand much more than they can say. Try to avoid asking too many questions - or questions you already know the answer for. Instead, ask questions that show you are interested in them or what they are doing. Comment briefly on the feelings you think your child was experiencing as you listen. For example, “that must have been upsetting when they did not share that toy with you”. Doing so shows that you understand what your child felt, why he or she felt that way, and that you care. In addition, rather than bribe, focus on using ‘when – then’ or ‘first – second’ statements and rewards.

…And don’t forget, toddlers tend to choose the second or last option they hear – so craft your questions or options accordingly. ;)

Be patient.

Understand and respect the toddler’s ability level. Expect big emotions and meet them with calm compassion. Toddlers need more time than adults – so give them a second (or two)! Although it hurts to see your child unhappy or frustrated, try to resist the urge to fix every problem for them. Instead, focus on helping them grow into good problem-solvers. Involving toddlers makes them feel important. Help them think of things to do and how to problem solve. A child’s active participation will build confidence. Sometimes connection and feeling understood is all that’s needed to avoid a tantrum. Never underestimate the power of listening to your child. Ask them to tell you what's wrong. Listen attentively and calmly - with interest, openness, and caring. Avoid any urge to tell your child what they should have done instead. The idea is to let a child's concerns (and feelings) be heard.


Schedule your free consult here if you have more questions about tantrums and ways to support your toddler.

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