Toddler Tantrums: A Definitive Guide (Why kids do what they do & what to do about it)

You already know that your cooing baby turns into a tantruming (but incredible) toddler. 

But why do tantrums happen? 

And how do you actually handle tantrums? 

This is a definitive guide to toddler tantrums: why they happen and what you can do about them (link). 

If you’re facing tantrums with your toddler (1- to 3-year-olds), or with older children (4- to 6-year-olds), you’re in the right place. 

Let’s get started.

(There’s WHAT YOU NEED TO DO boxes for practical, applicable solutions. Just like these below)

Contents

What are toddler tantrums?

Temper tantrums are how young children express their emotions. 

Tantrums can begin between 12-15 months old but typically peak at around 2-years-old (aka The Terrible Two’s). 

It’s normal for children over 2-years-old to have tantrums. They typically end by 4-years-old (jump to When do Tantrums Stop? and Why do Older Children still have Tantrums?)

But why do they tantrum?

Young children express themselves this way, because:  

  • Their developing brains mean they can’t control their emotions (link)
  • Their social and emotional skills are only just developing – they don’t know what’s the right way to behave unless they’re shown (and shown numerous times, and in numerous ways)
 

But, wait, let’s go back a minute – 

What triggers these emotions? 

And what exacerbates them?

What causes toddler tantrums?

Expressing emotions is the root cause behind all tantrums, but there’s other important things that play a role too:

Let’s start with ‘The Triggers’.

The 6 Tantrum Triggers

  • An unmet want. This is when a child can’t do or have something or someone, or stay or go somewhere they want. Even hearing the word ‘No’ can spark a tantrum. This is probably the most common trigger for toddler tantrums and one all parents know well.
 
  • Lack of choice. Very limited or no choices are given to the child – a suppressive ‘my way or the highway’ approach. This leads to an emotional cocktail of frustration, anger, and disappointment, served straight-up as one almighty tantrum. 
 
  • Lack of control, independence, and autonomy. Frustration and defiance can build up when a child isn’t allowed to choose their cereal, or pick out their socks, or generally exert their own autonomy. A friend once told me her 4-year-old fought her every morning about getting dressed. Guess who picked out the clothes. 
 
  • Unfair restrictions or too many restrictions. A temper tantrum will inevitably happen if a child feels too restricted, can’t have their wants met at least some of the time, or feels the rules are unfair. This shouldn’t be confused with rules and boundaries – those are essential and beneficial for children. 
 
  • Overstimulated and overwhelmed. Children can become quickly overwhelmed with too much information or commands – think of the Getting Ready to Leave the House Frenzy. This overwhelm quickly spirals into a tantrum, as they are unable to handle overwhelming and over-stimulating situations. 
 
  • Developing motor- and verbal skills. Children can trigger their own tantrum when they can’t do something – for example, when their hands won’t do what they want (motor skills), or they can’t say what they want or how they feel (verbal skills). 
 

Although the Triggers can spark a meltdown of epic proportions all by themselves, they usually go merrily hand-in-hand with their best friend – 

‘The Exacerbators’

The 7 Tantrum Exacerbators

The Triggers spark the emotion, but the Exacerbators affect the scale of the reaction: 

  • Tiredness and hunger. If you’ve been a parent for 5 minutes, you’ll know these two already. Just like hangry, tired adults, children have a lower threshold for frustrating triggers and are far more likely to explode at the drop of a building block. 
 
  • Repeated disappointments. Sometimes it’s just too much. Even we’d get peeved. Disappointment after disappointment mixed with 1 or 2 triggers and boom! Tantrum. Imagine a child wakes up and finds out her dad left already (without a goodbye hug), AND she has to go to nursery that day, so no, she doesn’t have time to play, and no, she can’t wear that t-shirt. Boom.
 
  • Being ignored by the parent. If the parent purposely ignores the child’s feelings and requests and stonewalls the child, the child may shout even louder just to feel heard. No matter what age, no one responds well to being ignored. 
 
