What are temper tantrums?
Temper tantrums are outbursts of challenging behaviour that occur when your child loses control. They range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting and holding their breath. Toddlers may throw themselves down on the floor, clench their teeth and pound their fists.
Temper tantrums are natural in children who are too young to express their anger and frustration in words. They are a normal part of child development and mostly occur in toddlers between 18 months and 3 years of age.
Your child's personality also plays a part. Some children are naturally easy going and positive, whereas others who are very active, intense and persistent may have more intense tantrums.
Why do toddlers have tantrums?
Tantrums mean your child is overwhelmed by their feelings. It means they need your help. Tantrums may also be your child's way of getting your attention.
They are more likely to happen if your child is:
- feeling sick
- anxious about a new situation
- living in a home with stress and conflict
- spending too much time watching a screen
Frustration can lead to tantrums. Children can get frustrated, especially when they don't get what they want. Sometimes when they try something they can't do, it might be more than they can handle.
For toddlers, being told 'no' can lead to tantrums. When your child keeps asking for something repeatedly even after you've said 'no', it's called pestering. Your child might pester you for things you don't want them to have, such as junk food or toys. If you keep saying 'no', the disappointment might be too much for your toddler to bear.
How can I prevent my child having a tantrum?
Tantrums can't always be avoided, but there are strategies you can try, to make them less likely:
- Think about whether something may be causing your child stress, and what you can do to relieve it.
- Identify and anticipate what triggers your child's tantrums, for example by changing their usual daily routine.
- Talk about emotions with your child, name how they're feeling (such as 'angry', 'sad' or 'disappointed') and tell them it's okay to feel that way. Teach them the words they can use to share their strong feelings.
- Give your child some control over things they can do. This may fulfill their need for independence. An example is to let them choose between 3 options that you give them.
- Know your child's limits. If your child is tired or feeling unwell, it's not the best time to go to the supermarket or visit friends.
- Stick to a routine so your child knows what to expect.
- Keep things you don't want your child to touch out of sight, to reduce the chance of struggles over them.
How can I prevent my child pestering me?
Children are more likely to pester if they know it will work. It's important not to give in, as that will teach your child that pestering works and make them more likely to pester in future.
If you are consistent, your child knows you mean what you say and will be less likely to ask again. If you are inconsistent, your child knows there is a chance they will get what they want, so they will keep pestering.
Before you go to the shops, tell your child what behaviour you expect. Praise their good behaviour. For example, if they can get through the trip without asking you for something, offer a healthy reward, like a play in the park.
Try not to say 'no' too often. If you only say 'no' to things that really matter, your child will be more likely to listen. Distract them or offer them an alternative.
How should I respond if my child is pestering me?
Pestering can wear you down, especially in a public place. Stay calm and manage your temper by breathing slowly and counting to 10.
Don't give in to your toddler's threats, demands or whining. Tell them clearly and calmly that you won't give them something if they don't they ask for it nicely.
Even if they ask nicely, you don't have to say 'yes'. Listen to your child's request, praise them for asking politely, and take a moment to consider it. If you don't want them to have something, explain why.
Don't say 'no' unless you mean it and will stick to it.
How should I respond if my child has a tantrum?
If your toddler has a tantrum, stay calm. Stay with your child to help them feel secure. Be kind and reassure them.
If you are in a public place, you can pick your toddler up, and take them to a quiet, safe place to calm down.
Don't add to the problem with your own anger or frustration. Take deep breaths and think clearly. If your feelings are getting out of control, move to another room but come back to your child when you feel more calm.
There is no point trying to reason with your child as they are not in control. Don't punish or laugh at them.
You can try to distract your toddler with another activity.
What should I do after the tantrum?
Do not reward your child after a tantrum by giving into their demands. This will only show your child that the tantrum was effective. Instead, praise your child for regaining control.
Your child may feel vulnerable after a tantrum, especially if they understand their behaviour was not appropriate. These feelings are an important part of how they learn to behave. Hug them and reassure them that you love them, no matter what.
You can talk to them about what they are feeling – for example, sad, jealous, scared or disappointed. Acknowledge those feelings and help them learn from what happened.
How can I encourage good behaviour in my toddler?
You can model good behaviour for your toddler. They will learn how to speak and act from watching you.
Some ideas to encourage positive behaviour in your toddler include these ideas:
- Reward and praise good behaviour. Give your toddler attention when they are behaving well and praise them for it.
- Use simple instructions, and check that they understand by asking them to repeat it back to you.
- Show your child how to use words rather than screaming.
- Keep things you do not want your child to touch out of sight, to reduce the chance of struggles over them.
- Set your child up to not be frustrated when they are playing or trying to master a new task. Offer age-appropriate toys and games. Start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks. Praise their efforts, even if they don't manage to get it right the first time.
When should I seek professional help?
Most children outgrow tantrums by 5 years of age. If your child's tantrums persist or become more frequent, severe, or destructive, it may be a sign of an underlying issue, such as:
- stress in the family
- hearing problems
- learning problems
- difficulty with concentration or attention
Seek help if your child:
- injures themselves or others, or destroys property during tantrums
- misses school because of their tantrums
- holds their breath and faints or has a seizure during tantrums
- has nightmares, headaches or stomach aches
- starts wetting or soiling themselves, after being toilet trained
- is constantly clinging to you
- continues to have tantrums when they start school
It's also important to seek help if you worry you might hurt your child or you feel stretched beyond the limits of your patience.
Resources and support
If you're struggling to handle your toddler's behaviour, try these resources:
- Talk to your doctor or child health nurse
- Parenting SA has a downloadable easy guide to tantrums, with tip on what helps and what doesn't.
- Sydney Children's Hospital has a fact sheet on disruptive behaviour in children and what parents should know.
- Call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 for free professional 24/7 telephone counselling for men with concerns about mental health and anger management. They have tips on your child's public meltdown and how to react.
- The Children's Hospital information on breath holding, how to react and when to see a doctor.
- If you're feeling overwhelmed, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: July 2023