Clinical Editors: Megan Dodson, PA-C and Sara Huberman Carbone, MD
Whether it’s happened in the grocery store, on a long flight, or in the middle of a crowded mall, just about every parent can tell you about a time (or ten) their toddler had a total temper tantrum. While they may be inconvenient and more than a little annoying, temper tantrums are considered a normal part of growing up and researchers have found that they occur in the vast majority of kids between the ages of two and three years old.
“Tantrums are quite common in most toddlers starting from ages 12-15 months and peak around 18 to 36 months,” says One Medical provider Deanna Scoca, MD, FAAP. “Sometimes it can be related to teething as molars can come through around the age of 2 years.”
Defined as “brief episodes of extreme, unpleasant, and sometimes aggressive behaviors in response to frustration or anger,” tantrums actually serve a purpose, as they afford kids who haven’t developed mature coping skills the opportunity to express their strong emotions. That said, these episodes can be tough to witness and even harder to manage — so what’s a parent to do when a toddler tantrum is out of control?
The common causes of toddler tantrums
While every child is unique, the most common causes of sudden tantrums are usually rooted in physiological needs or triggers, like fatigue, hunger, or illness. But simple frustration is reason enough for many toddlers to start crying, screaming, hitting, or exhibiting other typical signs of a tantrum, too.
“Some of the common causes of toddler tantrums include getting frustrated and not having the ability to express how they feel, being told not to do something, not wanting to do something they are told to do, wanting something they can't have at the moment, or being overly tired,” Scocca says. “Some toddlers have tantrums when they’re seeking attention, which can often worsen around the introduction around a new baby sibling.”
How to keep the situation from getting worse
There’s certainly no single right way to parent or cope with a toddler tantrum, but there are some common — often unintentional — missteps that may exacerbate the issue. Being aware of actions or words that can stir up more emotional turmoil in a toddler may help parents get a grasp on the situation faster.
“It is quite common that parents become frustrated as well, especially in challenging settings,” Scoca says. “Try not to get upset or yell; this can make the toddler respond even more poorly to the parent’s response to the tantrum. Try to stay calm in these difficult situations. It is okay to temporarily not respond to your toddler as long as they are in a safe environment such as at home if attempts to redirect are unsuccessful.” In these moments, you might try doing a short breathing or mindfulness exercises to help regain a sense of calm.
How to deal with a temper tantrum
Parents often feel the need to end a tantrum, but it can help to shift the way we think about this. Our role, as parents, is to help our children feel safe, understood, and accepted, while holding the boundaries we have created. There’s no one-size-fits-all method for meeting every child’s needs in every situation, but there are a few ways to tone down the intensity of a tantrum.
First and foremost, if a child is physically at risk (for example, running into the street during a tantrum) or causing physical harm through hitting, biting, or other violent actions, this behavior can’t be ignored. In these cases, it may be necessary to hold the child back. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents may need to let the child know “that it's absolutely not acceptable by moving their body out of a situation or taking away a privilege.” In these situations, it’s important to still name and validate their feelings, while holding the boundary. For example, you might say, "I hear you don't want to leave the park. It's ok to feel mad about that. It's not ok to hit. I'm going to keep you safe and help you leave the park."
Aside from those extreme scenarios in which the child may be in danger or causing harm to others, parents can rely on one tool as their primary tantrum-tackling tactic: distraction. “Try to distract or redirect them if possible,” Scoca says. “You can attempt to redirect them with a new idea, present a new object such as from a rotating selection of toys, or suggest a change in their environment, such as going somewhere different together."
In these moments of distraction, it’s also important to acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay. You might say something like, “You are frustrated that the blocks keep falling over. It’s okay to feel mad about that. Let’s come back to blocks after nap time. Do you want to play with trains or color right now instead?”
While it may be necessary for parents to pick their battles and accommodate requests just to quell a tantrum and move on with the day, consistency and open conversation can help reduce the level and frequency of tantrums over time. “Try to talk to them about emotions when they are upset and when they are calm,” Scoca says. “I recommend engaging your toddler in decision-making by giving them different choices when possible to try to prevent the tantrum. And try to spend consistent one-on-one time with your toddler each day if a new sibling has been recently introduced into the family.”
With all those tips in mind, it’s important for parents to also cut themselves some slack and remember that caretaking can be incredibly challenging and that no two toddlers are alike. “Every family situation is different,” Scoca says. “Tips that work for some families may not work well for others. Try to keep the methods used consistent between parents or different caregivers if possible.”
And parents should also keep in mind that tantrums typically do improve after the age of 3. If there are concerns about a toddler’s behavior or their tantrums seem out of the ordinary, parents are encouraged to make an appointment with their child’s pediatrician.
Have more questions about temper tantrums? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around your child’s unique health needs.Sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
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