The Terrible Twos: Temper Tantrums in Toddlers and How to Cope

The Terrible Twos: Temper Tantrums in Toddlers and How to Cope

Watching our little one grow up fills us with immense pride and joy. From their first steps to their first word, we treasure every moment. However, there is a stage in their life we all can’t help but dread: the terrible twos.

During the terrible twos your little one, who once giggled and smiled at every little thing, will be having tantrum after tantrum and pushing all your buttons. Screaming, biting, kicking, crying – at times it will feel never-ending and can even make you feel ill-equipped for parenthood.

But the terrible twos don’t have to be something you dread. We’re here to help. In this guide we’ll be going over how to effectively tackle your little one’s tantrums, common causes of tantrums, and most importantly, how to prevent them.

What Is a Temper Tantrum?

A temper tantrum is an outburst typically involving screaming, stomping, kicking and other disruptive behavior. Temper tantrums are a way for your little one – who doesn’t quite know how to handle their newfound emotions and express themselves – to let out their frustration and communicate their needs, wants and feelings. We go into more detail about the causes of temper tantrums a little further down.

While you may be concerned about your toddler throwing tantrums, they are completely normal. In most cases, they will subside as your child matures and finds better ways to handle their emotions and communicate their needs.

Temper tantrums typically begin to surface when your child is a year old, though they occur the most between 18 months and four years old – the developmental phase recognized as the terrible twos. During this stage of their life, most children will have at least one tantrum a week.

Despite the common misconception that boys have more tantrums than girls, tantrums occur frequently in both.

Common Causes of Temper Tantrums in Toddlers

As we mentioned earlier, temper tantrums are how your toddler lets off steam, expresses their emotions, and tries to communicate. As such, a temper tantrum can be caused by a whole myriad of things, including:

  • Jealousy, usually of another sibling or child
  • Desiring your attention or boredom
  • Wanting something, or when something they want has been taken from them, whether that be a toy, snack or book
  • Thirst or hunger – little ones have big appetites!
  • Challenges and setbacks, such as an inability to tie their shoes
  • Feeling fatigued or sick
  • Feeling stressed, fearful, worried or upset
  • Struggling to adapt to change, like an unfamiliar environment or arrival of a new baby
  • Unable to understand what you’re telling them, or unable to get you to understand them
  • Sensory overload

Toddlers are extremely egocentric, so many temper tantrums also stem from an inability to have autonomy over their day to day life.

Some toddlers also use temper tantrums to test your limits. If you’ve told your child they can’t have that garish teddy bear in the shop window they so desperately want, they may throw a tantrum to see if you give in and buy it for them, especially if you’ve previously given in to them before.

Handling Temper Tantrums

When your toddler has a temper tantrum, it can feel like they’ve turned into a little monster set on wreaking havoc on your day. However, remember that they’re not going out of their way to frustrate you, they just don’t have the coping skills to deal with their newfound wants and emotions. Here, we’ll go over effective ways to handle their outbursts.

Determine the Cause

Are they throwing a tantrum because they’re exhausted after a long day at the park? Getting them to bed will bring an end to their stomping and crying. Are they feeling overwhelmed by their surroundings? Holding them on your lap will give them a sense of security and help to calm them down. Put simply, if you’re able to determine the cause behind your child’s tantrum, it’ll be easier to know the best way to combat it.

Of course, determining the cause is not always easy. If you’re not sure of the cause, we recommend trying out the techniques below. You can also conduct an evaluative assessment, which we’ll talk more about later on.

Distract Them

A toddler’s attention span is extremely short (we’re talking mere minutes!). This is something you can take advantage of, as chances are if you distract your child just before they’re about to have a full-on tantrum, it will take their mind off the thing they were frustrated or distressed about.

There are several ways you can grasp and divert your little one’s attention; you could tell them a funny joke, open their favorite picture book and start reading it out loud, or you could even point in a direction and exclaim “wow, look at that…” and describe something you see in detail.

When distracting them, make sure to smile and be extremely excited. This will make your little one even more curious and eager.

Put Them in Time-Out

If your child is kicking and biting, you should remove them from the situation immediately and put them in time-out. This will give them an opportunity to calm down and stop them from hurting anyone around them or themselves.

