Help! Toddler Tantrums!

I am often asked,” Are you in the terrible two’s yet?” My response is always, “Yep. We were there at 11 months and still going strong.”

Tantrums are inevitable and a large part of your child’s development. They can make the most zen-like parent feel helpless and overwhelmed. Today I wanted to share some pointers on identifying what triggers your toddlers tantrums and how to effectively navigate through outbursts.

First Step: Breathe! You are NOT alone. I’m sure if you turn around right now, you would be greeted by an army of frazzled parents just like you.

What are Tantrums?

The dictionary defines a Tantrum as:


  1. an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child.

A tantrum is how a toddler expresses frustration with current challenges. Maybe they are having a hard time figuring out why they were able to get a block into the box, but now they can’t get it out. It is also possible that your little one hasn’t developed their vocabulary yet, and is frustrated because they are not able to express what they want. This frustration can turn into anger- and BAM! You are smack dab in the middle of a tantrum.

Here are some other tantrum causes:

  • Need to be more independent
  • Limits (Too many or too few)
  • Being hungry or fatigued
  • Not feeling in control
  • Too much stimulation or being bored

Tantrums can range in frequency depending on your child. There is no one size fits all rule here. Most importantly, remember tantrums are how toddlers express their feelings. They are not doing it to spite you. (I have to remind myself of that often)

Even though we have coined the term “the terrible twos,” tantrums can start anywhere around 12 months through 3 or 4 years old.

Seven out of ten 18- to 24-month-old toddlers throw tantrums. And more than three-fourths of 3- to 5-year-olds have tantrums.


Tantrums vs. meltdowns

Is there a difference?

Many people make a distinction between tantrums and meltdowns, though neither is a clinical term. “Tantrum” is commonly used to describe milder outbursts, during which a child still retains some measure of control over his behavior. One benchmark many parents use is that a tantrum is likely to subside if no one is paying attention to it. This is opposed to a meltdown, during which a child loses control so completely that the behavior only stops when he wears himself out and/or the parent is able to calm him down.

Child Mind Institute

Preventing Tantrums

I have sifted through TONS of resources on how to prevent and diffuse tantrums. (Pinterest and Google have been my BFFs) Here is my summarized list of proactive steps you can take as a parent:

  • Know your child’s personality. For many kids, keeping a schedule of regular mealtimes, nap times and bedtimes offers a sense of what they can expect at various points in their day — which makes them feel more secure, in control and comforted. However other kids thrive on spontaneity — so if your child seems to get stressed out by schedules, ease up a bit.
  • Ward off the “fearsome four.” Hunger, fatigue, boredom and over stimulation, that is. That means avoid over scheduling or planning a big excursion (like grocery shopping) before nap time. And make sure to leave the house with your toddler’s tummy full — and with healthy snacks and a favorite small toy or book.
  • Cut down on the need to say “no.” This includes childproofing your home (so you don’t have to constantly cry, “No, don’t touch that!”) and setting clear limits.
  • Don’t say “maybe.” In toddler translation, “maybe” equals “yes.” Instead, say “yes” or “no,” or negotiate a compromise.
  • Encourage your child to use words. Young children understand many more words than they’re able to express. If your child isn’t yet speaking — or speaking clearly — teach him or her sign language for words such as “I want,” “more,” “drink,” “hurt” and “tired.” As your child gets older, help him or her put feelings into words.
  • Let your child make choices. Avoid saying “no” to everything. To give your toddler a sense of control, let him or her make choices. “Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?” “Would you like to eat strawberries or bananas?” “Would you like to read a book or build a tower with your blocks?”
  • Praise good behavior. Offer extra attention when your child behaves well. Give your child a hug or tell your child how proud you are when he or she shares or follows directions.
  • Avoid situations likely to trigger tantrums. Don’t give your child toys that are far too advanced for him or her. If your child begs for toys or treats when you shop, try to steer clear of areas with these temptations. If your toddler acts up in restaurants, choose places that offer quick service.

(Links to list resources are at the end of this post)

How to Parent Through Tantrum

Diffusing and preventing tantrums won’t work all the time. Here are some actionable steps you can take when you are down in the trenches of meltdown territory.

1. Play a game

Try to engage your child in a game as simple as “I Spy,” which works great in places where waiting is involved (like the DMV or airport). This works on two levels: It’s a distraction, so whatever is distressing your child will likely take a backseat to having fun. Secondly, tantrums are often as much a cry for attention as they are a response to being frustrated. 

2. Make your child laugh

Laughter releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals in the brain and stifles the stress-causing ones — so do something silly. For example, if your child won’t stand still for a diaper change, put a clean diaper on your head. If he refuses to drink his milk, pick up a banana and make a phone call. The best thing about getting a toddler to giggle is that it’s not all that hard.

