Dealing with toddler tantrums

Date Published: 12/05/2022

We used to think that toddler tantrums were always about getting more attention. It made sense then, to follow the conventional advice to ignore toddler tantruming and withdraw attention so the child’s negative behaviour wasn’t reinforced. However, we now understand much more about the way a young child’s brain works and there are changes in the recommendations around how to manage tantrums.

Sometimes tantrums are a signal that young children need more, not less attention.

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At what age do tantrums happen?

Temper tantrums tend to peak in children aged between 2-3.5 years, especially when there are changes in the family or household. When parents see their child being overwhelmed and tantruming, this can be a trigger for parents to behave in ways which reflect their own childhood experiences. Being ignored and not having their feelings acknowledged, particularly anger, was a common experience for many children who are parents today.

It's important to look for reasons why children tantrum so they can be managed in the best way.

Why do children tantrum?

Temper tantrums are commonly a sign of frustration in a young child, often based on a situation they don’t understand and can’t control. Tantrums are also generally about anger, loss and disappointment. Small people can have big feelings but they don’t understand they can’t always have and do what they want.

Over thousands of hours, parents help their children to learn how to manage emotions and regulate their feelings. But as a child is developing language and ways to express how they’re feeling, they tend to resort to tantruming to tell the world how they’re feeling.

What is the best way to manage my toddler’s tantrums?

Try to think about your child’s experience and why they behave as they do. Tiredness, hunger, boredom and sheer frustration increase the likelihood of tantrums. Some children are more easily frustrated than others, who may be more patient and relaxed.

Whatever your child’s personality and temperament, you’ll have a more peaceful life if you try to work out the best ways of managing their outbursts.

  • Be patient and kind. Sometimes the best way to manage a toddler’s ‘emotional storms’ is to sit quietly and be physically present with them until they calm. This takes more than a little self-control, but it’s a great way to help children feel secure when their emotions are overwhelming them.
  • Try to avoid tantrums happening in the first place. This won’t always be possible but if you can, manage the boredom/hunger/frustration cycles which often lead to tantrums.
  • Be consistent in your expectations. If you ‘give into’ your toddler’s demands, they’ll quickly learn this is a good way of getting what they want.
  • Praise your toddler when their behaviour is positive. We all respond better to positive recognition and children are no different. Describe the behaviours you’d like to see more of, rather than saying “you’re a good boy”, say instead “I like the way you’re sharing”.
  • Give your toddler lots of affection with cuddles, kisses and hugs. They need to feel you’re a safe and secure presence in their life. Your actions, as well as words, make a huge difference.
  • Try to distract your toddler as a tantrum is building, by taking them to a different location and removing them from a situation. Short circuiting a tantrum is a good strategy if it can be done.
  • If they are about to hurt another child (or you), hold them gently but firmly and wait until they calm down, then explain to them what you expect.

Written for baby U by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse.