Managing toddler meltdowns

Date Published: 27/02/2024

Toddler meltdowns, also called temper tantrums, are common in children aged 1-3 years. This is because a toddler’s brain is yet to learn more socially acceptable ways of how to express feelings. With time and maturity, experience and practice, most toddlers learn other ways to get their point across.

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Why do tantrums happen?

Small people can have big feelings and become overwhelmed by situations they don’t understand and cannot control. One of the major developmental stages in the toddler years is independence, wanting to do things for themselves and to develop mastery and control. When situations arise which they can’t change or manage, the result can be an ‘emotional storm’.

A child’s individual temperament can influence how they respond to frustrating situations. Children who are more sensitive and prone to becoming frustrated are more likely to tantrum.They also pick up on changes in their environment and may be less adaptable than others to certain situations.

What does a temper tantrum look like?

Kicking, hitting, crying, screaming, stiffening of the limbs and back arching are common tantrum behaviours. Some children will fall down on the floor, flail around or run away. Others will hold their breath, vomit or deliberately hurt themselves, or other people when they are tantruming.

However your child tantrums, be prepared for their behaviour to raise some emotions in you. You may recognise in them some familiar, uncomfortable feelings.With time and practice, you’ll become more skillful in developing ways to manage their tantrums and perhaps even more mindful of your own responses to seeing your child upset. 

What’s the best way of managing my toddler’s tantrums?

It can be very distressing to watch a small child become so distressed that they behave in this way. And the temptation of many parents is to ‘give in to’ their child, if only for the sake of peace. However, doing this can also be interpreted by the child as rewarding their behaviour and potentially, reinforcing it. If for example, a child is tantruming because they want a biscuit close to their dinner time and they get one,  they’re more likely to behave in the same way again.

Managing your toddler’s tantrums depends on their age and stage of development. Very young children may just need a reassuring cuddle.Time ‘in’, rather than time ‘out’ is key to helping them learn how to regulate their emotions. 

Try to avoid reasoning with your toddler when they’re in the midst of a tantrum. They won’t hear you and this isn’t the time to be having a conversation.

Older children can benefit from learning a strategy called the 5 calming down steps. These are identifying the emotion, naming it, pausing and then supporting the child as they calm down and address the issue which triggered the tantrum. Remember, this is the age where children develop the ability to understand and manage their feelings and reactions with the support of their parents.

Helping your toddler to name what they are feeling will also be useful.For example, if you notice they’re becoming frustrated with a toy, you could say “Are you feeling cross with that”?When they don’t get upset over something which would normally upset them, you could say “You stayed strong and calm when that didn’t work out”.You can also role model behaviours which demonstrate patience and tolerance and talk through some skills like deep breathing and mindfulness.

Preventing tantrums

There’s much which can be done to make tantrums less likely to happen.Think about the conditions when your toddler is more prone to tantruming and consider if you can change any of these. Of course, it’s not always possible to avoid tantrums and for some children, they can happen with no clear reason.

Distraction can be your best friend in preventing tantrums. A change of location or directing them onto another task may stop a tantrum from happening.

Tantrums are more likely when a toddler is:

  • hungry, tired or bored
  • feeling unsure or insecure
  • overstimulated.

Top 5 tantrum tips

  1. Always make sure your toddler and other people near them are safe. Flinging around can be dangerous and in the heat of the moment, you may need to take them somewhere safe.
  2. Sometimes the best thing you could do is just to sit quietly near them and wait for their storm to pass. Some children don’t want to be touched when they’re tantruming and need physical space and some distance from others, even those who love them most of all!
  3. Make a plan about how you and your partner are going to manage your toddler’s tantrums when you’re all calm. Then, you won’t be making decisions when emotions are high.
  4. Praise your toddler when they are behaving in positive ways.
  5. Name their emotions. If they look like they’re feeling angry, frustrated, tired or scared, name these so they learn how to link feelings with words.


When deciding how you are going to manage your toddler’s tantrums, try to plan for strategies which will maintain a positive relationship between you both. Doing this will help to support a close emotional connection.  Check Circle of Security (COS) for more information.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your child’s behaviour, help is available.Your Child Health Nurse and GP will have access to a range of support services which are designed specifically with parents and children in mind.

Written for Baby U by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, February 2024.