Part of having a toddler is dealing with temper tantrums. All children have them, but can express them in different ways. As a parent, or caregiver, it can be extremely frustrating to deal with a toddler having a tantrum. Believe me I know all about toddler temper tantrums.
I’ve worked with young children (mainly toddlers) in child care for over 10 years. I have seen my fair share of different children and their varying temper tantrums.
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What Is a Temper Tantrum?
The definition of a tantrum is “an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child”
A tantrum can range from whining and crying to screaming, hitting, and kicking, to throwing things and hurting themselves.
Temper Tantrums vs Meltdowns
A temper tantrum is a child upset because they want something they cannot have. They deliberately cry or scream, stomp their feet or fall to the ground and flail. The child chooses to act like this and can make it last as long as they want. They may turn it off for a moment to see if anyone is still paying attention (i.e. is the tantrum working) and eventually they stop when they realize they will not get what they want.
A meltdown is a sensory overload. The child’s brain is trying to process too much information and becomes overwhelmed. Meltdowns can happen in adults too. Think of it like you trying to fill up a cup with water. When the water is flowing slowly you can fill it up and turn it off without over flowing. But if the water is rushing out too strong the cup will over flow before you turn the water off. This is what happens with meltdowns.
Example: You are taking your child shopping for clothes
A child is throwing a tantrum when you won’t buy them a specific shirt. The meltdown would happen after a day filled with shopping and the parent is asking them to make choices. The child gets so overwhelmed they cannot make that decision and as a result they have a meltdown.
Why Do Toddlers Throw Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums are a normal part of development and happen equally amongst boys and girls. They typically happen the most between the ages of one and three. Some children will naturally have more meltdowns than others as they may become easily overwhelmed.
Some children will have very dramatic crying tantrums. Other children’s tantrums can be more aggressive and be full of throwing things and hitting. Some will carry on for an hour where as others will be done within 2 minutes.
Children have these tantrums because they are frustrated and upset that something did not go their way. They didn’t get the right colour cup. Someone else won the race. They want that toy that someone else is using. They don’t want to wear their rain coat.
All of these are a normal part of growing up and, for them, it is a valid reason to be upset. This will continue until they learn that temper tantrums are not a way to get what you want. They need to be taught that speaking calmly and politely is a much better alternative.
Speech and Language Frustrations
For young children, or children that have a hard time with language and speech, trying to communicate can typically lead to tantrums. They are mentally developed enough to know what they want but they do not have the verbal skills to communicate those needs or wants. In this case teaching them sign language can be a very valuable skill.
I taught my son very basic sign language starting when he was between 6 months and 1 year old. He was able to let me know whether he wanted more of something, if he wanted to eat, if he wanted milk, or if he was all done. These were very helpful in avoiding tantrums as he was able to tell me what he wanted.
No two children are the same but thankfully the way a tantrum should be dealt with is pretty much the same for all children, there are always some exceptions.
I find the only difference is the amount of effort the parent or caregiver puts in, and if they can handle listening to their child throw that fit for 10 min (which feels like 30 min while they are screaming).
First Step in Dealing with Temper Tantrums
Stay calm! It is very important that you remain calm. When you react or get upset with them they see it as you are giving them attention (bad or good they want your attention). If they continue they might get what they want.
When you are able to remain calm it shows them that you will not give them attention for the bad behaviour. And eventually they will give up and if you stay very consistent with how you deal with their tantrums they will become shorter and less frequent.
My son’s (3.5 yrs) tantrums can range from quietly crying and demanding hugs, to running to his bedroom to cry, to screaming at the top of his lungs and rolling on the floor. Thankfully the latter is not as often any more.
The second thing you need to do is to let them tantrum. Children throw temper tantrums to deal with and process those negative emotions. When you interrupt the tantrum they are not learning how to accept and deal with those emotions. They are relying on someone to externally help them which will not help them in the long term. There will not always be someone right beside them to help deal with those emotions as they grow older.