Calmly tell your toddler that kicking and biting is not acceptable – “we don’t kick or bite, kicking and biting hurts” – then take them to their time-out place, and tell them you will wait for them to calm down.

If you haven’t set a time-out area yet, choose a space where there are no distractions nearby, like the bottom step of the stairs.

You should only put your child in time-out for a few minutes tops. The younger your child is, the less time they should spend in time-out. A two-year-old should spend two minutes, while a three-year-old should spend three minutes. If you make their time-out any longer than this, they’ll simply become more frustrated and have yet another tantrum.

Wait It Out and Don’t Give In

If your tot is throwing a temper tantrum to grab your attention – or because they weren’t allowed to play with the kitchen cutlery – the best way to handle it is by ignoring their behavior and waiting it out. Remain calm and do not make eye contact with your toddler or interact with them, no matter how much they whine and scream.

If you give in to their attention-seeking or anger over not getting their way, you’re teaching them that throwing tantrums is the best method to get what they want. Even if you only give in on the odd occasion, it will still have an impact. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Vasco Lopes explains that “intermittent reinforcement makes it a very solid learned behavior…so they’re going to continue that behavior.”

It can be tough not to give in, especially when your toddler is having an outburst in public with dozens of onlookers about. However, remind yourself their tantrum will come to an end, and 75% of tantrums only last for a few minutes!

Extra Tips

Do not yell, spank or argue with your toddler. This will make their tantrum worse. As toddlers imitate the behavior of those around them, you’ll also be teaching them that they need to use these aggressive measures to handle any problems they face in the future. Always stay calm; take deep breaths and count to ten to prevent yourself from getting frustrated.

Sometimes all your child needs is some affection and reassurance. If they’re overwhelmed or nervous, hold them gently and soothe them.

When your toddler has finally calmed down, do not reward them for doing so; you’ll be teaching them that throwing a tantrum is an easy way to get rewarded.

Do not tell your little one what to feel, and do not demean their feelings, even if the reason why they’re frustrated is completely absurd. Yes, even if the reason is that their muffin only has six visible chocolate chips. Let them express their feelings, and show them ways to express their feelings in a healthy manner.

Ensure you child-proof your house. This will prevent your frustrated toddler from getting their hands on anything dangerous.

If your child is screaming, it might not be because they’re having a temper tantrum. They could just be testing out their vocal range! If you’re particularly looking for help with tackling screaming, make sure to check out our how to handle toddler screaming guide.

How to Prevent Temper Tantrums in Toddlers

Despite how spontaneous and inevitable temper tantrums may seem, there are measures you can take to reduce the chance of them occurring.

Conduct an Evaluative Assessment

Every time your toddler has a temper tantrum, make a note of their behavior before, during and after it. This will really help you deduce the common causes of their outbursts, information you can use to prevent tantrums from occurring in the future.

For example, if your toddler always throws a tantrum when you give them a red plastic cup, you’ll know that an easy way to prevent future tantrums associated with it is by simply giving them a different cup.

Of course, some common triggers of temper tantrums can’t be avoided that easily; putting their shoes on, going to bed, visiting a relative, to name a few. However, if you’ve been able to deduce these things as the cause, you can prepare your little one for them and make them more manageable.

Consistency Is Key

Toddlers need a sense of safety and security. Without this, they’ll feel scared, confused and frustrated, all emotions that can trigger a tantrum. Stick to a schedule and avoid changing it as much as possible. If your little one knows what to expect, and when to expect it, they’ll feel more in control and won’t feel at a loss about what is going on around them.

If you know there will have to be a change in the schedule, make sure to warn your child of this and prepare them for it so it doesn’t come as a surprise. You should also be informing them of what will happen throughout the day. For example, you can tell them “today we will go to the park, then we will see Nana.”

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Hunger and thirst are common tantrum triggers, so remember to always have a snack and drink on hand when you’re out and about. You should also ensure your toddler is well-rested and relaxed before you head off.

If you have to take them somewhere for a long period of time, bring their favorite toy along to keep them occupied. We have an article about the best gifts for three-year-olds if you’re interested.

