Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace
Medically reviewed on July 28, 2017.
You're shopping with your toddler in a busy department store. He or she has spied a toy that you don't intend to buy. Suddenly you're at the center of a gale-force temper tantrum. Everyone is looking at you.
What's the best response? Why do these emotional meltdowns happen? And can you prevent them? Consider these tantrum tips.
Why do tantrums happen?
A tantrum is the expression of a young child's frustration with the challenges of the moment. Perhaps your child is having trouble figuring something out or completing a specific task. Maybe your child doesn't have the vocabulary or can't find the words to express his or her feelings. Frustration might trigger anger — resulting in a temper tantrum.
If your child is thirsty, hungry or tired, his or her threshold for frustration is likely to be lower — and a tantrum more likely.
Do young children have tantrums on purpose?
Young children don't plan to frustrate or embarrass their parents. For most toddlers, tantrums are a way to express frustration. For older children, tantrums might be a learned behavior. If you reward tantrums with something your child wants — or you allow your child to get out of things by throwing a tantrum — the tantrums are likely to continue.
Can tantrums be prevented?
There might be no foolproof way to prevent tantrums, but there's plenty you can do to encourage good behavior in even the youngest children.
- Be consistent. Establish a daily routine so that your child knows what to expect. Stick to the routine as much as possible, including nap time and bedtime. Set reasonable limits and follow them consistently.
- Plan ahead. Run errands when your child isn't likely to be hungry or tired. If you're expecting to wait in line, pack a small toy or snack to occupy your child.
- Encourage your child to use words. Young children understand many more words than they're able to express. If your child isn't yet speaking — or speaking clearly — teach him or her sign language for words such as "I want," "more," "drink," "hurt" and "tired." As your child gets older, help him or her put feelings into words.
- Let your child make choices. Avoid saying "no" to everything. To give your toddler a sense of control, let him or her make choices. "Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?" "Would you like to eat strawberries or bananas?" "Would you like to read a book or build a tower with your blocks?"
- Praise good behavior. Offer extra attention when your child behaves well. Give your child a hug or tell your child how proud you are when he or she shares or follows directions.
- Avoid situations likely to trigger tantrums. Don't give your child toys that are far too advanced for him or her. If your child begs for toys or treats when you shop, try to steer clear of areas with these temptations. If your toddler acts up in restaurants, choose places that offer quick service.
What's the best way to respond to a tantrum?
Typically, the best way to respond to a tantrum is to stay calm and ignore the behavior. You also might try to distract your child. A different book or a change of location might help. If you can't stay calm and you're at home, leave the room for a minute.
If your child is hitting or kicking someone, hold him or her until he or she calms down.
When your child quiets down, you might say, "Tantrums won't get my attention. If you want to tell me something, you have to use your words."
What if my child becomes destructive or dangerous?
If a tantrum escalates, remove your child from the situation and enforce a timeout:
- Select a timeout spot. Seat your child in a boring place, such as in a chair in the living room or on the floor in the hallway. Wait for your child to calm down. Consider giving one minute of timeout for every year of your child's age.
- Stick with it. If your child begins to wander around before the timeout is over, return him or her to the designated timeout spot. Don't respond to anything your child says while he or she is in timeout.
- Know when to end the timeout. When your child has calmed down, discuss the reason for the timeout and why the behavior was inappropriate. Then return to your usual activities.
Don't use timeouts too much, however, or they won't work.
What about tantrums in public?
If your child has a tantrum in public, ignore the behavior if possible. If your child becomes too disruptive, take him or her to a private spot for a timeout. After the timeout return to the activity — or your child will learn that a tantrum is an effective way to escape a given situation.
When is professional help needed?
As your child's self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children begin to have fewer tantrums by age 3 and a half. If your child is having trouble speaking at an age-appropriate level, is causing harm to himself or herself or others, holds his or her breath during tantrums to the point of fainting, or if tantrums get worse after age 4, share your concerns with your child's doctor.
The doctor will consider physical or psychological issues that could be contributing to the tantrums. Depending on the circumstances, you might be referred to a mental health provider or, in some cases, a school or community program. Early intervention can stem future behavioral problems and help your child succeed both at home and at school.