What Is The Best Way To Deal With a Temper Tantrum?
When a child is having a temper tantrum adults tend to immediately jump to distracting them (they don’t actually learn to deal with those emotions) or punish them (they get in trouble for trying to express their emotions).
What parents and caregivers need to remember is that toddlers are still learning how to process their emotions. If we don’t let them fully express those feelings (or let them go through it) then we are only making it harder for them as they get older. It is easy to forget that they aren’t just small adults when they are able to speak to us and communicate what they want. However they have not yet learned what words to use to express those strong feelings.
When children are able to go through the emotions involved in a tantrum and left to work through the whole thing you will see that they come out of it (most times) completely fine and happy. They will either be able to talk calmly or they wipe their tears and go back to playing. There is a lot of mental work involved in that screaming temper tantrum that we cannot see.
You may see it as them screaming because they did not get their way but it is also because they have not yet been taught how to calmly deal with those emotions. They have not been taught which words to say when they are having those feelings. They have not been taught what other outlets there are to positively release that pent up frustration. I.e. It is not ok to scream at and hit other people but you can go find a pillow and hit it and scream into it and take out all that frustration on something else.
What To Not Do During a Temper Tantrum
Screaming “stop screaming” to a toddler having a tantrum is like telling a grown adult to calm down when they are angry… it only makes it worse. Having someone tell you to calm down when you are in that state of mind does not help, not one bit.
If you know the child well, you may be able to tell when it is appropriate to step in and speak to the child. You can also tell when it is best to just take that step back and let them work through it. When they are sprawled out on the floor screaming, it is not the right time to try and talk with them.
Putting a child in time out or punishing them for having a tantrum does not help them. It only teaches them that it’s bad to express their emotions. This is going to make their life difficult when they need to deal with situations like disagreements with other children on the playground or adults in the work place.
Adult Temper Tantrums
Some adults also have temper tantrums. Mainly from not properly learning how to deal with their emotions as young children, mainly disappointment. When we are constantly not letting children work through their tantrums, they are not being taught to become resilient adults, it actually does the opposite.
Example: John Smith was never taught to deal with his tantrums. As an adult the tantrums have changed and are no longer a screaming fit of kicking their feet and throwing toys (although with some people they are). Instead it has become a more internal tantrum.
John’s friend lets him down. He immediately tells himself “Well fine, I don’t want to be so and so’s friend anyway” instead of talking with that friend and working it out. This can cause a lengthy battle with depression as a result of insisting that nothing matters and denying his feelings of being hurt or disappointed.
What should you do when a toddler has a temper tantrum?
- Let them tantrum
- Do not try to distract them, bribe them, punish them, or talk them out of it
- Acknowledge why they are upset. “I understand you are feeling frustrated you did not get to have the pink cup today”
- When they are done and calming down then you can talk to them about it. Give them a little bit of reality and perspective from the other side. “I know you wanted the pink cup but so did Suzy, she asked for a glass of water first. If you asked first and got the pink cup would you want to give it to Suzy just because she wanted it? Or would you maybe suggest that she could have it next time?” Children tend to be able to understand the situation better when you ask them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. “It hurts when you hit. If Suzy hit you because you didn’t want to give her the toy, how would that make you feel?” Most times they will say something along the lines of feeling bad, sad, upset etc.
- Explain what they could say and do the next time they have those feelings. “Maybe next time you could ask Suzy ‘Can I have a turn when you are done?’ instead of hitting her. If you still need help come to a grown up and ask for help and we can help you talk to Suzy”
There is a train analogy that I have recently read that I find makes tantrums so much easier to understand.
The analogy from Pick Any Two goes like this:
We, or the child, are the trains. The difficult emotions are tunnels that we have to get through. In order for us to get to the calming light at the end of the tunnel we must go all the way through the tunnel to the other side.
