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Toddler Behaviour Toddler Tantrums

Toddler Tantrums

Your toddler is in a time of self discovery and self focus and also wanting to be independent. Toddlers can become distressed when they're balancing what they want and feel with what we want them to do.

What a toddler tantrum means

Sometimes everybody’s needs cannot be met. For your toddler, a tantrum can be a normal part of expressing all these feelings, wants and needs. It is their way of saying:

  • I don’t like what is happening
  • I am struggling to understand what is happening, or needed of me
  • This is really hard for me
  • I’m feeling unsure 
  • Can I have your help?
  • This is not what normally happens
  • I want to finish this activity
  • I can’t cope with these feelings
  • Why can’t I do this?

Toddlers are not being naughty or trying to manipulate you. They are not able to fully understand other people’s feelings and are learning how to calm themself. When your toddler is having a tantrum, they can feel scared.

When do toddlers have tantrums?

Toddler tantrums can start at the age of around 1 and are a normal part of development. A 1 or 2 year old tantrum can often be from struggling to communicate.

A 3 or 4 year old tantrum might be because the child is still managing their feelings and learning how to express them. Children usually outgrow tantrums by the time they get to school or even earlier. 

Some reasons for tantrums

There are many reasons for tantrums in a toddler. Some of them include:
  • 1

    Tiredness and hunger.

  • 2

    Being overstimulated or overwhelmed.

  • 3

    Being frustrated that they do not have the skills to do something.

  • 4

    They're unable to explain their needs or emotions.

  • 5

    They've reached the limit of their attention span. 

  • 6

    They're struggling to wait for things.

  • 7

    They're protesting or wanting something that the parent has said no to.

  • 8

    They're testing limits or rules.

  • 9

    They're affected by other stresses such as starting childcare, moving house or a new baby.

  • 10

    They may have difficulty controlling their emotions e.g. they may quickly go from excitement to anger.

  • 11

    They're fearful of a new situation.

  • 12

    Their temperament might impact how they react to situations. Some toddlers are easy going, others are more determined.

  • 13

    They were expecting a reward.

  • 14

    They're still learning about others' emotions.

  • 15

    They're beginning to realise that they're separate from you meaning they like to say ‘me or mine' and 'no’. 

  • 16

    They don't understand the time, size or space.

How to avoid toddler tantrums

Although not all toddler tantrums can be avoided, there are some ways to reduce the frequency in some children.

  • Have realistic expectations of your toddler’s ability and needs. They're only young and they're still learning about the world.
  • Show your toddler love and attention every day. Smile at your toddler and let them know that you enjoy being with them.
  • Toddlers thrive on routine so create a predictable world for them. Develop routines and rituals so that your toddler feels safe.
  • Use positive language and praise. Avoid saying “no” all the time, instead try saying ‘later or after we do this we can do that’. Notice and comment or smile at them when they do the right thing.
  • Limit the amount of activity you do each day. Toddlers need quiet times during the day even if they're not napping anymore.
  • Introduce new activities slowly and one at a time. This will give your toddler just enough support to smooth the way to learning new things but won't overwhelm them.
  • Try to anticipate and if possible avoid difficult situations or activities for your toddler when they are tired, hungry or unwell. For example, you might avoid going shopping with your toddler when they're tired or hungry. Schedule activities with friends after the nap time so your toddler isn't tired and likely to be overstimulated.
  • Pay attention to your toddler’s unspoken/subtle cues so you can help them early. Try to understand what they are feeling and needing.
  • Talk to your child about their emotions. You can do this from birth by labelling emotions like saying 'I'm happy, sad or angry'. This will help them identify these emotions in themselves and express them to you when they're old enough. 
  • Allow additional time when introducing new tasks or activities. When you don’t have a time pressure, it can help with your own non-verbal or verbal cues and patience. For example if tying shoe laces or getting into the car independently.
  • Offer two options, rather than one that your toddler can say “no” to. For example, “do you want to sit on the potty or the big toilet”, rather than “do you want to go to the toilet”?

How to deal with toddler tantrums

Sometimes, no matter how much you try your toddler will still have a tantrum. That is ok, toddler tantrums are normal behaviour for children age 1 - 3. Here are some tips to help you cope:

1. Reflect and tune into your own and your child’s feelings.

  • Consider what you are thinking and feeling. It's OK for you to feel anger, embarrassed or exasperated.
  • Take a moment to calm down, perhaps take some deep breaths and count backwards from 10. This allows you to notice and respond sensitively to the cues and emotional needs of your child. Your child may be feeling anger, frustration, fear, jealousy or shame and be unable to calm themselves on their own.

