Making Sense of Temper Tantrums

Girl having a toddler tantrum and hugging a wooden pole

The phrase “temper tantrum” is enough to raise a parent’s blood pressure, but is it possible that they can be a good thing? It’s time to take the angst out of temper tantrums, see them as a normal part of childhood development, and learn some tricks for helping kids through them.

What is a Temper Tantrum?

A Child’s Perspective

Young children are inexperienced humans. They’ve been on the planet for a very short time—24 months or so. They have limited ability to communicate, yet they feel the same powerful emotions adults do. 

Toddler bodies and brains are growing at an extraordinary rate and learning to control both takes time. So many things are hard—taking turns, using the toilet, getting dressed—and the list goes on. And speaking of control, young children have to rely on parents and caregivers to control where they go, what they do, what they eat, and when they go to bed, having very little (or no) control themselves over these things.

Is it any wonder children sometimes cry, whine, throw things, or fling themselves on the floor? 

Tantrums are almost always a young child’s way of expressing frustration, anger, sadness, fear, stress, or confusion. They are not attempts to manipulate or control adults. While alarming, tantrums can actually have some benefits:

  • Tantrums release cortisol, the stress hormone. Adults often feel better after a good cry and children are no different. Tantrums offer a release from difficult emotions. 
  • Tantrums provide a learning opportunity. Children usually save tantrums for the people they feel safest with, their parents, family, and caregivers. Allowing them space to express negative emotions can be incredibly powerful and set them on the path to better emotional health in the future.
  • Tantrums happen when parents or caregivers set limits. One of the jobs of parenting is saying “no” sometimes, even if it means that we’re unpopular with our children. If you’ve set a reasonable, healthy limit and stuck to it, congratulations — you’re doing the hard work of parenting. At the same time, you’re helping children learn self-regulation, and also reducing tantrums in the long run. When children have consistent limits, they feel less out of control, one of the primary reasons for meltdowns. 

How to Reduce Temper Tantrums

Minimize frustrations that often lead to tantrums.

Children are more likely to melt down when they’re tired, hungry, confused, or frustrated. Keep a regular schedule since children thrive on routine. Listen when your child first seems agitated. Let your child know what to expect throughout the day, and offer choices when possible. When your child wants something, consider the request carefully. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn’t. Choose your battles and accommodate your child when you can.

Offer a diversion or alternative.

Before your child reaches full meltdown mode, change the environment. Turn on some music, go for a walk, practice mindfulness, or sit down and look at a book together. Offer a sensory experience, such as a bath or water play, or get some exercise. Physical activity and time in nature can do wonders. Acknowledge emotions. “I can see that you’re feeling frustrated. Let’s do something different.”

Set healthy limits and reasonable expectations.

Create simple, realistic expectations for children and stick to them, but don’t expect perfection. Ask yourself, “What rules does my child need for healthy, happy growth and development? What rules are unnecessary?” Try to limit or make waiting time more engaging for young children, and avoid taking them to places where they must be quiet or sit still for long periods of time.

Teach skills and foster confidence.

Frustration goes down when children feel trusted, confident, and capable. Show your child how to get dressed, put toys away, take dishes to the sink, cross the street, etc. Work on social skills by modeling how to ask for a turn or share a toy (keep in mind that this is a work in progress. Most children can’t share consistently until at least age three or four, and perhaps even older). Demonstrate how to identify and communicate emotions and express needs. Gradually give your child more freedom and responsibility.

How to Handle Tantrums

Understand that they’re normal.

The phrase “temper tantrum” is loaded with preconceived ideas and misconceptions, but tantrums are a normal part of early childhood. A tantrum is one way children express themselves before they learn more socially appropriate methods. Tantrums do not mean that the child is bad, manipulative, or spoiled. Nor do they mean that the parent is lazy or permissive. Sometimes our anxiety around temper tantrums actually increases their frequency.

Be still.

Temper tantrums (and other powerful expressions of emotion from children) often make adults feel threatened or uncomfortable. But here’s the thing: you can’t take away or change your child’s emotions. Don’t try to fix it or talk your child out of a tantrum, which almost always leads to an escalation. Instead, get quiet. Lower your voice or even whisper. Show empathy. Offer a hug if your child wants to be comforted. Say something that acknowledges your child’s frustration. “I see how sad and angry you are. I want to help you find a solution when you are ready.” Don’t allow your child to destroy property or hurt others though. “I know you’re feeling mad, but you can’t kick the wall or hurt your sister. You can cry, talk to me about it, hit a pillow, or draw a picture. Maybe you have an idea too.”

Stand strong.

So what happens if a tantrum occurs because you’ve set a limit, a limit that you know is ultimately helpful and necessary for your child’s safety and growth? You quietly, patiently, and confidently stand strong. “I know you’re mad, but it’s my job to keep you safe. The answer is still no.” Just as you set healthy boundaries with the adults in your life, you can set healthy boundaries with your child. In this situation, you respect your child and yourself.

Remember: temper tantrums won’t last forever, they’re usually not cause for concern, and they decrease in frequency and severity as children get older and learn to control their emotions.

The Work-Life Equation Podcast: Peaceful Parenting on Busy Workdays

We’ve all been there…the get-out-the-door chaos, the after-work frenzy, those toddler-parent moments when things just seem to go, “kaboom.” Is there a better way? Parenting expert and psychologist Jennifer Gillette says unequivocally…yes. She’s got the tips, tricks, and strategies to tame the tantrums and put what she calls peaceful parenting back into your day. Subscribe to the Work-Life Equation on iTunes.


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Bright Horizons
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Girl having a toddler tantrum and hugging a wooden pole