Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace

Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Find out 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 grocery store. He or she has spied a treat that you don't intend to buy. Suddenly you're in the center of a gale-force temper tantrum.

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

Why do tantrums happen?

A tantrum is the expression of a young child's frustration with his or her limitations or anger about not being able to get his or her way. Perhaps your child is having trouble figuring something out or completing a task. Maybe your child doesn't have the words to express his or her feelings. Frustration might trigger an outburst — resulting in a temper tantrum.

If your child is tired, hungry, feeling ill or has to make a transition, 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. A child's temper can become short if he or she doesn't have enough rest or quiet time.
  • 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.
  • Let your child make appropriate 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, steer clear of areas with these temptations. If your toddler acts up in restaurants, choose places that offer quick service.

What's the best way to respond to a tantrum?

Typically, the best way to respond to a tantrum is to stay calm. If you respond with loud, angry outbursts, your child might imitate your behavior. Shouting at a child to calm down is also likely to make things worse.

Instead, try to distract your child. A different book, a change of location or making a funny face might help. If you've asked your child to do something against his or her will, follow through by offering to help. If you've asked your child not to play in a certain area, consider showing him or her where playing is OK.

If your child is hitting or kicking someone or trying to run into the street, stop the behavior by holding him or her until he or she calms down.

When your child quiets down, calmly explain your rules.

What if my child becomes destructive or dangerous?

If a tantrum escalates, remove your child from the situation and enforce a timeout:

  • Select a timeout spot. Seat your child in a boring place, such as in a chair in the living room or on the floor in the hallway. Wait for your child to calm down. Consider giving one minute of timeout for every year of your child's age.
  • Stick with it. If your child begins to wander around before the timeout is over, return him or her to the designated timeout spot. Don't respond to anything your child says while he or she is in timeout.
  • Know when to end the timeout. When your child has calmed down, briefly discuss the reason for the timeout and why the behavior was inappropriate. Then return to your usual activities.

Don't use timeouts too much, however, or they won't work.

When is professional help needed?

As your child's self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children begin to have fewer tantrums by age 3 1/2. If your child is causing harm to himself or herself or others, holds his or her breath during tantrums to the point of fainting, or has worsening tantrums after age 4, share your concerns with your child's doctor. The doctor might consider physical or psychological issues that could be contributing to the tantrums.

Nov. 05, 2020 See more In-depth