  • Inability to express themselves. Young children aren’t able to even recognize what they are feeling, let alone have verbal skills to express them. When they can’t express themselves or make themselves understood, it causes immense frustration – at themselves as well as others. This is typical of 2-year-olds – they have a greater awareness of their surroundings, wants, and desires, but still don’t have the verbal skills to express themselves. 
 
  • Poor communication. The parent doesn’t help the child to label their feelings, doesn’t teach them what to say or do (only what not to say or do), or doesn’t speak about how the child feels. This lack of good communication affects how the child learns to communicate and behave, and can also make toddler tantrums worse. 
 
  • Undermining or undervaluing feelings. This is when a parent dismisses the child’s feelings instead of acknowledging them. Let’s imagine a child is frustrated that their younger sibling keeps taking/ ruining/ dribbling on their toy. The parent may respond with: ‘Stop whining! It’s not a big deal. He’s just a baby’. This says to the older child that their feelings aren’t important. The child then typically lashes out at the younger sibling and then explodes when they’re reprimanded for it. All because, when they said how they felt in the beginning, they were told (in one way or another) that what they felt didn’t matter.  
 
  • A lack of connection with parents. Feeling connected, loved, heard, and respected are vital for every single person – young and old. ‘Everyday in a hundred small ways, children ask, “Do you see me? Do I matter?” Their behavior often reflects our response’ – L.R. Knost
Portrait of Oprah Winfrey wearing an orange top and smiling

“Every single person you will ever meet shares a common desire. They want to know:

‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’

Try it with your children, your husband, your wife, your boss, your friends. Validate them.”

It’s important to not only think of tiredness and hunger when your child is having a temper tantrum. 

They definitely play a big role, but they’re only one piece of the tantrum-thrown-puzzle.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

What do Triggers and Exacerbators look like in reality?

Triggers and Exacerbators are hiding in our children’s everyday interactions.

The Exacerbators can build up without us even realizing it, and a seemingly insignificant Trigger can spark a tantrum.

Let’s put ourselves in our kids’ small and scuffed shoes –

‘…Wasn’t allowed the cup I wanted this morning, and then I got told to “just sit down”.
My brother got the cereal I wanted and then my favorite spoon fell on the floorI got given the red one. “Hurry up and eat!” My brother just flicked milk at me.  “Stop
playing, hurry up”. I have to go to daycare later… don’t want to go. Put my shoes on the wrong feet – don’t know how.  Noo! I don’t want to wear my cooooooooooooat!!’  *wailing commences*

      Lack of choice

      Lack of connection

      Repeated disappointments

      Overwhelm

      Trigger

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Your child is an adorable, apocalyptic volcano

Sweet isn’t he? Little lava spills on his chin. Small puffs of ash as he giggles. Fiery pit of magma exploding in his car seat. Aw.

A child’s emotions are like magma, quietly bubbling away under the surface (hopefully undisturbed for quite some time).

The Triggers are like the earthquake that sets off the eruption.

The Exacerbators are like the pressure beneath the surface.

But, we’re not at the mercy of our little volcanoes –

These are eruptions we can pre-empt and prevent from exploding out of control. 

Here’s how:

How to minimize a toddler tantrum before it starts

You can reduce the magnitude of the temper tantrum before it even begins (link), if you reduce the Exacerbators and minimize some of the Triggers. 

Reduce the pressure (Exacerbators):

  • Make sure they are rested and fed (physical needs)
  • Help them to express themselves by naming their emotion (communication) 
  • Acknowledge how they feel without belittling or negating them (valuing them)
  • Listen and maintain a good connection (connection)
 

Try to minimize the effect of the earthquake (Triggers): 

  • Regularly let them choose between simple options (choice)
  • Let them take on some responsibility for themselves (autonomy)
  • Give clear boundaries, so they have control over their world (independence)
  • Explain and take things slowly (prevent overwhelm) 
Illustration of a volcano erupting to show a big toddler tantrum
An earthquake (Trigger) + a lot of pressure (Exacerbators) = an explosive eruption (Tantrum)
Images by Joe Zhuang via Vecteezy
Illustration of a volcano erupting to show a small toddler tantrum
An earthquake (Trigger) + a small amount of pressure (Exacerbators) = a brief and manageable eruption (Tantrum)
Read on for more tips on how to handle toddler tantrums

Summary - First steps in understanding a tantrum

When we understand the Triggers and Exacerbators, we’re better able to handle the temper tantrum (LINK). 

