It's likely that all parents will experience a tantrum at some point during their child's toddlerhood. While tantrums can be frustrating for parents, it's important to know that they are a normal part of a child's development.
"Tantrums are developmental," explains Eileen Santa-Sosa, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "Infants rely on their parents to calm them. As they emerge from that phase, we sometimes expect them to have the ability to calm themselves, but they are still learning."
Temper tantrums typically begin around 18 months of age and start to taper off around age 4. Tantrums occur more frequently when children need help with their basic needs, parents are setting limits on their child's behavior and when they cannot get something that they want.
How to handle toddler tantrums
During a tantrum, a child may become easily frustrated or upset and begin to whine, cry, scream or fall to the ground. When a tantrum occurs, it can be hard to know what to do. It can be difficult to see your child crying or upset. If you are in public, you may even feel embarrassed or wonder if your child's behavior reflects poorly on you as a parent.
The best way to calm a toddler having a tantrum is to stay calm yourself. While you are staying calm, your child may calm down, too. Then you can figure out what set off the tantrum in the first place.
In order to stay calm, remind yourself that the tantrum will end, and that this a normal part of growing up and learning to deal with difficult feelings. Avoid yelling, punishing or hitting your child.
To help your child calm down, you can also make items accessible that may help him or her calm down, such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. Ask yourself if your child may be hungry, tired or in need of attention. Remind them that once they calm down, you can help them meet their needs, such as having a snack or taking a nap.
How to prevent tantrums
When you remain calm during your child's tantrum, you are teaching by example what it means to be calm. Once your child is calm, you can act to prevent future tantrums.
"Start by praising your child by saying something like, ‘You did a great job calming down,'" says Dr. Santa-Sosa. "You can also use the opportunity to teach your child helpful ways to calm down."
During calm times, help your child identify the emotions they were having during the tantrum, such as anger or sadness. You can draw pictures, read a book about feelings or take turns making feeling faces. You can then teach them how to deal with that emotion in a healthy way. Practice calming methods, such as breathing exercises, blowing bubbles or counting. Over time and with practice, your child will learn how to calm themselves down.
Another important strategy is to know your child's signals when they are starting to get upset. If you can help your child deal with their emotions in the moment, that might help prevent them from getting so upset that they have a tantrum. Every child is different, but you may observe the following when your child is upset:
- Your child may pout or frown
- Your child looks away from you or won't do what you ask
- Your child may protest verbally, such as saying "no"
Tantrums can also occur when parents start to set limits. While limits are important for safety, they can be frustrating for toddlers who just want to explore.
Dr. Santa-Sosa recommends avoiding negative statements when setting limits or redirecting a child's behavior. Tell children what you want them to do, instead of what they should stop doing. For instance, if they are running around, instead of telling them to stop, calmly tell them to sit down. If they are doing something that you do not want them to do, redirect them to an activity they like, instead of saying no or stop.
Other toddler parenting tactics to help prevent tantrums include:
- Provide a structured daily schedule that includes fun, sleep and regular meals
- Distract them from things they cannot do by leading them to a preferred activity
- Give independent toddlers more choices, so they feel involved
- Offer emotional support before they get more upset
When to seek help for your child's tantrums
Tantrums are a normal part of a toddler's development. However, if tantrums become severe, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional experienced in caring for young children. Signs that tantrums are becoming severe include:
- Your child has multiple tantrums every day
- Your child becomes so aggressive during a tantrum that they may hurt themselves or others
Aggressive behavior may include hitting themselves or others, throwing things, or other actions that threaten their safety or the safety of someone else. You should also seek help if you frequently feel overwhelmed by the tantrums, and the tantrums are keeping your child and family from activities that you usually enjoy together.
Communicate with your child's primary care physician about your child's behavior, as they can provide recommendations and referrals when necessary.
"A professional can conduct an assessment to determine factors related to the tantrums and provide individualized recommendations," says Dr. Santa-Sosa. "Together, you can come up with a plan on how to best handle tantrums for your child and family."
The Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology team at Children's Health can help children and parents cope with many common childhood emotions.