Toddler tantrums

It’s safe to say that your toddler will have a temper tantrum at some point—or even quite often. Temper tantrums during toddlerhood are part of growing up. Initially, it can be difficult to predict when one of these outbursts is about to happen, but in time, you’ll be able to tell that a tantrum is brewing. Read on to learn what signs to look out for, how to deal with temper tantrums as they’re happening, and how to prevent them in the future.

Toddler Temper Tantrums Explained

Toddler tantrums are a normal part of emotional development in toddlerhood—they are a common response when toddlers are faced with conflict. Even if you, as the parent, are simply enforcing a rule or doing something to keep your little one safe, your toddler may take this as a full-on battle.

They may emphatically say “no!” and then begin throwing a screaming fit, one that may involve dropping to the floor, kicking, and pounding their fists. Some toddlers even hold their breath during a tantrum. It all may seem like an act to you, but, in fact, it’s a result of internal conflict.

Your toddler is growing ever more independent, and can do more things now without your help, including eating, getting dressed, and perhaps using the potty. However, when being told not to do something, a toddler will struggle to understand why their precious independence is suddenly being limited.

Since toddlers have trouble expressing themselves verbally, the easiest outlet for frustration or disappointment is by acting it out in a temper tantrum. Very rarely are these outbursts dangerous, though they’re often unpleasant for you, especially when they happen in public.

Know that your child’s tantrum behavior is not a reflection of your parenting skills and try not to blame yourself. Also, tantrums are not ordinarily a sign that your child has a severe emotional issue. So, rest assured, this is a typical stage in childhood development.

At What Age Do Tantrums Start?

Almost every child has temper tantrums occasionally, particularly between the ages of 2 and 3 years old. This period is often referred to as the “terrible twos.” However, that doesn’t mean your toddler will throw temper tantrums only or mostly at the age of 2, as tantrums can crop up before or after that. Every child has a unique temperament and develops at a different rate.

How Toddler Temper Tantrums Vary

The intensity of your toddler’s temper tantrums can vary depending on their temperament and personality:

  • If your child is easygoing and adaptable, they may just say “no” and walk off, easily distracted by something else

  • If your child has generally been active and persistent since infanthood, they may channel that into temper tantrums, resulting in an on-the-floor kicking and screaming fit.

Foreseeing a Temper Tantrum

As you know your child better than anyone else, you’ll likely be able to foresee a temper tantrum as it’s about to start. Here are scenarios that suggest a temper tantrum is on the way or escalating:

  • Your toddler may seem to be brooding or more irritable than usual

  • They may be tired, lonely, or even hungry

  • After trying something they’re not allowed to do, or can’t accomplish due to limitations, such as playing with a toy that is meant for an older child, they turn to whimpering, whining, or demanding

  • They begin to cry, and nothing you do can comfort or even distract them

  • The crying turns to flailing arms and kicking legs, and your toddler may end up on the ground—and may even hold their breath.

When and Why Temper Tantrums Usually Happen

You may notice that your toddler starts throwing a tantrum only when you’re around, or when other family members are around. But it may be rare for your toddler to throw a tantrum in the presence of someone they don’t know well. No matter how ironic this may seem, your toddler trusts you enough to throw a tantrum in front of you.

A tantrum may occur because your toddler is trying to test your limits and to see how far they can push the boundaries. But, when you don’t bend to their wishes, they burst out in a tantrum.

After your child has had a tantrum, they may become tired and fall asleep quite easily. After a rest it may seem as if the tantrum never happened—your little one may be calm and pleasant now. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t get frustrated and have another outburst soon, especially if there’s a lot of stress in the household.

Tantrums tend to happen more frequently when toddlers are

  • anxious

  • ill

  • tired

  • temperamental

  • under stress at home.

Coping With Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrums

No matter where they happen or how long they last, toddler tantrums are a challenge to deal with as a parent. The following strategies, along with a big dose of patience and perspective, may be helpful for you and your child.

Tantrums at Home

One way to cope with this behavior at home is to think of temper tantrums as performances. In this “performance” your toddler is putting on a show in your presence. How do you stop the performance? The audience, meaning you, has to leave.