1. Recognize the emotion(s) behind the tantrum

How does the child feel? 

E.g. “He’s angry and frustrated”

2. Understand the trigger 

What happened before the tantrum? 

E.g. “I told him we didn’t have what he wanted for lunch and then I gave him something else (unmet want).”

3. Is anything exacerbating the situation? 

Is the child tired? 

E.g. “Probably by now (Exacerbator), and I did just tell him he couldn’t watch TV, and we’re not going to the playground today (unmet wants and repeated disappointments); so he’s definitely already frustrated and disappointed.”

4. Take the next steps in handling the tantrum (LINK)

Have you ever said no when your child wanted something they saw for only 2 seconds, and then watched the AFTERMATH of the separation

Then you know when it comes to emotions, young children FEEL everything. 

The reason why?

Their developing brains.

Let’s take a closer look.

What’s going on in those tiny, bewildering heads anyhoo?

There’s a part of the brain in charge of regulating emotions and empathy and is responsible for our high-functioning abilities. It’s called the prefrontal cortex. 

For the under 4’s, it hasn’t even begun to develop.  

It only starts to mature from the age of 4 and is a constant work in progress until our mid-20’s.

Executive functions of the prefrontal cortex

Image by Seabranddesign via Vecteezy

Because of their developing brains, toddlers cannot rationalize an emotional event, or maturely handle their emotions

They just don’t have the cognitive ability to do that. 

We’d never expect a 3-month-old to quiet down and wait for his feed, or for a 14-month-old to stop crying after a fall (your palms and knee are fiiine) – that’s beyond what their brains can do. 

And it’s the same with toddlers.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

See a temper tantrum for what it is: an emotional reaction young children can’t control. 

When you understand that they’re not in control of how they’re reacting, you can then handle the tantrum (LINK) in a more compassionate and supportive way. 

You are then the teacher – helping and guiding the child through the tantrum (LINK). 

You shouldn’t punish their reaction, because they are cognitively incapable of behaving any other way

Chart showing how understand why toddlers tantrum will help in handling toddler tantrums

Related: how to handle, comms

The two types of toddler tantrums - The Taught Tantrum versus the Emotional Meltdown

This is the most important distinction to make. 

It’ll help in all your tantrum taming years.

There are two core tantrum types – the Taught Tantrum and the Emotional Meltdown. 

(It’s not the ‘Emotional Tantrum ’. That’s because all tantrums are a response to emotions – even taught ones) 

Let’s look at the differences:

Chart showing differences between two toddler tantrum types - the taught tantrum versus the emotional meltdown

Toddler Tantrum Type: The Emotional Meltdown

Young children emotionally meltdown, because they don’t have the brain development, language skills, or emotional regulation to respond any differently. 

The Preoperational Stage of development lasts until age 7, and the prefrontal cortex doesn’t even start to mature until age 4.

Punishing a child for an emotional reaction will likely escalate the tantrum – most of the Exacerbators are then typically used (ignoring them, dismissing feelings, etc). 

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

How to handle tantrums is all covered in detail here (with lots of practical examples and science)(LINK). 

The most important thing is how you perceive the tantrum – remember, it’s a genuine emotional reaction they can’t control. 

Then it’s a matter of following some tips and tricks for handling toddler tantrums (LINK).

Related: how to handle, comms

Toddler Tantrum Type: The Taught Tantrum

Like in all tantrums, the catalyst for the Taught Tantrum is an emotion. 

The problem for the parent is how the child expresses that emotion – their behavior. 

This behavior has been modeled and taught to the child. 

