If you’re raising a toddler, you're likely familiar with their ability to feel and express a lot of strong emotions. They may be quick to giggle for joy, and then seconds later dissolve into an angry tantrum.
Tantrums are a common toddler behavior. While your toddler is much more capable than they were as infants, they don't yet have the vocabulary to communicate all of their needs, and they still have little control over their environment. Those factors can cause a lot of frustration, and frustration can quickly give way to anger.
Most toddlers grow out of tantrums as they get older, gain more control over their communication skills, and learn to have some patience. Until they reach that point, there are steps you can take to help your toddler manager their anger and prevent tantrums from happening.
Toddlers tend to respond to anger and frustration with tantrums. In fact, the Yale Medicine Child Study Center states that children younger than 4 may have, on average, up to 9 tantrums on a weekly basis. Most children will grow out of these outbursts by the time they enter kindergarten.
Some behaviors associated with anger and tantrums in 1- and 2-year-olds can include:
- pulling or shoving
- throwing things
Generally, toddlers will outgrow these angry outbursts as their developmental skills progress. Teaching them appropriate strategies to manage their emotions can also help.
Should I be concerned about my toddler’s anger?
Consider talking to your child’s doctor if:
- your toddler regularly has multiple angry outbursts per day
- your toddler's tantrums regularly last for very lengthy stretches of time, despite your attempts to manage the behavior
- you're concerned they’re going to injure themselves or others during tantrums
Toddler can become angry when they encounter a challenge, are unable to communicate wants, or are deprived of a basic need. Some common triggers for angry outbursts or tantrums may include:
- being unable to communicate needs or emotions
- playing with a toy or doing an activity that is hard to figure out
- feeling hungry or tired
- changes to usual and expected daily routine
- interacting with a sibling or another child
- not being given something they want
Some factors can also make your toddler more susceptible to anger and tantrums, including:
- stress experienced in infancy
- temperamental differences
- family dynamics
- parenting approaches
Your child will develop a lot more coping and communication skills between the ages of 1 and 3. This may help alleviate some anger triggers.
By the age of 4, most children are more equipped to share, express their emotions, and do more with their fine motor and gross motor skills.
While you can't speed up the aging clock, there are several strategies you can use to help your toddler manage and reduce the frequency of tantrums.
Some may be more effective for your child than others. And methods that worked for another child of yours or for another parent may not work. Additionally, methods that worked during a previous tantrum may not continue to work for future ones.
If your child is having a tantrum, the first thing you should do is to make sure they aren't in danger of getting hurt or hurting others. Toddlers often have little control over their bodies during a tantrum.
You may want to relocate them to a safer place to have the tantrum, such as their bedroom if you're at home, or a quiet area away from cars and lots of foot traffic if you're out.
Once your child is safe, here are some strategies for parenting a toddler through a tantrum:
- Ignore the behavior and allow your child to let the tantrum run its course. This can be difficult if you're out in public or trying to focus on driving. If you're driving, consider pulling over if it's safe, until the tantrum is done. If you're out in public, remind yourself that tantrums are normal and letting your child express their emotions is the best thing you can do for them in that moment.
- Distract your child with a book or a toy. This tends to work better if you’re able to distract your child right as the tantrum is starting. Once they are in a full-on tantrum, this method may not work.
- Change your toddler’s location or move them to a quiet time-out if they’re older than 2. Sometimes removing stimulation can help your child calm down.
- Hold your child until they calm down. Depending on the severity of the tantrum, this may work best by getting on the floor and wrapping your arms. That way, if they thrash out of your grasp, you won't risk dropping them.
- Get down to your child's level and talk to them with a low, calm voice while making eye contact.
- Set limits by talking to your toddler about the situation. You may need to wait until the tantrum has subsided. This may work better with older toddlers.
- Introduce humor into the situation, but never at your child's expense. Try making a silly face or voice, or doing something else that you know your child enjoys.
- Interact with your child to validate their emotions and help them express their feelings. Let them know that you understand that they are upset or frustrated, and that it's OK to have these feelings.
It's also important to resist the urge to discipline your angry toddler. This can cause your toddler to increase aggressive behavior and could create more frustration.
Your toddler’s tantrums are one of the only ways they can express their emotions at this developmental stage. Allowing your child to express their feelings will help them understand their emotions better and regulate them more appropriately as they age.
Tantrums are an expected part of toddlerhood, and it won't be possible to prevent all tantrums. But here are some ways you may be able to reduce feelings of anger in your toddler:
- Keep a daily routine as much as possible.
- Anticipate and prepare for changes in your toddler’s routine or environment. Try to keep a positive attitude when plans change at the last minute or something doesn't go as expected. This can help model behaviors you'd like your toddler to exhibit.
- Help your toddler express emotions with words or with coping skills, like stomping.
- Guide your toddler to problem solve when they meet an obstacle.
- Provide positive reinforcement when your child exhibits good behavior.
- Avoid putting your toddler in an uncomfortable environment or giving them toys that are too complicated for their age.
- Control your own emotions and avoid angry outbursts.
Don’t expect your child to be happy all of the time. Like all people, toddlers have a range of emotions. Talk to your child about how they’re feeling and help them understand their many different emotions.
Anger in toddlers is expected and likely not a cause for concern if it occurs for short amounts of time, even if they occur daily.
Consider talking to your child's doctor if the tantrums are more frequent, last for longer stretches of time, or occur out of nowhere. You may also want to talk to a pediatrician if the tantrums are overly physical or put other people, including your toddler, in danger.
The doctor may recommend that you track your child’s angry outbursts or tantrums to help determine the underlying cause of them. They may also discuss different tactics you can use to calm them down.
In some cases, the doctor may refer you to a child development specialist or a mental health professional to help address your child’s tantrums if they’re more frequent or severe than what’s typical.
Keep in mind that seeking professional help and intervening early may help your child better manage anger over time. This can help your child at school, at home, and in other environments in the long term.
Most toddlers experience anger that results in tantrums. Try to use parenting strategies that work for your toddler when they’re having a tantrum.
You may be able to avoid or lessen some tantrums by keeping a daily routine and helping your child express their emotions. You will not be able to prevent them all, though. Tantrums are a normal part of toddler development.
Talk to their doctor if you're concerned that your toddler’s anger occurs too frequently or is a risk to your child or others.