Here's what to do: During an episode, leave the room (as long as you’re not endangering your child by leaving them alone). If they follow you, you can put them in their play room or call a time-out. If your child becomes physical—that is, tries to hit, kick, or bite—call a time-out immediately.

Tantrums in Public

Toddler tantrums can be hard enough at home, but what about when they take place in public? Obviously, you can’t walk away from your child and leave them alone in the supermarket aisle or at the playground.

The best solution is to calmly remove your toddler from the situation. Take them to the restroom, your car, or another place away from other people so that the tantrum can finish in private. Another option is to restrain them with a big hug, which may stop the outburst. Follow that up by talking to them in a quiet, soothing tone.

When the Tantrum Is Over

Once your toddler’s tantrum is over, simply move on. If the tantrum was the result of something you told your child to do, repeat the request calmly and firmly; in time, they’ll realize that acting out again won’t have any effect.

If your toddler tends to hold their breath and pass out toward the end of a tantrum, be sure to protect them until they awaken about 30 to 60 seconds later. But resist the urge to overreact, because that response may likely reinforce your toddler’s breath-holding and fainting episodes. Act like it’s no big deal and this behavior may go away in time.

12 Ways to Manage and/or Prevent Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrums

You know your toddler better than anyone, which means you know what's likely to trigger an outburst and thus can predict issues even before they happen. Having a strategy in place ahead of time can help minimize, or sometimes prevent, a full-blown tantrum.

Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof method to prevent or even stop every single one of your toddler’s temper tantrums. However, you can take steps to help reduce the frequency and even the duration and intensity of these episodes.

Below are some guidelines for determining what to do when your toddler throws a temper tantrum. See what works for you and your child. Once you’ve come up with something, it’s a good idea to share your strategy with other caregivers, such as babysitters or grandparents. Try one, some, or all of these methods for dealing with your toddler’s tantrums:

When to Consult Your Toddler’s Healthcare Provider About Tantrums

Temper tantrums are common throughout your child’s toddler and preschool years; they typically become less frequent and intense around the middle of their fourth year. However, there are some signals that suggest a child may need intervention from a healthcare professional.

If you see any of the following, consult your child’s healthcare provider:

  • The tantrums continue or get worse after 4 years old

  • Your child attempts self-injury or injures others, or destroys property in the middle of a temper tantrum

  • They have frequent nightmares or become extremely disobedient

  • Your child regresses in potty training

  • They refuse to eat or go to bed

  • They have headaches or stomachaches

  • Your child exhibits extreme anxiety, aggressiveness, or clinginess

  • They hold their breath and pass out during a tantrum.

If passing out occurs during tantrums, your child’s healthcare provider may examine your toddler to see if the fainting spells may be due to something like seizures. The provider may also offer recommendations on effective discipline or suggest a parent support group that you may attend for guidance. If the provider believes your child’s temper tantrums are a result of extreme emotional disturbances, the provider may refer your child to a psychiatrist or psychologist.

The Bottom Line

Temper tantrums are a normal part of toddler development, typically occurring between 2 and 3 years old. Toddlers are unable to clearly verbalize their emotions at this stage of development; instead they may burst into a temper tantrum that may include crying, screaming, kicking, and sometimes breath-holding and fainting.

Your toddler’s temper tantrums can range in frequency and severity. After a while you may notice a pattern. For example, the tantrum may happen when your child doesn’t get a favorite toy or when tired from an eventful day. Or, the tantrums may happen at the same time every day, such as at bedtime or during a meal. Anticipating a tantrum can greatly help you prepare for one.

No matter how intense your toddler’s tantrum may be, the most important thing is not to overreact, but to stay calm and resolute in how you respond. Try distracting your child or adding some humor to the situation. Avoid bribery or deal-brokering, neither of which will help the tantrums improve. It may also be a good idea to call a timeout so that your child gets some downtime to compose themself.

If your toddler still has tantrums past the age of 4, it may be a good idea to consult their healthcare provider, especially if there are other disruptive and self-destructive behaviors. Children will outgrow temper tantrums eventually, but in the meantime, it’s best to be prepared with a plan of action for when one happens.


    • Book: Caring for your baby and young child, birth to age 5, Sixth Edition Paperback – November 2, 2014 by American Academy of Pediatrics (Author)