2. Reduce the stress

Your toddler doesn't know what to do with their upset feelings and is relying on your experience, wisdom and support to help them. Some options are:

  • Stay near them and remain a calm presence.
  • Use a calm and soothing voice, repeat calming phrases, keep your volume and pitch low. This is not the time to try to reason with your child, they're too emotional to hear you.
  • Use gentle touch as tolerated by your toddler. Some children respond best to being held. Other children dislike being held while they are upset.
  • Reduce the stimulation and if necessary take your child to a quieter area.

3. Reframe the behaviour

It can help to see the behaviour as:

  • Distressing for your child.
  • Not them misbehaving but a call for help.
  • A part of normal development.
  • Not a time when they can understand instructions.

4. Recognise the stressors

Notice the triggers and think about what caused the build-up of tension. Have a think about whether there were any known triggers and ask yourself if you could have done anything differently earlier to prevent the tantrum. This might help next time. 

5. Respond and learn

As you support your toddler, think about what helps them and what doesn’t help. Ask how can I provide the help my toddler needs, how did that go for my toddler and me.

The calm response to your toddler's distress teaches them that difficult feelings are OK to have and helps them to feel safe when emotions get to much for them.

By having a loving parent help, they will learn to manage emotions as they grow.

Taking care of you

Regardless of whether it happens occasionally or daily, dealing with a screaming child is hard. Connecting during more difficult emotions can be exhausting and tensions can run high. Here are some tips to help you take care of yourself.
  • 1

    Take a mindful minute with some deep breaths to regain your composure.

  • 2

    Try to take some time out and give yourself a break, even if it seems impossible. Parent “Time out” is to give you the opportunity to calm and organise your own emotions.

  • 3

    Don't think this makes you a bad parent. Every toddler has tantrums at some point and you can't directly control how they feel or react. All you can do is keep them safe and help guide their response for next time. 

  • 4

    If anyone comments or makes you feel uncomfortable, ignore them. They probably don't remember what it's like to have children or haven't spent time with small children. If they give you a reassuring look, or offer to help, consider taking them up on their offer. An example may be them stacking your groceries onto the conveyor belt for you at the supermarket while you console your child.

  • 5

    Seek support from friends, family and parenting support and counselling services. Our Tresillian nurses are just a phone call away. We can provide a listening ear, helpful advice and help you to access the Tresillian service that will best meet your needs. Call our Parent’s Help Line on 1300 272 736.

  • 6

    Accept that change takes time. Your toddler has lots of growing to do before they stop having tantrums.

FAQs about toddler tantrums

When you feel overwhelmed and unable to respond the way that you want or need to, to meet your child’s needs, including using the above strategies. Also if your child is not developing the skills to improve their ability to communicate their needs with you, through verbal and non-verbal cues over time. 

Have there been changes in their life at home, within the family or at childcare? Changes can impact on a child’s behaviour, as they may not have the language or developmental skills to express their emotions other than through tantrums.

Talk to your child about what they are feeling, and how they are behaving. Talk to your child about what the implications are when they have a tantrum in response to not getting their way. Stay strong! This is the foundations of boundary setting, and will help your child with future limitations they face and self-regulation.

Speak to your childcare educator or other people your child spends time with, to see if the behaviour is occurring when your child is with them. 

Finally, if you feel the behaviour is not age or developmentally appropriate, speak to your primary health professional – child and family health nurse or GP, for developmental screening and if required, specialist assessment referral. 

Going from being the centre of attention to having to share attention with another can be very difficult when you are 2 ½ years old.

Organise a snack for your 2½ year old child to have while your baby is feeding. Make the snack fun by putting the food into a lunch box and adding interesting healthy foods. Place a rug on the floor so he can have a picnic.

Having a special DVD or television show to put on while you feed can help keep your toddler occupied and happy. Have a special book to read or toy to play with during feeding time. This can act as a distraction and make feeding a special time.

Tell your child that you will spend some time playing with them when you have put the baby down to sleep. Make sure you carry through with any promises you make to spend time with your child. Providing some structured attention with mummy or daddy can really make a difference as does encouraging extended family and friends to share some of their attention with both of your children individually.

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