What is a Toddler Temper Tantrum?

While the causes may seem bewildering and the timing is never convenient, toddler temper tantrums are your little one’s way of expressing very strong emotions that they aren’t yet equipped to put into words. And yes, toddler temper tantrums are perfectly normal behavior are a normal part of child development for those in the trenches of the so-called Terrible Twos (from 24 months to 30 months).

What Causes Toddler Temper Tantrums?

If a toddler’s tantrum is related to an inability to express themselves verbally, why don’t we see tantrums of joy? Well, they’re called temper tantrums for a reason: Your little one is frustrated, maybe even angry—about being told “No,” about being given boundaries or limits, or for simply not getting their way in any given situation.1

Unfortunately, certain contexts or other things going on with your little one can up the likelihood of you dealing with a toddler meltdown—sleepy, hungry, sick, or littles who have to change course abruptly are all more likely to have a temper tantrum.1

How to Avoid Toddler Temper Tantrums

Knowing the times when your child is more likely to have a tantrum, such as being overtired or hungry, and thinking ahead may help prevent a temper tantrum. While toddler tantrums aren’t always avoidable, there are things caregivers can do to reduce the likelihood that they’ll be dealing with a toddler meltdown on any given day:2

  • Routine. Try your best to stick to a routine for meals and sleep times. This will help prevent your child from getting overtired or hungry.

  • Redirect their focus. Using your little one’s short attention span is key—shift their focus to a positive action or object, like a favourite toy, that is more interactive.

  • Help your little one learn. Lots of frustration comes from your toddler not knowing or understanding how to do something—so look for opportunities to head a toddler tantrum off at the pass by instructing them through something they’re struggling with.

  • Let littles have (some) choice and control. Letting your little one feel empowered to make choices—and saying “Yes” to asks that aren’t out of line—boosts their self-esteem; if choices are head-to-head rather than yes-or-no, all the better.

  • Employ positive reinforcement. When your little one is making good choices, being kind, staying well behaved in a stressful moment, point it out—show them that you notice and that it’s praiseworthy.

  • Prepare your child for change. Preparing your child for changes or events by talking to them about it before it happens may help your child adjust.

  • Consistency. Let your child know the rules and stick to them.

How to Deal with Toddler Temper Tantrums

Part of dealing with toddler temper tantrums and meltdowns is being prepared for them. They are one of the less fun portions of early childhood, but they are normal and often inevitable. Here are some tips for getting you and your little one through the inevitable toddler temper tantrums:3

  • Stay calm. Getting heated or having your own meltdown will only make dealing with your toddler’s meltdown more difficult—and may prolong the struggle. Be strong, supportive and consistent.

  • Validate the feelings behind the tantrum. Your little one needs to be heard, so show them you hear them with active listening. “I understand that you don’t want to leave the park—it’s really fun to play here,” “I know that you don’t want to stop playing and take a bath, you’ve been having a good time,” etc.

  • Provide space and boundaries. Let your little have their moment but continue to uphold appropriate rules—announce that you will stop them from hitting, yelling, or being destructive while you give them space to calm down.

  • Soothe when possible. Hugs, an alternative activity, or sitting quietly may soothe your little one, so offer up those options when and where possible.

  • Model healthy reactions to upset. Whether you take your own breaks from stressful situations or help your toddler channel their upset into something safe—ripping scrap paper, working with clay—tantrums can be teachable moments for learning how to have and work through our emotions.

  • Avoid bribery. Bribing your child to stop the tantrum may teach your child to act inappropriately to get a reward.

When To Be Concerned About Toddler Tantrums

While you shouldn’t find yourself dealing with toddler meltdowns forever, sometimes temper tantrums can escalate or stick around as a behavior past toddlerhood. If any of the below are true for your toddler—or your older child—reach out to your health care provider for guidance:4

  • Longer or more explosive tantrums

  • Multiple tantrums a day

  • Injuring themselves during a tantrum

  • Injuring others during a tantrum

  • Being destructive during a tantrum

  • Becoming sick from tantrums, such as headaches, or holding their breath

  • Tantrums that continue or get worse over the age of 4

Toddler tantrums may be inevitable, but they’re only one portion of the developmental journey of your toddler. Explore more of what you can expect as your little one grows into toddlerhood.