Find out what's really going on in your little one's mind and learn techniques to sidestep (or survive!) the next meltdown.

By Jancee Dunn and Gail O'Connor
Updated April 10, 2020

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. 

The Stages of a Tantrum

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

Anger and Sadness: A long-held theory about 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."

A “Helpful” Person Makes Matters Worse: The agitator swoops in: the grandparent, the partner, you. This optimist attempts 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.)

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

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.

Your Kid Runs Up to You: "They feel bad when they're so out of control, and they're needy afterwards," says Claudia M. Gold, M.D., director of the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, in Massachusetts. 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.

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.

3 Types of Tantrums—And How to Stop Them

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 to Dr. Gold, author of Keeping Your Child in Mind. 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.

How to Stop This Tantrum: At home, place objects that bring on a beg-fest out of sight. 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.

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.

How to Stop This Tantrum: Advance warning is key. Try, "Mommy has to talk on the phone now. Play quietly in your room, and then we'll color together." Try stashing away some toys that come out only during phone calls. And if it's a serious call that involves, say, banking information, you might park her in front of a video for a little while. 

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!").

The Power Struggle Tantrum

Refusing to get into bed or to leave the playground is your child's way of asserting herself.

How to Stop This Tantrum: It's tempting to cave, especially at the end of the day. Don't. When you give in, this teaches your child that tantrums get results. In these instances, your child 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?"

And 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.

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."

Source: Parents Magazine

Comments (3)

April 6, 2019
I have 4 kids, relatively close in age, about 2 plus years apart. My first 2 were surprisingly easy when it came to tantrums, nothing too frustrating. My 3rd child and only girl, she was a little worse in the tantrum phase ... but my 4th child, who is now 20 months ... he has become, well ... extremely difficult when it comes to his communication and frustrations. He SCREECHES and I mean screeches at the top of his lungs ... but not just when he is frustrated, hungry, tired ... but he screeches for just about any reason. Even with him being my 4th child, this screeching phase is relatively new to me. His screeches are intolerable ... so very high pitched and he will continue with fits of screeching for good lengths of time. He will screech about anything ... when he is sad, mad, happy, tired, hungry, bored ... I have tried so many different approaches to combat this "phase" but no luck has come of them. I understand tantrums and other behaviors like this in toddlers are normal and expected ... but I feel as if I am not doing well in this department and would like some advice that maybe I have not tried.
January 30, 2019
First I didn't know what Terrible Twos meant but I found out with my 2 boys.. It was a difficult time for us, not really knowing what to do.. Luckily I stumbled upon and tried that. Wow, that really opened our eyes. It worked and our boys behave now. Can really recommend it!!
January 2, 2019
My 4 year-old daughter has always had, and still has, crying/tantrum episodes every single day. it’s humiliating. Bedtime is so stressful EVERY DAY! And this is not the only time she is out of control. I have tried it all; routine, stories, positive reinforcement, games, etc., still, nothing works. We can't figure it out...we would appreciate your input... I'm all ears!!! Thanks!!!