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 how to prevent tantrums in the first place. 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. Soon you find yourself at the center of a gale-force temper tantrum. Everyone's looking at you, and your face is burning with embarrassment.

Could you have prevented the tantrum? What's the best response? And why do these emotional meltdowns happen in the first place?

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 can't find the words to express his or her thoughts or feelings. Whatever the challenge, frustration with the situation might trigger anger — resulting in a temper tantrum.

Consider this: Most 2-year-olds have a limited vocabulary. Parents might understand what a toddler says only some of the time. Strangers understand even less. When your child wants to tell you something and you don't understand — or you don't comply with your child's wishes — you might have a tantrum on your hands.

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?

It might seem as if your child plans to misbehave simply to get on your nerves, but that's probably giving him or her too much credit.

Young children don't have evil plans to frustrate or embarrass their parents. For most toddlers, tantrums are simply 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. It's also important to set reasonable limits and follow them consistently.
  • Plan ahead. If you need to run errands, go 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 — you might teach him or her sign language for words such as "I want," "more," "drink," "hurt" and "tired." The more easily your child can communicate with you, the less likely you are to struggle with tantrums. As your child gets older, help him or her put feelings into words.
  • Let your child make choices. To give your toddler a sense of control, let him or her make appropriate 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?" Then compliment your child on his or her choices.
  • 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 toys, follows directions, and so on.
  • Use distraction to change your child's focus. If you sense frustration brewing, try to distract your child. Suggest a new activity or change location.
  • Avoid situations likely to trigger tantrums. If your child begs for toys or treats when you shop, steer clear of "temptation islands" full of eye-level goodies. If your toddler acts up in restaurants, make reservations so that you won't have to wait — or choose restaurants that offer quick service.
Aug. 10, 2012 See more In-depth