13 - 15 Months

Toddler tantrums: why they happen and how to handle them

Tip: Tantrums aren't teachable moments for young toddlers
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All toddlers have temper tantrums. While they can be exhausting and frustrating to deal with, they’re a sign of your toddler’s increased desire for independence.

Your toddler doesn’t yet have the skills to handle all of their strong emotions. Sometimes they need to get those big feelings out in a big way via a tantrum or meltdown, says Gabrielle Felman, Lovevery’s senior child development expert.

Your child’s temperament will affect how often they have tantrums and what they look like. “Some toddlers have several tantrums a day and others have tantrums once in a while,” says Felman. Some tantrums may be triggered by a more understandable issue, like having to leave the park when they are having fun, while others are caused by something that feels insignificant or unrelatable, like their banana is sliced the wrong way 🙃

Your toddler will eventually learn to handle their big feelings by experiencing them—and hearing you validate them. Until then, understanding the hows and whys of tantrums can help you and your toddler cope:

What are tantrums?

Tantrums are emotional outbursts. They are a normal part of a child’s emotional development. Your toddler expresses their anger, frustration, and other feelings through tantrums. In many cases, their outbursts can feel like a dramatic reaction to something very minor, like giving them a blue cup instead of a green one. 

During a tantrum (also called a meltdown), your toddler may cry, scream, flail, bang their head, stomp their feet, or lie on the floor—they’re out of control, emotionally and physically.  

Why do toddlers have tantrums?

As toddlers become more independent, they often don’t have the skills, language, or control to do or say what they want. When your toddler is trying to express what they want and feel, their language limitations can be extremely frustrating for them. 

If your child is tired, hungry, sick, or off their normal routine, tantrums may be worse or happen more frequently. 

Can you stop a tantrum?

Once your toddler is overwhelmed by the emotion of a tantrum, most words won’t get through to them. The tantrum is a stress response, and the part of the brain called the amygdala is fully engaged, just as if your toddler were in a situation of real danger. Adults can sometimes use logic to reason themselves out of those feelings, but your toddler can’t. That’s why giving them explanations—“But the apple tastes just the same!”—won’t help in the moment. 

Instead, describe what you see, empathize, and be present: “You’re really angry about that. I understand why you’re angry, and I’m right here if you need a hug.” This may or may not feel like it’s doing much, but it lets them know you hear them and understand how they feel. 

How long do tantrums last?

Your toddler’s tantrums may feel like they last forever, but most end within 10 minutes. You may feel overwhelmed in the moment, but remembering that it will be over soon could help you keep your cool and wait it out.

When do toddlers stop having tantrums?

Research shows that a toddler’s tantrums typically happen less often and are less intense as their vocabulary grows. Your toddler will also have fewer tantrums as their abilities to manage disappointment and distress grow. Both of these skills develop over time, through the maturation of the frontal lobe and through the experience of co-regulating with you

5 ways to deal with a tantrum

Remaining calm is one of the best—and yet one of the toughest—ways to help your toddler settle down when they’re upset, says Felman. During a tantrum, your child needs to know that their emotions are manageable and that they’re safe. Try these strategies from Felman the next time your toddler melts down. 

1. Stay close

Even if your toddler pushes you away, stay nearby. Remind them in simple terms that you understand that they’re upset. If you can, get down to their eye level or sit down next to them. This shows them that their emotions are important to you.

2. Resist trying to reason with them

When your toddler is in the throes of a tantrum, they can’t control their emotions or their body. Hearing that their tantrum behavior is wrong or trying to reason with them will likely just make them more upset.

3. Model empathy and calm

In an empathetic tone, validate their feelings: “You are really sad that your balloon popped.” One of the best ways to teach your toddler emotional regulation is by example. If you can remain calm, over time, your toddler will be able to settle themselves more quickly.

4. Stop your toddler from hitting or biting

If your toddler hits, kicks, or bites you during a tantrum, you should address it clearly but with empathy. Try a strategy called “connection, then correction.” This may be as simple as putting a hand over theirs and saying, “I can see that you’re upset.” Then, make it clear that their behavior isn’t safe: “Hitting isn’t okay.” All emotions are okay, but some behaviors aren’t. 

5. Move on together

It can be tempting to talk through the tantrum right after it happens. But once your toddler has calmed down and they’re starting to move on, move on with them. Reconnect by holding hands, singing a song, or just sharing a big hug. 

