Toddler temper tantrums can feel overwhelming. However, knowing why they occur can help you handle tantrums while maintaining your sanity.
Why Tantrums Are Common Between Ages 1-3
Between the ages of one and three years, children are only starting to develop their social and emotional skills, which can feel overwhelming and confusing.1 A child will not have the language or comprehension skills necessary to understand big or complex emotions, leading to tantrums.
Additionally, a tantrum can be a sign of self-expression or testing boundaries. It is not uncommon for a child to throw a tantrum to try to influence behaviors in others; for example, a child might throw a tantrum when being told to go to bed to try and get some extra time from mom and dad.
Parents are often frustrated when older children, around four to six, throw tantrums, but this can be common as well, especially if they haven’t learned appropriate ways to express their feelings. In both instances, for toddlers and children, managing tantrums is more about helping a child express themselves with words rather than actions.
Responding to Toddler Meltdowns
Responding to toddler meltdowns is about understanding the various triggers of tantrums. While every child is different, most triggers center around four emotions, behaviors, or character traits: temperament, stress, lack of control, and complex feelings.
As with adults, children have different temperaments. Some kids show incredible patience and restraint, but others have — what can only be referred to as — a short fuse. Children who have little patience or who are incredibly possessive are prone to more tantrums than those who are more patient.
Regardless of a child’s temperament, stress can induce tantrums in even the most patient spirit. As an adult, you likely view stressful events differently than your child. While a work project or argument with a friend might be stressful to you, merely feeling tired is enough to send your little one over the edge.
Children can also throw tantrums when exposed to situations where they don’t feel in control. For example, it is not uncommon for a child to get upset if an older child takes their toy or if the little one loses a game. Dealing with control issues is hard for a child that is only beginning to develop their independence.
Finally, complex emotions like worry, shame, fear, and anger are often overwhelming for small children. They cannot put into words what or why they are feeling the way they are, so they scream, kick, flail, and do anything to help calm the emotion.
Understanding the logic or irrationality behind tantrums can help you cope and respond to them. While every child is different, there are several strategies you can use to help relax the situation, including:
- Staying calm and acknowledging your child’s feelings
- Finding constructive ways to work through the tantrum (Walking, screaming into a pillow, etc.)
- Knowing the tantrum is likely not a deliberate act against you
- Taking charge when necessary
- Being consistent in your approach to tantrums
When To Seek Further Support
While throwing tantrums is a natural part of childhood development, there might be a time when the tantrums reach the point of needing professional intervention.2 Toddler meltdowns are typical for those under three years old and can still occur in kids between five and six. However, if an older child throws multiple temper tantrums per day, and each tantrum is getting more severe, it's time to contact a pediatrician or a child psychologist. Intervention might seem dramatic, but it can speak to a developmental disorder or other trauma if the child is still throwing tantrums.
In most cases, a toddler tantrum is perfectly normal. All a parent can do is try and maintain a balanced and healthy household to reduce the number of tantrums.