It’s often small and inadvertent ways that it’s modeled. Like when the parent: 

  • Shouts when they want their child to do something (teaches poor communication skills)
  • Gives into the tantrum and allows the child to have what they demanded (appeases and positively reinforces behavior)
  • Tidies up the mess after the child trashes their room (doesn’t teach responsibility for actions, shows destruction is an acceptable form of expression)
  • Doesn’t listen to how the child feels (teaches poor empathy and listening skills) 
  • Hits the child for hitting others, or, shouts at the child to stop shouting (poor communication and anger management skills)
  • Placates and minimizes bad or extreme behavior (enables the behavior)

Giving into the child after a tantrum is often talked about, but there’s many small ways that unacceptable behavior can be taught, without even realising it. 

PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

An example of a mom who unintentionally taught her children to shout instead of talk.

She modeled this to her eldest child, and her younger children picked it up from her and their sister, creating a spiral of worsening behavior.

More on Taught Tantrums (how your child’s tantrums have been taught and modeled)

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Emotions are the root cause of any tantrum, so understanding how your child feels is absolutely essential. 

Why are they acting this way? 

What do they need emotionally? 

You may need to take a look at how you communicate as a family and look where the child’s behavior is coming from. How is it being reinforced?  

Don’t only address their behavior – treat the cause (the emotion AND how the behavior is being shown or reinforced), not the consequence. 

Related: resetting bad behavior, comms tips

Summary - Toddler Tantrum Types

Behind every tantrum, there is an emotion and a need.  

To solve any tantrum, even Taught Tantrums, you must address the emotion and need.  

To solve Taught Tantrums, you also need to look at how the behavior is being modeled and/or reinforced (LINK)

More on Taught Tantrums (the way we can unintentionally cause them and how they can be stopped before they start)

When to worry about toddler tantrums?

Watching your child implode and explode all at the same time can be worrying as hell. That’s for sure. Especially when they head over to the breakables. 

But. 

The real worry – that worry deep down in your gut that something is wrong – that’s the one we’ll look at here.

When should I worry about my toddler's tantrums?

Studies state that extreme, frequent and prolonged temper tantrums could be a sign of a potential mental health problem. 

But – 

Extreme behavior could also be a sign of parenting gone awry, or a child just struggling to cope. 

When thinking about tantrums, it’s important to look at the whole picture (Jump to When Toddler Tantrums are Getting Worse) 

Signs of abnormal behavior

Research studies state that the important things to look at are frequency and severity – not specific episodes of extreme behavior. 

It’s recommended to talk to your pediatrician if your child shows all of the following behavior in almost all tantrums.

Rest assured – all children show the following behavior now and again.

  • Aggression and violence – in over 90% of their tantrums. All children will show varying degrees of physical aggression from time to time to release their anger and frustration.

  • Self-injury – like biting and head banging is found to be more common in depressed children.

  • Inability to calm down by themselves – instead needing something external to distract them, like a parent, or a bribe.

  • Frequencyone study defined this as a severe or extreme tantrum nearly every day. Another study defined this as 10-20 tantrums a month (at home), or more than 5 tantrums a day on multiple days (outside the home).

  • Very long tantrumsa study of nearly 1,500 children showed that tantrums lasting over 5 minutes, 4-6 times per week were considered abnormal. 

  • Who they tantrum with – Have you ever heard, “They were good all day until you arrived”? This is because children tantrum around the people they trust and feel secure with. Having severe tantrums with new or irregular caretakers, or even strangers, could be a red flag. 

My child doesn’t show all of those red flags, but their behavior is still concerning. Now what?

Not displaying all of the red flags is great, but that still leaves you with the problem of their worrying behavior and no solution.  

Let’s look at how to solve this:

When toddler tantrums are getting worse

When tantrums start to spiral, there are two things to consider: 

The child’s role and the parents’. 

Sure, the child has a big role in their behavior, but the parent can unintentionally add fuel to the fire

If we want things to get better, we need to look at both sides. 

The role of the child - Tantrums get them what they want

Their tantrums are getting worse because, after all the screaming and shouting, they ultimately get what they want. 