Adults tend to hang onto hard moments longer than toddlers do. Remember, a tantrum at this age isn’t a teachable moment—the best thing to do is to continue on as if it never happened. This helps your toddler learn that they’re going to have big, overwhelming emotions, and those feelings will come and go.  

There are benefits to telling the story of what happened to them later—as long as you’ve allowed some time to pass and you do so without judgment.

For more strategies to how handle toddler tantrums, watch this video with positive discipline and Montessori expert Jody Malterre and Lovevery CEO Jessica Rolph:

Should you ignore your toddler during a tantrum?

“Ignore the behavior” is common advice for handling tantrums, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore your child when they’re having a hard time. Ignoring their behavior means continuing to stay physically and emotionally present without commenting on the flailing, screaming, and crying. During a tantrum, your toddler is overwhelmed by their emotions and needs your love and support to get through it.

How to survive a public meltdown

If tantrums at home are hard, the ones that happen out in public can be even more stressful. When your toddler screams and cries in the grocery store, it’s easy to feel really embarrassed or self conscious. Suddenly, your parenting is on display, and that could make you question yourself or respond in a way that you may not at home.
Remember that public meltdowns happen to every parent at some point. Most people around you are probably feeling sympathy, not judgment—and you can get through this in one piece ❤️ 

  • Move your toddler to a different location, if you can. A change of scenery is often the best remedy for a toddler wrestling with big feelings. This could be as simple as stepping to a quiet corner, taking your toddler outside, or sitting in your car for a short time to reset. Picking up your toddler and moving them when they’re thrashing and writhing is really challenging, but do your best to stay calm and steady. 
  • If your toddler doesn’t calm down after a few minutes or their outburst is too disruptive, you may just have to leave. This can be really inconvenient and disappointing to both you and the people you care about, but it’s part of parenting. Making the call to abandon a half-filled grocery cart, leave a play date, or miss part of an important family event is never easy, but sometimes it’s your only option. 
  • If you can’t move your toddler to a more private spot—say, you’re on a plane and the seatbelt sign is on—you’ll have to co-regulate them through their tantrum as best you can. It’s so hard when you feel people watching you, but try to tune them out. Your toddler will recover more quickly if you remain a calm, stable, and loving presence. In the end, what matters most is your relationship with your child.

How to keep calm during your toddler’s tantrums

Take some deep breaths. We know you hear it all the time, but that’s because research shows it works. Breathe in through your nose for a count of five, hold it for five counts, then exhale for a count of five. 

Sit or lie down near your toddler. Tell them, “I need to lie down, but I’m right here next to you.”

Keep talking to a minimum. Chatter can overwhelm your toddler during a tantrum, and talking less can help you stay grounded and present.

Additional resources for handling tantrums

We asked clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy at Good Inside to answer our social media followers’ questions about tantrums. View her advice:

Learn more about the research

Calkins, S. D., & Johnson, M. C. (1998). Toddler regulation of distress to frustrating events: Temperamental and maternal correlates. Infant Behavior and Development, 21(3), 379-395.

Gershoff, E. T., Grogan-Kaylor, A., Lansford, J. E., Chang, L., Zelli, A., Deater-Deckard, K., & Dodge, K. A. (2010). Parent discipline practices in an international sample: Associations with child behaviors and moderation by perceived normativeness. Child Development, 81(2), 487-502.

Manning, B. L., Roberts, M. Y., Estabrook, R., Petitclerc, A., Burns, J. L., Briggs-Gowan, M., … & Norton, E. S. (2019). Relations between toddler expressive language and temper tantrums in a community sample. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 65, 101070.

Potegal, M., & Davidson, R. J. (1997). Young children’s post tantrum affiliation with their parents. Aggressive Behavior: Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression, 23(5), 329-341.

Spinrad, T. L., Stifter, C. A., Donelan-McCall, N., & Turner, L. (2004). Mothers’ regulation strategies in response to toddlers’ affect: Links to later emotion self-regulation. Social Development, 13(1), 40-55.

Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, Garbella E, Menicucci D, Neri B, Gemignani A. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2018 Sep 7;12:353.

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Posted in: 13 - 15 Months, 16 - 18 Months, 19 - 21 Months, 22 - 24 Months, Social Emotional, Behavior, Lovevery App, Parenting, Child Development

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