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Why do toddler tantrums happen so easily?

Imagine what it would be like if you didn’t have a filter on your feelings when you got frustrated, angry, or overtired, or when someone disagreed with you. You probably wouldn’t be much fun to be around. Now imagine that, at the same time, you were unable to participate in a world of tempting activities.This is what's behind toddler tantrums.

Toddlers are caught in the dilemma of craving the independence of older children while still needing the nurturing and coddling of babies. They have a powerful drive to explore and break out on their own. At the same time, they don’t have a realistic sense of their limits and what’s unsafe (a hot stove!) or unreasonable (10 cookies!). They see grown-ups and bigger kids doing things that they’d like to do and when they come up against their physical limitations or are told not to do something, it can be maddening.

Toddler tantrums are a normal part of emotional development; they usually peak between ages 2 and 3, then diminish by age 4 or 5. Temper tantrums tend to occur more often when your child is overtired, hungry, or experiencing some kind of stress—it simply takes less to push him over the edge. These outbursts are the best way your toddler has to express strong feelings. He can’t yet think through emotions; he simply reacts. And he lacks the language skills to express complicated feelings with words. So toddler tantrums are his way of saying, “Enough! Help!”

A tantrum may pass quickly or last an impressively long time. Sometimes your child may whimper and whine, other times he may wail loudly and even kick or scream. It’s not uncommon for toddlers to have breath-holding spells, which are usually nothing to worry about since automatic breathing reflexes kick in. (Of course, if your child holds his breath to the point of fainting, discuss the situation with your pediatrician.)

Dealing with toddler tantrums

It’s impossible to prevent every outburst, but there are some ways that you can help prevent or minimize toddler tantrums. For one, allowing your child to make his own decisions can help. By offering choices in some situations you can help your child reason their way to a more reasonable outcome. Likewise, setting consistent limits can help prevent tantrums. If the rules are always the same, he will already know what they are. So, he will be more likely to understand his limits ahead of time, and he will also learn that when you say “no” you really mean it.

When toddler tantrums erupt, try to stay calm yourself. Offer gentle comfort, but don’t go overboard with fussing and responding, which can further fuel the fire as many toddlers enjoy the added attention. It’s better to be matter-of-fact and move on.

Sometimes distraction or humour can change the course when tension is beginning to build. Head off toddler tantrums by being prepared with toys that can capture their attention and change the subject from whatever may be bothering them. Intervene early on with a favourite toy.

In cases where you sense a tantrum coming on in your child and you don't have a fun and distracting item on hand, you'll have to rely on a little creativity and think on your feet. Turn something from your surroundings into a fun discussion or ask for your child's help in making a decision to divert them from slipping them into a full-blown tantrum.

As with just about anything in the life of a parent, there's no one way to prevent or stop toddler tantrums. However, as always, it's you who knows your child best. By learning about reasons for toddler tantrums and the different methods to handle them, you'll likely—with a little patience, some perseverance, and plenty of trial and error—be able to navigate this temperamental period in your growing child's emotional development.