Whether that’s emotionally reconnecting with their parents (think comforting, calming cuddles), or the iPad, their need has been met. 

They have been shown that behaving in a certain way affects your decisions.

BUT, before you go vowing never to give them what they want – 

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

You can’t solve worsening tantrums by punishing behavior. 

If you do, you miss the most important point completely – why do they behave like that? 

You need to address the cause of any tantrum: their emotions and needs. 

And you also need to look at where their behavior comes from. 

Does it come from:  

  • How you react when you’re frustrated?
  • How they’re taught to communicate?
  • How you interact with them?
  • How their behavior has been reinforced?

Related: For more on this type of behavior, head back up to Taught Tantrums (link)

For some more tough love questions – keep reading. 

The role of the child - They’ve kicked it up a notch 

If you’ve been battling tantrums for a while now, chances are you’re unfazed by the enraged rolling around on the floor anymore.

Just like an adult, when a child senses they’re losing control, they will naturally try to get your attention and reaction through other means

BUT, the solution isn’t to ignore –  

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

The solution is to address the real reason behind the behavior – do they feel like they’re heard and matter? Has something happened? 

Address the emotional need, and you resolve the cause of the behavior. The behavior will then improve. 

“The antidote to ‘bad behavior’ and ‘acting out’ is helping children feel safe and understood- feeling seen, heard, cared for, and connected” – Lelia Schott

The role of the child - They’ve not been shown another way

Children will model and mirror what they’ve seen and experienced –

If they’ve never seen or been taught how to soothe themselves or communicate their feelings, then they can’t possibly do this themselves.

The role of the child -You're entering the peak

Tantrums start around 12-15 months, then peak between 18-36 months.

It could be that the tantrums seem to be getting worse, but that this is just a developmental peak, which will taper off as your child gets older.

All is not lost! You’re just not through the tunnel quite yet.

The role of the parent

Every child is totally unique, so it’s not possible to say the role and influence one parent has. 

That’s something only the parent can answer themselves. 

  • Is the real reason for the tantrum (the emotion) being addressed? 

  • Are you reacting impulsively? Do you ask yourself ‘Why did she/he do that?’ and look at the whole picture?

  • Are you punishing instead of disciplining

  • Is the punishment/discipline getting harsher and harsher? Is the discipline proportionate to the behavior?

  • Are you forgetting your child’s age? Toddlers’ still-developing and still-learning brains and bodies get easily forgotten.

  • Are you repeatedly telling them what they can’t have, instead of listening and acknowledging what they want? 

  • Are you being fair? Are you compromising? Children will rebel against perceived injustice – like any adult would. 

  • Are they allowed to have a normal human reaction to a disappointing or frustrating event? Or are they reprimanded for being angry and upset?  

  • Are you ignoring them or stonewalling them?

  • Are you calm? Who’s shouting the most? 

Parents can accidentally squirt lighter fluid all over a tantrum and make it worse without even realizing it.

Parents' can make tantrums worse, like pouring lighter fluid on their behavior. Words being poured onto flames

Image by insanity100 via Vecteezy

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Your ultimate goal is to understand why your child’s behavior is getting worse, and how their behavior is being inadvertently reinforced. 

Think about and analyze your child’s behavior, their relationships outside and inside the home, their own unique character.

Then ask yourself those tough questions – what is causing their behavior? How do they feel?

Read more: Starting over. How to reset your kid’s bad behavior 

Read more: How to communicate

When do toddler tantrums stop?

Temper tantrums typically last until around the age of 4.

This is the age when the prefrontal cortex starts to develop, and children then begin to develop the ability to regulate their emotions, but it is a long, ongoing process. (Head back up to brain development for more) 

By this age, their language skills have also (typically) improved to a point where they can express themselves. 

But – 

If children aren’t shown how to express themselves, or their behavior is reinforced (through appeasement, or mirroring parents and/or siblings), then the tantrums will continue.

Because of this, it’s quite common to see temper tantrums in older children, like in 5, 6 and 7-year-olds.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

A true story

I know a woman who has two daughters, aged 2 years apart. When her eldest daughter was a typical 2-year-old and would have a tantrum, the mom would throw an epic tantrum of her own. 

