Dealing with toddler tantrums

Growing up means not always getting what you want. Here’s why your tot may be throwing a tantrum and how to deal with it. By Jenny Perkel

By Jenny Perkel

During their early years, children experience their feelings intensely and the rage, terror and sorrow is powerful and genuine. Not yet able to manage their strong emotions, they haven’t discovered that they can and will survive the frustration and torment of not getting what they want.

Healthy children who have temper tantrums are fortunate they have the ability to express their feelings. It’s an important and valuable step towards mental health and psychological wellbeing.

But it’s not comfortable or pleasant being around an angry toddler. Being faced with a child’s tantrum can feel so bad that parents often react too strongly, by either hitting or punishing him in a cruel way.

Young children very quickly learn when negative feelings, such as rage, aren’t acceptable forms of behaviour. Sometimes, certain very strong-willed toddlers will continue to throw tantrums but more compliant ones often try to please their parents by swallowing their feelings. Such toddlers often grow into teenagers and adults with psychological difficulties.

Unexpressed rage has toxic effects on the psyche in various ways, leading to a range of different problems. It can even form the basis of anxiety disorders during childhood and later in life.

Dealing with temper tantrums

  • Guide your toddler and teach him acceptable ways to express his emotions as he develops.
  • Allow your toddler to feel and express his emotions. Accept that temper tantrums are developmentally appropriate and, to a point, psychologically healthy. This doesn’t mean that you have to give him what he wants. This process of accepting that he can’t always get what he wants will take him some years to grapple with and resolve, and some people still grapple with it way into adulthood.

Are tantrums manipulative?

You’ve probably been told that when your child has temper tantrums he is ‘just being manipulative’. But this is only true if your toddler has learned that screaming, throwing himself around and causing a scene gets him what he wants. It doesn’t make sense to give in to these kinds of temper tantrums but it does make sense to feel a little sympathy for a toddler who is still learning the ropes of this frustrating and difficult world of ours.

When your toddler protests at not getting what he wants, he is letting you know that he doesn’t like it. It doesn’t mean that you should give him what he wants but it’s important for you to understand that he really does feel deprived. In his mind he cannot see why he shouldn’t get that toy – or that sweet – and only as he grows will he come to realise that the world and everything in it is not always his for the picking.

Set limits and teach him to accept them

Temper tantrums are often a response to limits: the sweet that mommy wasn’t willing to allow or the TV dad switched off after the permitted daily half an hour. Whatever the limit is, your toddler’s tantrum is an attack of outrage against it. The answer is not to extend the limits but, for the sake of your toddler, try to be sensitive to the real distress and suffering that lie behind the tantrum. Your toddler may quickly forget about the torment of not getting his way, but in the moment it happens his experience is one of pure devastation and despair.

It is sometimes hard to figure out where to put the limits on their relentless demands.

If you really can afford to give him a room full of expensive toys, you may struggle to know where to set your own limits for him. But there will come a time when you will have to say no to something your toddler asks you for and he might shout very loudly when things don’t go his way. It is only through growing up and experiencing life’s inevitable knocks that your toddler will realise that he cannot and will not have it all. Sooner or later he will come to accept life’s limitations without throwing a tantrum.

Tips on taming tantrums

  • Allow him to express himself.
  • Try not to give him what he is demanding until he has calmed down.
  • Protect him and make sure he cannot hurt himself.
  • Protect yourself and anything else that is standing in his way.
  • Take a step back and see if he is able to work things out for himself.
  • Offer a distraction.
  • Try to take him to a different place or change the environment.
  • Offer a comforting hug when the tantrum is slowing down.
  • Take the opportunity to reconcile when the tantrum is over.
  • Talk about it afterwards.
  • If you can identify the tantrum trigger, it’s easier to shut it down.
  • Keep your schedule as predictable as possible to help prevent tantrums.
  • When your baby is overly emotional, stay as calm as possible.
  • Throwing food can be a sign that your toddler’s finished eating, so clear his plate away.


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