Don’t Overwhelm Them

To you, a fun day out may seem like going to the park, followed by a meal and then a trip to the movies, but to your toddler, all those activities in one day is anything but fun. It will be stressful, exhausting and tantrum-inducing. To prevent them from getting overwhelmed, try to spread out activities across the week, rather than doing them all in one day.

Make sure you’re familiar with the common signs of stress in toddlers. If you know the signs to look out for, you’ll be able to de-escalate the situation before your little one gets too overwhelmed and has an outburst. You should also avoid busy, noisy areas, as they can cause a sensory overload, something many toddlers react to with a temper tantrum.

Reduce Temptations

Let’s be real: no toddler can resist a freshly baked batch of brownies, and if you leave them lying about we can guarantee your little one will be throwing a tantrum until they get one. Or a dozen.

Limit temptations as much as possible; instead of leaving those brownies on view, hide them and keep them out of their sight. Only show the brownies to your toddler when you’re okay with them tucking into them.

Give Them Some Power

Giving your child a little more power over their day to day life can really help them feel like they’re listened to, respected and in control, all things that will prevent them (and anyone, for that matter) from getting frustrated or anxious.

An easy way to achieve this is by offering them a choice when it comes to small things. For example, instead of choosing their shirt for them, show them two shirts and ask them which one they would prefer to wear.

Give Enough Attention

Sometimes it can be hard to give your toddler as much attention as they truly need. Life can throw all sorts of hurdles at you, from a hectic work life to the arrival of a new baby. Nevertheless, it’s vital your toddler is still getting enough attention throughout the day, otherwise they’ll undoubtedly try to grasp your attention through a temper tantrum.

In fact, if you give your little one more attention when they’re not throwing tantrums, and instead when they’re practicing good behavior, they’ll soon realize good behavior is the best way to gain your attention. You can show your child they have your attention with eye contact, gentle touches, and of course, by spending quality time together.
laughing mother holding happy toddler outside

Appeal to Their Curiosity

A toddler is at the age where they’re filled with boundless curiosity. You’re probably familiar with the endless “why” questions they ask! While curiosity is healthy and crucial for your child’s growth, impatience comes hand in hand with it. If your little one feels that they’re not able to appease their newfound curiosity, their impatience will consume them and they’ll quickly become frustrated.

Ensuring your toddler’s inquisitive nature is satisfied is therefore vital if you’re hoping to prevent temper tantrums. Games or toys which involve problem-solving are sure to satisfy their curiosity, as well as those that introduce them to new and exciting things.

Pretend play is another way your toddler can appease their curiosity, as it will let them safely act out everything they’ve ever wanted to try. There are plenty of toys designed to aid pretend play on the market – if you’re interested in reading our article about them.

These toys and games will also really help your little one’s development, especially when it comes to their fine motor skills and cognitive skills.

When to Be Concerned

While temper tantrums are normal, in some cases they can be a cause of concern. They can point to signs of a mood disorder, or a behavioral issue like Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If your little one has exhibited any of the following signs, you should speak to a pediatrician for further guidance:

  • Injuring themselves or others during a temper tantrum
  • Has several tantrums a day
  • Consistently has tantrums that last for over 25 minutes
  • Struggles talking or unable to calm themselves down
  • Signs of sensory overload or anxiety
  • Temper tantrums do not lessen by the age of four.
  • Repeatedly holds their breath during a tantrum, especially if they do so to the point they turn blue and faint
  • Exhibiting low self-esteem or overly dependent

Keep in mind excessive tantrums could also be the result of an underlying physical health problem, as toddlers typically express pain and sickness through tantrums.

Final Thoughts

After a temper tantrum, you may be left feeling like you’re not fit for parenting, unable to provide your child with the support they need. However, this isn’t the case! Remind yourself you’re doing a good job at raising them, and temper tantrums are an unavoidable and normal part of your toddler’s life, not a sign you’re doing something wrong.

Managing temper tantrums can be a challenge, but taking preventative measures, and handling their tantrums with the methods we’ve discussed above will truly turn the terrible twos into years you’ll treasure.