She would slam doors, and scream and shout relentlessly at her daughter everyday, multiple times a day. 

Until one day, her daughter shouted back.

It was then her 3½-year-old shouting the loudest, releasing a huge emotional deluge onto her mom. 

Both of them did this everyday for the next 4 years. 

Now a seasoned pro at 7, she talks back, yells back, and screams at her parents.  

And so does her sister. 

She’s been watching and learning since she was a newborn. 

There’s no bad kids – just good learners.

Why do older children still have temper tantrums?

Everyone expects a 2-year-old to tantrum. Some might be surprised when the tantrums don’t stop at 3-years-old (Threenager anyone??)

But what about after 4-years-old? 

Then what? 

Older children (over 4-years-old) typically still have tantrums for four reasons: 

  • Dealing with new complex emotions. Remember how brutal the playground was? The complex social hierarchy? And navigating it all without knowing where you were going? Older kids have to deal with more than we give them credit for: school, fickle friendships, sibling rivalries, arguing parents, greater awareness of themselves and how they fit in within the group. That pressure is just waiting to explode at the smallest trigger (and usually happens where they feel the safest – with you). 

 

  • Brain development. The prefrontal cortex starts developing at age 4 and it’s ongoing until their mid-20’s. Although they’re out of the toddler years, their brains still need a long time to learn how to handle emotions. (Head back up for more info on brain development).

 

  • They’re still learning to self regulate. They haven’t learned more appropriate ways to express or manage their feelings from their parents (Head back up for more info on this (previous section)

 

  • Their existing behavior is being reinforced. Parents can unwittingly reinforce their child’s behavior and create unwanted Taught Tantrums (For more on Taught Tantrums, scroll back to Types of Tantrums).

 

  • (Surprise! A fifth reason. All of the above)

 

More on tantrums in older children (how to hit reset and try again before it’s too late)

Why is my toddler more difficult than others?

Some toddlers can seem more difficult or bad-tempered than others.

Some may have regular, smaller tantrums.

Others may save it all up for an uncontrollable tantrum in the worst place and time ever – usually when you’re tired.

And hungry.

And on your last thread of patience. 

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Adapt your communication and tactics (LINK) to your child. One child may respond well to some deflecting humor, but this may infuriate another child.

Your child may need more help in guiding them through their emotions, like: 

  • More forewarning and explanations as they go into different situations
  • More space to calm down before they allow hugs and talk
  • Needing simple, repeated phrases to help them understand, or to communicate how they feel

Related: comms tips

What tantrums aren't - it's not you, it's me (me, ME!)

Constant outbursts from your child (especially physical and verbal attacks) can understandably be taken personally. 

But please be reassured – it’s really not about you

From 2-years-old to 7-years-old, children are still in the egocentric phase of their development

They are cognitively unable to see things from another’s point of view

What you have control over is how you respond to their meltdown

How we react, how we guide them, and how we teach them to calm their emotions is a vital part of parenting.

Conclusion

Tantrums can be hard to cope with and be emotionally draining. 

But – 

We can do something about them. 

We have to first understand that when our children have a tantrum, they’re communicating an emotion and a need. 

Remember that your child’s brain is not an adult’s brain.

They are not cognitively able to handle their emotions with any maturity, or to consider other viewpoints. 

  • We have huge influence over our children’s behavior – for better or worse
  • We can teach, show and guide them through their tantrums (link)
  • We can feel in control and know what to do next (link)
 

Combine some communication tricks (link) with an understanding of why toddlers behave like they do (link), and you can parent in an incredibly effective, nurturing way.

Wondering how to actually handle toddler tantrums with plenty of practical examples and actionable info? Take a look (LINK)

 

Now over to you – tell me your stories: 

What would you say your child’s main triggers are?

Which Exacerbators are the worst for them?

Is their behavior extreme? 

Toddler Tantrums: A Definitive Guide (Why kids do what they do & what to do about it)
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