3. Hide

Don’t go far, of course, and stay within eyesight of your tot — but pop quickly behind a grocery display or a rack of clothes. After a second, reappear with a “Boo!” and a smile. Your startled, then relieved, tot will probably laugh. And want you to do it again. 

4. Seek

Act very interested in something off in the distance. Squint and peer. Then mumble, “Is that a pony?” After a few minutes of looking around, the two of you can conclude together, that no, it probably wasn’t. It’s sneaky — but it’s highly effective.

5. Speak softly

Refrain from trying to out-yell your screaming toddler, and start whispering to him in a calm, gentle voice instead. (Tip: This will work only if he’s looking at you.) As soon as your toddler realizes you’re talking, he’ll probably quiet down to try to figure out why you’re talking so quietly. Just make sure to be saying something soothing, like: “I’m sorry you’re so mad. Why don’t we go for a walk?” Don’t rely on this trick too often, though, or it may stop working.

6. Stand your ground

Repeating the same words can help bore the tantrum out of him. So keep calm and don’t give in. For example, if your toddler pitches a fit when you won’t give him a cookie right before dinner, your response should be to repeat the rule, over and over: “We don’t eat cookies before dinner. We don’t eat cookies before dinner.” The trick is to be as consistent and as calm as possible. Keep your voice even and your face neutral. He’ll understand that you mean business, and see that he can’t get a rise — or a cookie — out of you before dinner.

7. Hold Them

When a tantrum morphs into a full-blown screaming fit, no amount of silliness or reasoning or non-reaction on your part is going to do the trick. If your child is that upset, he won’t be able to see you or hear you. But relying on the power of your touch can be soothing, especially since losing control can be scary for a little kid. So pick your little one up and hug him firmly but gently. The bonus: A hug can help melt any anger or frustration you have, too.

(Links to list resources are at the end of this post.-

Keeping them in a Safe Space

If your child is physically out-of-control (thrashing, hitting), move to a safe place. Pick him up firmly (without dragging or pulling). If you’re in a public place, carry him outside or to your car. If that’s not practical, hold your child tight to prevent him from hurting himself. (Some toddlers calm down when they’re held tightly.)

The No No’s

  • Don’t give in. Giving in can teach your toddler that if they throw a fit they will get results. If you are in a public setting and you can’t get them to calm down, you may need to consider heading home.
  • Avoid physical discipline. Regardless of what side of the physical discipline debate you are on, it’s best to not insert any sort of physical force when your emotions are running high. You run the risk of loosing control.

Warning Signals

If you feel your child’s tantrums are outside what is considered the average range, you can always seek a medical opinion. Don’t ever be ashamed to do that. Here are some red flags to look out for in your toddler’s behavior:

  • Incredibly frequent outbursts
  • They also have feelings of intense anger, sadness or helplessness
  • If tantrums are followed by aggression, sleep problems, food refusal and separation anxiety.
  • Still frequent after age 4.
  • Your child is violent to other people, objects, or himself.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor if you are having trouble controlling your anger and emotions when your toddler is having a tantrum. It is SO important that you are taking care of yourself too. You don’t have to go it alone.

Some additional red flag behaviors from WebMD:

  • Aggression toward caregivers, objects, or both. If this happened more than half the time in the last 10 to 20 tantrums, it may signal disruptive disorders. “It is not uncommon at all for children to try to kick their moms because they won’t buy them an ice cream cone. But if this happens 90% of the time, and you have to take cover to protect yourself during a tantrum, this may mean a problem,” Belden says.
  • Self-injury. Kids with major depression and kids with mixed major depression and disruptive behavior were much more likely than healthy kids to bite themselves, scratch themselves, bang their heads against a wall, or kick objects in an attempt to hurt their foot.
  • Frequent tantrums. Preschoolers who have 10 to 20 tantrums a month at home, or who have more than five tantrums a day on multiple days outside the home, are at risk of a serious psychiatric problem.
  • Very long tantrums. A five-minute tantrum can seem like a million years to a parent. But kids who consistently have tantrums that last more than 25 minutes may have underlying problems. “A normal child may have a tantrum that lasts an hour, but the next one lasts 30 seconds. These children with psychiatric disorders are having 25-minute or longer tantrums 90% of the time,” Belden says.
  • Inability to calm oneself after a tantrum. “These kids almost every time require some sort of external force to calm them down,” Belden says. “You have to constantly remove them from the situation or bribe them or it will go on and on.

Additional Resources

Check out our blog post- Traveling with your baby

Stay Resilient <3 Mika

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