PAMF Health Blog

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How to Handle Toddler Tantrums

Posted on Nov 8, 2013

Toddler screaming

Parents are often horrified when their sweet toddler turns into an unrecognizable monster, kicking, screaming and writhing on the floor because they can’t get what they want. Although it may seem that time is standing still when your child is having a tantrum, these fits of temper are a normal part of a young child’s development and he or she will eventually grow out of them.

Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician Nina Rezai, M.D., answers common questions she hears from parents about toddler tantrums and offers tips on surviving the “terrible twos.”

At what age do children usually have tantrums and why?

Children typically start having tantrums between the ages of 1 and 2, and this challenging behavior peaks between the ages of 2 or 3. Around this age, children start to want to do things by themselves but they don’t yet have the ability. For example, they might want to play with a toy that is too advanced for their age. Your child’s understanding of what is going on is good, but they don’t yet have the words to express what they want or want to do. This leads to frustration and tantrums.

By age 4, most children are able to use their words and communicate what they want and the tantrums taper off.

Can you prevent tantrums?

Although there’s no golden formula for preventing tantrums, there are many things you can do to make them less likely to happen. Try the following tips:

  • Distraction works wonders: Offer a different toy or book or change locations. For example, go to a different room in the house or outside.
  • Don’t say ‘no’ too often: When your child hears you say ‘no,’ it’ll often make him or her want to do the opposite. Instead, use the distraction method.
  • Remove temptation: Is your child drawn like a magnet to the fireplace or Aunt Maud’s antique vase? Cover the fireplace with a guard to make it inaccessible and put the vase in a closet. Out of sight really is out of mind for a toddler.
  • Give some choices: Your toddler wants control. Instead of going to battle, give him some limited choices that still help you achieve what needs to get done. For example, instead of saying, “It’s time to get dressed,” offer a choice, “Do you want to put your pants on first or your top?” By having a choice, your child still feels he’s in control.
  • Routine and Structure: Young children thrive on structure so maintaining a regular routine can help minimize tantrums. If your child hasn’t had enough sleep or is hungry, temper displays are more likely. Unfamiliar situations can also be stressful and trigger tantrums. If you have a busy day coming up, make sure your little one has had plenty of rest beforehand. If you are out and about, keep some healthy snacks on hand to help your child stay on an even keel.

What’s the best way to handle a tantrum?

Toddlers want your attention, whether it’s positive or negative, so the best thing you can do is ignore displays of anger such as kicking, screaming and crying. Make sure your child is in a safe place where he or she can’t hurt herself or others. You can also try holding your child or standing close to her without talking until she calms down. If your child has a tantrum in a public place such as a restaurant or grocery store, take her to the car or go home.

By ignoring your child’s tantrum your child will learn that this behavior will not get her what she wants. Don’t try reasoning with your child; this will just prolong the tantrum.

Although it can be difficult, try to stay calm. If you feel you are losing your temper, leave the room for a short while to regain your composure. By that time your child may also have calmed down.

Is it OK to give my son a time-out for a tantrum?

A  short time-out can be an effective way to remove your child from what is causing the tantrum and give him time to calm down. Have your son sit in a chosen place and don’t give him any attention. An appropriate length of time for a time-out is about one minute for each year of your child’s age. So a two-year-old would get a two minute time-out. You can set a timer so your child knows when the time-out is over. Afterward, talk to your child so he understands the reason for the time-out. For example, say, “It’s not OK to hit.” Give your child words to help him learn to express feelings of frustration. For example, say, “Next time instead of screaming, you can say, ‘I’m mad.’ ”

If my child has lots of tantrums does that also mean she will have a difficult temperament?

As tantrums are part of a child’s normal development, they are not an indication of your child’s temperament. Often a child with less language skills will have more tantrums and these will resolve as the child learns to express herself. Children who are more sensitive and need more structure might also have more tantrums. Adhering to a good, regular routine can help keep life calm – for you and your child.

Pediatrician Nina Rezai, M.D.Nina Rezai, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s West Valley Center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.