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Toddler Tantrums

By Elizabeth Nelson, M.S. LMHP

Toddler attitude.

Temper tantrums are a common and developmentally appropriate occurrence for toddlers. They can occur for a variety of reasons, but one primary cause of tantrums is a mismatch between your child's desire for independence and his or her physical abilities. The toddler years are characterized by a developmental phase that includes an increasing need for autonomy.

Your child wants to do everything for himself (except for the things you want him to do). Unfortunately, the development of your child's motor skills cannot keep up with the need for independence. Toddlers are just not physically capable of doing all the things they want to do. For example, they may desire to dress themselves, yet fastening buttons and snaps is beyond the capacity of their little fingers. This is a recipe for frustration. To top it off, your child's vocabulary and emotional expression are not yet fully developed enough to allow them to calmly communicate the source of their frustration.

There are other factors that may trigger or contribute to tantrums. These include, but are not limited to, hunger, tiredness, being given an instruction, being denied a request, and the need for attention. Although parents cannot control all of these variables, toddlers will be better equipped to handle daily upsets in life if they are well rested, their tummies are full, and they are receiving enough attention.

Prevention Tips

It is not possible to prevent all tantrums in toddlers, nor would a parent want to prevent all tantrums from occurring. Tantrums are your child's way of learning how to calm down in the face of frustration. Nonetheless, some preventative measures can go a long way to helping keep tantrums manageable.

  • Use praise abundantly. Watch your child closely during tasks that typically result in frustration. Look for signs of aggravation and immediately provide praise for staying calm. Also praise your child for being persistent in efforts to complete the task.
  • Think twice before saying "no." If you can say "yes," say it. Sometimes, in the rush of the day, we say "no" before we have really even considered the possibility of saying yes. Does it really matter if they want to wear the purple shirt with the orange pants and mismatched socks?
  • If you cannot say "yes," provide an alternative. For example, "We can't play cars now, but after dinner there will be time." Similarly, candy before dinner is not appropriate, but a couple of baby carrots could be an acceptable option. It can be easier for toddlers to accept "no" in the moment if they know that there is an alternative.
  • Sometimes you just have to say "no." That's okay.

What to Do During a Tantrum

  • Nothing. If your child has started to have a tantrum, that means he is in an emotional part of their brain that is unable to respond to the logic you may try to use to help him calm down. Ultimately, your child is the only one who can calm himself down. Your job is to ensure that your child is safe while he works on getting calm. If necessary, escort your child to a location where it's safe to have a tantrum.
  • Your child may try to get you to throw a tantrum too by acting out physically or saying mean things. Responding to these behaviors will result in a longer tantrum. Instead, carry on with life without allowing your child's tantrum to interfere. Continue cooking, playing with toys, getting ready, or whatever activity you were preforming when the tantrum started, while completely ignoring all behaviors occurring during the tantrum. Ignoring means no physical contact and no talking to the toddler.
  • Now is NOT the time to say "yes."  If the tantrum was triggered by being told "no," then saying "yes" may result in the immediate end of the tantrum; however, it will result in more tantrums in the future. Saying "yes" during the course of the tantrum teaches your child that the way to get what they want is to have a fit.

After the Tantrum is Over

  • Praise calm behavior. Tell your child that you like that they calmed down.
  • When possible, return to the situation that triggered the tantrum in order to allow your child to try again while staying calm.
  • Praise persistence and trying hard.