Temper tantrums can make you question your parenting technique, but they’re actually a normal part of toddlerhood. Read about the causes of toddler tantrums, and learn how to deal with the most common types of misbehavior.

By Shaun Dreisbach, Jancee Dunn, and Gail O'Connor
May 26, 2020
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When your kid’s in the middle of a tantrum, it can be tough to keep yourself from having your own meltdown too. "Meltdowns are terrible, nasty things, but they're a fact of childhood," says Ray Levy, PhD, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. "Young kids—namely those between the ages of 1 and 4—haven't developed good coping skills yet. They tend to just lose it instead." Keep reading to learn more about the causes and types of toddler tantrums, with tips for dealing with particularly nasty ones.

What Causes Toddler Temper Tantrums?

Every single tantrum, Dr. Levy says, results from one simple thing: not getting what they want. "For children between 1 and 2, tantrums often stem from trying to communicate a need—more milk, a diaper change, that toy over there—but not having the language skills to do it," says Dr. Levy. "They get frustrated when you don't respond to what they're 'saying' and throw a fit." 

For older toddlers, tantrums are more of a power struggle. "By the time kids are 3 or 4, they have grown more autonomous," Dr. Levy adds. "They're keenly aware of their needs and desires—and want to assert them more. If you don't comply? Tantrum city."

Once your child reaches preschool, she can finally use words to tell you what she needs or wants, but that doesn’t mean her tantrums are over. She’s still learning how to handle her emotions, so a minor disagreement can quickly turn into a full-on fit. Because your child also values her growing independence, needing your help can be frustrating. She may lose it when she tries a challenging task, like tying her shoes, and realizes she can’t do it alone. 

Types of Toddler Tantrums

Meltdowns are divided into three basic categories, behavior experts agree. The best way to stop them depends on the specific type. 

The Gimme Tantrum: This insistent demand for something, often food and treats, usually occurs in the kitchen or at the grocery store. This makes sense, according to Claudia M. Gold, M.D., director of the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, in Massachusetts. Kids are bombarded with visual stimulation in a supermarket, she says, and Mom's attention is diverted by shopping (and, frequently, running into people she knows). "It actually can be sort of a stressful place for a kid, and if you think of a child having a tantrum as being 'stressed' rather than 'difficult,' that can help you to be more empathetic," Dr. Gold explains.

The Attention-Getter Tantrum: Mom's preoccupied—time to unleash the beast! The best example: Your kid is doing fine by herself, but then you get on the phone and suddenly she has to have your attention.

The Power Struggle Tantrum: Refusing to get into bed or to leave the playground is your child's way of asserting herself.

The Stages of a Temper Tantrum

What’s really happening when your kid loses his temper? Experts offer their insight and advice, so you can understand tantrums and help stop them. 

1. The Trigger: Your toddler’s banana broke and he needs it back the way it was—right now. Or your kiddo wants the red chair at the restaurant.

2. Anger and Sadness: A long-held theory about kid temper tantrums is that they have two distinct stages: anger, followed by sadness. But when Michael Potegal, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, and James A. Green, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, analyzed videos of meltdowns, they found that anger and sadness (which is manifested by crying, whining, and whimpering) actually overlap in time. We tend to only notice anger's fireworks, explains Dr. Potegal. "You don't always see that in fact the crying and whining start at the beginning, go all the way through to the end, and don't change all that much."

3. A “Helpful” Person Makes Matters Worse: The agitator swoops in: the grandparent, the partner, you. This optimist attempts to reason (“How can I help, sweetie?” “Can I fix that for you?”). However, this extra input just overloads the exploding child. "When kids are mad and an adult picks them up, they arch their back," adds Dr. Potegal. "The anger drives them, so they reject comfort." (It's the same don't-touch-me reaction as when a spouse tries for a post-fight hug when his partner is still fuming.)

4. A Wrestling Match Ensues: Other next-level tantrum tactics include kicking and biting, breath holding, and full-body thrashing on the floor.

5. You Pretend Not to Notice: Terrified adults in the vicinity (including you) try to ignore the drama, which is a method suggested by experts. Surprisingly, this seems to work, and your child’s anger begins to subside.

6. Your Kid Runs Up to You: "They feel bad when they're so out of control, and they're needy afterwards," says Dr. Gold. Offer a hug and a kiss and a simple "Well, that was really not much fun." This acknowledges that it happened and it was upsetting, but now it's over. The words themselves don't matter as much as your reassuring presence, says Dr. Gold.

7. It’s Like Nothing Happened: Kids switch gears and change emotions much more quickly than adults do. Your child cheerily talks about plans for the rest of the day while you spend an hour trying to calm your rattled nerves. "It comes under the heading of 'lability," or being adaptable," says Dr. Potegal.

How to Handle Temper Tantrums

You won't be able to stop every tantrum, but you might avoid the worst of it with these tips.

Prepare for the grocery store. Before embarking on shopping or other excursions, make sure your child is well rested and well fed; take an interactive toy or a book with you, and have him participate by helping to pick out a few things. Meltdowns often start when a child is denied a treat, so try this strategy from Alan Greene, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine (and father of four): Bring paper and a pen, and when your toddler asks for something, say "Let's write that down." Make a list, and at the end of the trip, read back some of the healthier choices and let your child pick one or two things. List-making will distract him, make him feel included, and promises a reward at the finish line.

Give advance warning. Toddlers don't like surprises, so defuse a potential eruption by giving a child plenty of advance notice before you leave the park or a friend's house. Toddlers are comforted by knowing exactly what's going to come next, so saying "You can ride your scooter two more times around the park, and then we have to go home" gives them a sense of control. Avoid promises such as "You can ride your scooter for five minutes." Since most toddlers can't tell time, they'll feel ambushed when their time is up.

Rely on brief, easy commands. In general, young kids are easily diverted. Tantrums can sometimes be cut short with early commands that are brief, easy to follow, and quickly grab a toddler’s interest. "The more specific, the better," says Dr. Potegal, "like 'Don't hit the dog.'" Or distract with short, specific invitations—"Let's color"—rather than a vague "Be good." A quick change of location can also be effective ("Time to water the flowers!").

Don't give in to tantrums. It's tempting to cave to a tantrum, especially at the end of the day. Don't. When you give in, this teaches your child that tantrums get results.

Give her choices. Sometimes your child simply wants control, so give a little ground by offering choices within the limits you have set. For example, you can ask, "What would you like to do first, brush your hair or brush your teeth?" Dr. Potegal has also devised a simple solution that he says works after only two or three tries. Explain to your child ahead of time that if she doesn't do what you ask—say, put on her pajamas —you're going to count to three, and if she still doesn't comply, you'll put your hands on her hands and guide her through the task. Then do it. "She'll hate this approach, because it's a challenge to her autonomy," he says. "But then she'll comply."

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