boy having a tantrum

Toddler tantrums are enough to stretch even the calmest parent. Whether your child’s at the terrible twos, always kicks off at bedtime or has the dreaded public tantrum, here’s how to cope.

Toddler tantrums: are they normal?

In a word, yes. Tantrums are short periods of angry outbursts or unreasonable behaviour like crying, screaming or shouting (RC Psych, 2017). They are common and a standard part of a child’s development.

"Tantrums come from your child not getting what they want. Think of tantrums as their way of telling you they’re upset and frustrated (KidsHealth, 2018)."

When it comes to tantrums, your child is definitely not the only one to ever have them. Tantrums are extremely common and part and parcel of your child’s development. 

Toddler tantrums and terrible twos: when do they start?

Tantrums usually start when children are around 18 months old and happen between the ages of one to three (NHS, 2016). They’re equally common in boys and girls. Some kids have tantrums super often and others rarely have them.

Toddler tantrums: when will they end?

When your little one starts to talk more, they’ll be less prone to tantrums (NHS, 2016). Tantrums are also much less common once they reach four years old (NHS, 2016).

What causes toddler tantrums?

When kids get a bit older, they’ll become more independent. They’ll want to do things like dress themselves, feed themselves or pour their milk by themselves.

If they are stopped or can’t do something, they might get upset because they’re frustrated that they don’t have the freedom (RC Psych, 2017).

Tantrums might also happen when a child is:

  • tired
  • hungry
  • feeling ignored
  • worried or anxious.

(RC Psych, 2017)

Tips for handling a toddler tantrum (including in public places)

When a child has a tantrum, they might start whining, crying, screaming and yelling. In some case, tantrums also involve kicking, hitting and the child holding their breath (KidsHealth, 2018).

As every parent knows, the worst place for toddler tantrums is in public. You might feel angry, embarrassed, discouraged and hopeless as your child screams in front of the broccoli at the supermarket (RC Psych, 2017).

Actually though, this is the time when your kids need you the most. So try to support them by trying the following.

Trying to understand why they’re having a tantrum

Are they tired? Hungry? Jealous of another child that has your attention? If you understand where it’s coming from, it might be a bit easier to calm them down (NHS, 2016).

Distracting them

Children have short attention spans. So offer them something else in place of what they can’t have or start a new activity by replacing the frustrating or forbidden one.

You could also change the environment by taking them inside or outside the room (KidsHealth, 2018). Another way is to distract them by looking out of the window to see something they like, e.g. a cat. Make yourself sound very surprised and interested to get to your child’s attention (NHS, 2016).

Don’t give in

If you say yes to end the tantrum, your toddler will think that’s the way to get what they want. In the same way, don’t bribe them with sweets or treats (NHS, 2016).

Don’t panic

It’s so easy (and understandable) to get angry yourself but the important thing is to stay calm and not get upset. Remind yourself that this is normal and you’ll manage it, like millions of other parents have.

If you get stressed, your child will also pick up on it so keep calm and in control and you’ll chill them out too. You’ll also set a good example.

Oh and forget worrying about what others think when you are in public places. Most people will know what you are going through anyway.

Handle tantrums based on your child’s needs

Different ways are:

  • ignoring the outburst
  • finding something they can have, when you have said they can’t have something else (don’t give major explanations for why they can’t have the other thing, just move on)
  • comforting them with a hug
  • holding them firmly but gently and talking to them in a clear voice.

(The Guardian, 2009; KidsHealth, 2018; Family lives, 2018)

Some ways to prevent tantrums

Help toddlers to understand their feelings.

You can do this by reading stories (Lonigro et al, 2013). This gives you the opportunity to talk about and name emotions. You could speak with them about how characters react and what they would do in certain situations.

Praising good behaviour

Whenever your child does something good, always reward them with praise and attention (KidsHealth, 2018).

Giving control over little things

Offering choices over clothes or which fruit they eat will make them feel they have a say (KidsHealth, 2018).  

Try and say yes a lot

When your child wants something, don’t always say no. Choose your battles (KidsHealth, 2018).

Understand your child’s needs

If they are tired, don’t take them on an epic supermarket shop. If they’re hungry, pack snacks for a long car journey. Being tired and hungry are two of the biggest tantrum triggers (Pearson, 2013; KidsHealth, 2018).

Give your child some space

If a toddler wants to get his anger out in a non-destructive way, it’s ok to let them get mad sometimes. This way, they are able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together and regain self-control without getting involved in a battle (Pearson, 2013).  

When are toddler tantrums a worry?

If you’re seriously concerned about your child’s behaviour, talk to your health visitor or GP. Also talk to your doctor if:

  • You often feel angry and out of control while dealing with tantrums.
  • You keep giving in.
  • The tantrums affect the relationship between you and your child.
  • The tantrums are happening more often, are worse and last longer.
  • Your child hurts himself or others.
  • Your child always opposes you, argues a lot and hardly ever cooperates with you.

(KidsHealth, 2018)

This page was last reviewed in June 2018

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Family Lives. (2018) Understanding and dealing with tantrums. Available at: https://www.familylives.org.uk/advice/toddler-preschool/behaviour/understanding-and-dealing-with-tantrums/ (Accessed 27th June 2018).

KidsHealth. (2018) Temper tantrums. Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/tantrums.html (Accessed 27th June 2018).

Lonigro A, Laghi F, Baiocco R, Baumgartner E. (2013) Mind reading skills and empathy: evidence for nice and nasty ToM behaviours in school-aged children. J Child Fam Stud. 23: 581-590. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-013-9722-5 (Accessed 27th June 2018).

NHS. (2016) Temper tantrums. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/temper-tantrums/ (Accessed 27th June 2018).

Pearson L. (2013) The Discipline Miracle: the clinically proven system for raising happy, healthy and well-behaved kids. The Fiction Studio, London.

Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2017) Dealing with tantrums: for parents and carers. Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/parents-and-young-people/information-for-parents-and-carers/dealing-with-tantrums-for-parents-and-carers (Accessed 27th June 2018).

The Guardian. (2009) Advice for coping with toddler tantrums. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/08/toddler-tantrums-how-to-cope (Accessed 27th June 2018).

Further reading

Luby JL, Barch DM, Belden A, Gaffrey MS, Tillman R, Babb C, Nishino T, Suzuki H, Botteron KN. (2012) Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 109(8):2854-2859. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3286943/ (Accessed 27th June 2018).

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