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Temper, temper!

Perhaps you’ve just survived your first temper tantrum, or perhaps tantrums have become so much a part of everyday life with your toddler that you’re left wondering what happened to that sweet little baby…

Don’t panic! Here’s some guidance for managing toddler tantrums effectively.

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘terrible twos’? It’s common for toddlers when they reach the age of two years old to use challenging behaviours as a way of trying to express what they’re feeling.

At this age, children are starting to see the world from their own point of view. They’re quickly developing both physically and mentally, but don’t yet have the ability to reason, understand or explain what they’re feeling. Tantrums aren’t just for two year olds though, both younger and older children sometimes behave in this way.

What causes a tantrum?

Among the most common causes of tantrums and other challenging behaviours are:

  • Tiredness
  • Hunger
  • Changes to a familiar routine, for example if you move house or your child starts at a different nursery
  • Anxiety
  • Not understanding what’s happening (because your child is too young)
  • Feeling unwell – perhaps your child is coming down with a bug

You may have already noticed that when you try to reason with your child to help them out of a tantrum, they just become more and more upset.

Remember, they’re still learning about the world, and this includes testing the rules and boundaries in place to make them feel safe. It’s very frustrating for little ones who are enjoying exploring the world around them to suddenly have an adult putting limits on this.

So what can I do?

Try to spot the warning signs that your child is heading for a meltdown so that you can intervene. If you can calm the situation before they get a rush of adrenaline (the hormone released in stressful situations that makes us want to either fight or run away), you’ll often be able to stop the tantrum in its tracks.

To do this, get down to their level so that you have direct eye contact, and use a calm tone. Use short sentences that are clear and to the point. Don’t let yourself be drawn into an argument, just repeat your message calmly and firmly until they understand.

If you’re going somewhere which you know may be a bit stressful for your child, prepare them first by talking through what’s going to happen. Explain your expectations and the reward they will get if they follow your request, such as a special story or a favourite tea.

For example: We need to go to the shops this morning. I need you to help mummy without making a fuss. When we get back, you can watch your favourite cartoon before lunch. 

Or: We need to go and post this letter. I need you to hold daddy’s hand and walk nicely. When we get back we can play a game together.  

If your child is in full tantrum mode – shouting, kicking, lying on the floor etc, you need to:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Make sure they can’t harm themselves on any nearby furniture or equipment
  • Place yourself nearby but out of their sight and wait
  • Once they’ve started to calm down, ask them if they’d like a cuddle. Some children are less keen on cuddles, so an alternative would be to ask them if they’d like to go and play
  • If they cry even more loudly, simply repeat the first four steps as many times as you need to

Depending on your child’s age and communication skills, you might want to talk to them about their feelings once they’ve calmed down. For example, you could explain the reason for the rule or boundary you put in place.

Top tips

  • Give lots of praise when you see positive behaviours that you want to see more of
  • Avoid giving any attention to the less positive behaviours – don’t feel you always have to respond to a negative behaviour. If your child is safe and not harming anyone else, just don’t engage with them
  • Work together. If parents and carers are inconsistent in their approaches, children become confused about what the rules actually are, so setting boundaries will be difficult. It might be a question of compromise: one parent may need to relax a little, while the other may need to take a firmer approach
  • Talk to other people about what works for them – they may have their own tips to share
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – no-one expects you to cope alone if you’re finding the tantrums difficult to manage

While the advice here works with any child, some children with developmental delay or heightened sensory awareness may show more challenging behaviours. Get to know your child, what they like and dislike, and which environments or situations make them anxious. That way, you’ll be able to think ahead. If you need more support with managing behaviour, talk to your health visitor.

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Page last reviewed: 25-01-2023

Next review due: 25-01-2026