Unfortunately the well-intentioned parents, or caregivers, want to help them and attempt to intercept the tantrum. This causes a problem as it prevents the child from getting to the other side of the tunnel, and just stalls them in the middle of the tunnel.
When children are dealing with those strong emotions – anger, sadness, disappointment – we try to reason with them and explain how everything will be just fine. But if you take a step back and look at what we are doing it’s to make us, the parents, feel better, not the child.
It hurts to watch your child go through those emotions while we stand on the sidelines watching them scream and tantrum. So we try to do whatever we can to make it stop. But we aren’t doing them any good by intercepting and stopping the tantrum.
Adults try all the time to find a shortcut out of the tunnel when we are dealing with those feelings.
We turn to binge watching TV, eating ice cream and our favourite deserts, go shopping, or anything else that gives us some immediate satisfaction. But it doesn’t actually fix the problem. Those feelings are still there when the show is over, the treats are gone and our new things are no longer new.
When we realize that none of that works and we finally break down, curl up into a ball and cry and scream and let all of it out. Then we start to feel better once it has been released.
The same thing goes for our children. We cannot teach them that there is a magical door on the side of the tunnel to escape those feelings when there is not. They need to get all the way through the tunnel to find the peace.
These tantrum tunnels do not last forever most times they last 5-15 min (average) and then they are fine and we can give them a hug and help them to find a solution to their problem.
Should you Ignore Toddler Temper Tantrums?
Yes, when children are whining or crying when there is nothing physically wrong or hurting. They are having the tantrum for attention. The more attention they get, the longer the tantrum will carry on. It is better to just say a simple “when you are calm and ready to talk I will be here” and then you walk away. Do not try and talk with them while they are going through that tunnel; they are not able to reason or effectively communicate while they are in there.
Working in childcare it can be quite obvious to the providers which parents immediately try and distract their children from tantrums and which ones completely ignore it and wait for them to finish.
The boy who was used to getting what he wanted
I looked after this one little boy (2.5 yrs), we will call him Mike, in daycare and babysitting. Mike was used to getting what he wanted when we was very young, his mom gave in quite often. But as he became a preschooler his parents and teachers began saying “No” more often instead of giving him what he wanted. He obviously did not like this and his tantrums would escalate. They quickly became full of screaming, pushing shelves over, dumping all the baskets of toys, trying to tip tables and chairs over as he was trying to deal with the frustration of not getting his way.
One day I came over to babysit. His mom and dad had warned me that his tantrums were escalating to the extent of him hurting himself to get what he wants. That night he wanted a popsicle before dinner. I told him he could have one after he had his dinner.
He started to scream and I ignored him while I continued to make dinner. He went and got a chair to try and get them out by himself. I calmly said “I’m sorry, dinner first, then popsicle” and helped him off the chair.
This obviously made him more upset and he dropped himself to the floor.
I continued to ignore him, which obviously made him angry as his tantrum was not working. He began to bang his head on the floor. I calmly stated “You are going to hurt yourself if you bang your head on the floor.” And then turned back around and took the dinner off the stove.
I was not about to suggest he come to eat yet. So I went and sat on the couch and turned the tv on, completely ignoring him and his tantrum. He then stood up and ran head first into the front door. I could tell from the change in his cry that he was now hurt. I offered him a hug and he accepted, and just like that the tantrum was over. We had a cuddle and then we had dinner.
Because he got zero attention from me during his tantrum he never escalated to the extent of hurting himself again. That night I explained to his parents what I did and they also began to completely ignore them and they also noticed he stopped hurting himself.
I had found out that when he first started resorting to hurting himself he was getting their attention. It was shocking to watch him hurt himself so his parents would step in. So he quickly learned that he had to escalate to that extent in order to get what he wanted.
It does not work if only one parent or caregiver is ignoring while the others are trying to distract, or punish. It confuses the child and only makes them tantrum harder when it is not working and they are not getting what they want.
All adults that are caring for the child need to be on the same page. When the child knows what to expect (i.e. adults will not give it and will ignore it) the tantrums will become shorter and less often.
