Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace

Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up. A Mayo Clinic specialist explains how to respond to temper tantrums — and what you can do to prevent them.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

You're shopping with your toddler in a busy department store. He or she has spied a toy that you don't intend to buy. Suddenly you're at the center of a gale-force temper tantrum. Everyone is looking at you.

What's the best response? Why do these emotional meltdowns happen? And can you prevent them? Consider these tantrum tips.

Why do tantrums happen?

A tantrum is the expression of a young child's frustration with the challenges of the moment. Perhaps your child is having trouble figuring something out or completing a specific task. Maybe your child doesn't have the vocabulary or can't find the words to express his or her feelings. Frustration might trigger anger — resulting in a temper tantrum.

If your child is thirsty, hungry or tired, his or her threshold for frustration is likely to be lower — and a tantrum more likely.

Do young children have tantrums on purpose?

Young children don't plan to frustrate or embarrass their parents. For most toddlers, tantrums are a way to express frustration. For older children, tantrums might be a learned behavior. If you reward tantrums with something your child wants — or you allow your child to get out of things by throwing a tantrum — the tantrums are likely to continue.

Can tantrums be prevented?

There might be no foolproof way to prevent tantrums, but there's plenty you can do to encourage good behavior in even the youngest children.

For example:

  • Be consistent. Establish a daily routine so that your child knows what to expect. Stick to the routine as much as possible, including nap time and bedtime. Set reasonable limits and follow them consistently.
  • Plan ahead. Run errands when your child isn't likely to be hungry or tired. If you're expecting to wait in line, pack a small toy or snack to occupy your child.
  • 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.
July 28, 2015 See more In-depth