Temper tantrums

Temper tantrums are used by toddlers when they don't get their way. If the tantrum works and they get what they want, they learn that tantrums are an effective tool and so will continue with that tried and tested (and successful) approach.

You need to be able to distinguish a temper tantrum as defined above from other "melt down" episodes. If your child is tired, then having a "crying fit" will be dealt with differently than if it is a true "terrible two's" tantrum. Similarly, if your child is crying because she has hurt herself which is clearly managed differently from toddler tantrums.

Please read the Toddler behaviour page, if you haven't done so already, before reading the specific advice for tantrums, given below.

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Why does my toddler have temper tantrums?

It is normal for a toddler to want the world to revolve around her. If things don't go according to her plan, a tantrum is a pretty effective way of her showing her dissatisfaction.

Not only does it show her displeasure, but there is a chance that you (or whoever else is caring for her) will give in. As long as that's a possibility, it's worth a go.

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Does having a tantrum mean my toddler has anger issues?

No. It just means you have a normal toddler - to read more about normal toddler development, click here.

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How do I stop my toddler having temper tantrums?

As mentioned on the main Toddler Behavior page, the best way to stop an unwanted behavior, like temper tantrums, is to ignore the behavior. So, when your toddler lets it all go, you have to act as if it is not stressing you at all. You can acknowledge your child's feelings, but do so in a matter of fact way - "I know you're angry that you can't have another cookie, but this won't change my mind".

It is pretty hard to ignore a full blown tantrum, but that is what you have to appear to do (although you obviously will ensure your child is not in danger of hurting themself) - the best way to ignore is to give no eye contact to your child. Your child has to think that the tantrum is having no impact at all. Try leaving the room. The tantrum doesn't have much effect without an audience.

So to be clear, ignoring means not rewarding the temper tantrum (so don't give your toddler whatever it was that started the tantrum in the first place), and not getting stressed out about it. You can acknowledge your child's frustration/emotions, but make it clear that despite these, you are not giving in

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Even if I ignore my toddler, she doesn't stop?

Initially, when you ignore your toddler during a tantrum, especially if you usually do something else, she will just think she's not making enough fuss so she'll turn up the volume. It's very important when this happens that you don't give in to the increased fuss - that will only teach her that making more fuss and noise gets what she wants. That is completely the wrong message to give. Acknowledging your child's feelings can be helpful as they will realise that you understand what's going on and so may realise there is no point escalating (eventually) - so "I know you are angry you can't go outside to play, but it is raining and you are not going outside".

If your toddler just persists, you might want to pick her up and put her in her room until she settles. If you are going to do that, wait until there is a little lapse in the tantrum - there usually are small lapses when things aren't so full on before you attend to your child (your toddler will need to take a breath so act then). This way, she won't associate increasing fuss with attention and she might figure out that it was when she was quieter that you came to her.

If your child is persistent when she has her temper tantrums, it can be tiring but look on the bright side, she will be able to persist at things when she's older - that can be a good trait!

Read more about the ABC of Understanding Toddler Behavior.

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What should I do after the tantrum?

When your child has calmed down, make it easy for her to do something that pleases you and then give her some positive reinforcement and attention. For example, you might want to say "Who can pick up the most toys and put them away" Children love a challenge and hopefully once she has picked up some toys (or even one) you can give her lots of encouragement and tell her how proud you are of her.

Everyone likes to save face and your child is no different so don't go on about the tantrum once it's over. Remember that temper tantrums are part of normal development.

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How long will it take for my toddler to stop having temper tantrums?

That will depend on a number of factors:

  • how effective the tantrums have been in the past
  • how persistent your child is
  • how consistent both parents (and other care-givers) have been in managing the tantrum

However, if you want the tantrums to stop, the best way is to ignore them - so don't give in and don't get stressed out. Once your toddler learns that a tantrum doesn't get her what she wants, she'll give up.

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What if my toddler has a tantrum in the supermarket?

Temper tantrums in the supermarket are always a challenge for parents. Ignoring your child is difficult in that situation and if you do, someone is sure to criticise you for doing so. There is no right answer but you could try:

  • pick your child up and leave the supermarket - this can be a nuisance if you haven't finished shopping
  • leave your child with someone else while you go shopping
  • distract your child - you probably need to do this before the full blown tantrum begins
  • offer your child a reward- tell her that if she's good, there will be a reward later. This is slightly different from bribing your child which would be when you give the reward before the desired action
  • give in to your child - this is not the best plan as it will only reinforce that tantrum can work

If you have been using time-out with your toddler, you can give a 321 warning to behave before the tantrum actually starts. If your toddler knows you mean business, then you will often find that by 1 your child will have settled.

For this to work, your toddler has to know you follow through on your words and she will learn this because you are clear and consistent and you do follow through on your words.

Otherwise, just stand aside in the supermarket holding your child's hand but giving her no eye contact or other interaction until she settles down. This is like ignoring, but as you are holding your child's hand, she can't get hurt.

To read about other toddler behavior problems, such as biting and hitting, click here.

To share your experiences or read other visitor's stories, click here.

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References

  • Green C. Toddler Taming. Doubleday. 2001. ISBN: 1 86471 053 5

Useful Website

Angries Out is a website to help children and their parents deal with anger. If your toddler persists in having issues with anger beyond the usual temper tantrums of the second and third years, this maybe a useful site for you.


To go to the top of the Temper Tantrums page, click here

To go to the Time Out page, click here

To go to the main Behavior page, click here

To return to the Home page, click here


Last reviewed 1 June 2011

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Dr Maud MD

Dr Maud MD (MBChB, FRACP, FRCPCH), a specialist pediatrician, provides health information and medical advice for parents of babies and toddlers. Read more about Dr Maud.



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