With all children consistency is key. If Mom say no but then child screams and then Dad says yes, to make the screaming stop, then the child will scream harder the next time they are told no as they are anticipating there will be a yes.
What to do once the screaming stops
Once the child has made it to the other side of the tunnel it is time to talk.
Get down to the child’s level and tell them what you saw.
“I could see you were really upset. You really wanted to have chocolate cake before dinner. It is really upsetting when I would not give it to you.”
Then be realistic and add in the Yes
“You can still have some chocolate cake, but we need to eat dinner first.”
Depending on the age/ developmental level of your child you can go into further detail. Explain why it’s not healthy to eat chocolate cake for dinner and why we need to eat healthy foods before sugary treats.
If they are young (under 2), then after they have had their tantrum you need to keep it very simple. “Yes you can have cake, after dinner. Dinner first, then cake.”
Then give them some sort of choice. “Do you want to eat your dinner on a red plate or a blue plate? Do you want a fork or a spoon?” Etc
Children want control, lots of tantrums happen because they do not have the control they want.
My Favourite after Tantrum or meltdown question
“Do you need a hug?”
This short simple question has been the most helpful when dealing with toddlers and their tantrums in childcare, and with my own son. It works well with tantrums and meltdowns.
It all started with this one little boy (3 yrs), we will call him Jake. Jake was a very sensitive boy. He would often run to his cubby and cry when he would get frustrated or in trouble from a staff member. He would sit there by himself quietly crying.
One day I saw him there. I did not know why he was sitting there crying. I went over to ask him what was wrong. He couldn’t tell me why, he was still going through his tunnel.
I asked him “Jake do you need a hug?”
He flopped himself forward into my arms and let out the rest of his tears (that he was trying to quietly keep inside). After a moment or two, when I could feel his body relaxing a little I asked him why he was upset. He explained what happened and after that hug and chat he was perfectly fine to go back to playing.
After several times, Jake eventually would come directly to me and tell me he needed a hug. He would no longer run to his cubby when he was having a hard time.
From that day forward anytime he was upset or frustrated I just asked if he needed a hug. I would hug him until he reached the other side of the tunnel (usually within a minute or two).
I started doing this with other children as well. It worked very well. I didn’t need to do anything except just be present and offer them the affection. This allowed them to work through those emotions internally by themselves. I didn’t speak while they hugged and cried, I didn’t try and distract them, I just let them work through it by offering my support.
My son is similar to Jake. He cries quietly when in front of others. At home he runs to his bedroom to cry. From his first tantrums or meltdowns I would offer a hug and it has helped immensely. Now every time he gets upset he comes and asks for a hug.
How to Avoid Temper Tantrums and Meltdowns?
Tantrums tend to happen more often when children are tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. And in that case can sometimes be avoided. If you know your child gets miserable and turns into the “Hungry Monster” then you can sometimes avoid it by carrying extra snacks. You can also try reading them the book “Hungry Monster” to help them understand why they need to eat. Make sure you get them to eat before they get to that point. Or, if they are a terror when they get tired make sure they are going to bed or having a nap at a reasonable time.
If you know your child is tired and will be extra sensitive it would not be a good time to invite people over or to go out somewhere. Instead let them have some quiet time and help them stay calm until its bedtime/ nap time. This one happens a lot when a child is transitioning out of a nap. They need to stay awake for a little bit longer then what they can handle but if you let them sleep too early then everyone’s night sleep could be ruined.
When Should I be Concerned About Temper Tantrums?
It can be hard to know when to seek help. Are your child’s tantrums normal? Are they excessive? Do they happen too often or for too long? When in doubt talk to your doctor. But to give you a little bit of guidance, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital states:
“If temper tantrums are more severe, lasting longer periods of time, and occurring multiple times per day and/or occurring in a child older than 5 on a regular basis, then it may be time to talk to your pediatrician or get a psychologist involved to help support the family.”