Picture this: Your adorable 18-month-old, who just a moment ago was happily playing with their toys, is now sprawled on the floor, wailing at the top of their lungs. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you’re not alone.
Welcome to the world of toddler tantrums!
Children are like little explorers at this age, trying to conquer the vast universe of emotions and independence, armed with a vocabulary that’s not up to the task.
This mismatch often leads to the dreaded tantrums, turning your sweet little angel into a pint-sized storm of strong emotions.
But don’t worry; this is a normal part of child development.1
And the good news?
There are effective, tried-and-true strategies to help you navigate these emotional outbursts.
How to deal with 18-month-old tantrums
Understand what causes 18 to 20-month-old tantrums
When your 18-month-old has tantrums repeatedly, it’s frustrating for even the calmest parent.
But an 18-month-old isn’t throwing a baby temper tantrum to manipulate or get their way.
People’s brain development does not finish until their mid- or late twenties. Toddlers’ brains aren’t mature enough for such willful defiance.
These emotional meltdowns stem from a lack of emotional regulation skills.
At this stage in cognitive development, children are experiencing a world full of desires, frustrations, and feelings, yet they don’t have the language to express themselves adequately.
Imagine being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You’re hungry, tired, or need something, but you can’t find the words to ask for it, and you cannot control intense emotions.
That’s how they feel.
And they’re expressing their feelings through tantrums.
During their angry outbursts, remaining calm and setting a positive example is essential, but it can be difficult for frustrated parents. So, it requires a shift in perspective.
Rather than seeing the tantrum as a battle to be won, view it as a cry for help from the little one who’s struggling.
The key is not for us to have control but to show compassion.
Recognize that your child isn’t misbehaving; they’re learning and growing.
This understanding turns a challenging moment into an opportunity for connection, growth, and nurturing.
It’s not about laying down the law; it’s about building a loving relationship and a solid foundation for your child’s emotional development.
Set the right expectations
You’ve likely read a lot of advice and tried various strategies, yet nothing seems to “work.”
It’s frustrating, but the issue often lies in your expectations and the goals you set rather than the methods used.
Expecting an 18-month-old to have perfect control over emotions because you’ve “tried everything” is akin to expecting a preschooler to grasp calculus.
No matter how many tricks and strategies you employ, nothing will “work” instantly without first building a foundation.
Because learning emotional regulating skills is a process, not a switch you can flip.
It’s a complex skill that requires time, patience, and repeated practice to develop.2
Take a deep breath and redefine your success in dealing with childhood temper tantrums.
Your goal is not to instantly stop the 2-year-old’s tantrum but to patiently guide them in learning to regulate strong emotions, one small step at a time.
If your child throws the biggest tantrum in the grocery store, it doesn’t mean you are a bad parent.
It’s not a parenting failure.
It’s an opportunity for you to teach and an invaluable life lesson for them.
Being a good parent isn’t about what’s most convenient or what looks most “pulled together” to others. It’s about doing what’s best for your kid.
Focus on what’s best for your child.
When they have toddler temper tantrums, help them through patiently.
You are nurturing essential life skills and their social development.
No matter what others say, it’s not an embarrassment.
You’re doing what’s good for your child.
Distract when possible
Distraction can be a handy tool for tantrums in 18-month-olds, often more so than 2-year-old tantrums.
They have a relatively short attention span.
This means their focus can be more easily shifted from the source of frustration to something more engaging.
Make a funny face, pull out a new toy, or rattle the keys. Do something pleasant quickly to distract.3
Empathize and co-regulate
Show your empathy through actions works more effectively in younger children than words.
Empathize by being attuned to their emotions and co-regulate with them.
Co-regulation involves continuously adjusting and adapting to be in sync with your child’s emotions.4
That means you don’t laugh or shout angrily when your child is distressed.
Furrow your brow and slightly scrunch your face to display a controlled sign of distress. This facial expression tells the child that you recognize and are attuned to their feelings.
As the child’s emotions shift, mirror their expressions.
Gradually, as they calm down, ease your expression as well. This process of matching and responding to their emotions is co-regulation, and it helps in soothing and understanding the child’s feelings.
Help them regulate
Helping a child regulate their emotions can often be as simple as hugging them.
Most children feel better with a caring hug, as a positive touch is comforting and essential for their growth and well-being.5
Hugging does not reward their tantrum. You are showing your love and care.
Parental love should be unconditional and not used as a reward or punishment.
However, if your child doesn’t like to be touched during a tantrum, you can stay close, hold their hands, or pat them on the back, continuing to co-regulate with them.
Name their feelings
Identifying and verbalizing feelings is a vital part of emotional regulation development.
Even if children may not fully comprehend the words for now, describe their feelings.
Help them recognize and articulate their emotions, especially when in distress.
Emotion coaching from parents is associated with better emotion regulation skills and less aggressive behavior in children.6
Over time, they will learn to use their communication skills instead to express their frustration or get attention from grownups.
Don’t give up, and don’t give in
Just as counting, addition, and subtraction serve as the foundation for children to learn advanced math, having a solid relationship and the assurance that they can rely on us, no matter how difficult things may be, forms the foundation for their emotional growth.
Tantrums are crucial life experiences for children to learn how parents respond to their struggles.
If we ignore them or give up on helping them, we break their trust.
So don’t give up.
But we also cannot give in.
While exhausted parents are sometimes tempted to do this just once, succumbing to the demands that trigger the tantrums can make a child associate tantrums with success in meeting their needs.
Instead, stay firm, stay kind, and keep co-regulating.
Address common tantrum triggers
Anticipate and mitigate situations that might lead to emotional temper tantrums.
Hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness, and overstimulation are huge tantrum triggers that can be avoided with some advance planning.7
Remind yourself that the goal is not stopping the tantrum
The goal is to let your child experience regulating emotions during temper tantrums. Regulating is different from suppressing. It requires practice, guidance, and support.
Over time, this attentive parenting approach will likely reduce the duration and intensity of their tantrums, fostering their emotional growth and resilience.
Final thoughts on 18-month-old tantrums
But there is only one way that genuinely nurtures a child’s emotional growth – helping them learn to self-regulate emotions in a positive, nurturing environment.
While emotional toddler meltdowns are frustrating, reacting punitively or permissively won’t teach adaptive self-control.
They need our compassion, empathy, and guidance.
Emotion dysregulation is associated with a wide array of challenges in child development.8
Helping our kids develop healthy emotional regulation skills is one of the most critical jobs in parenting.
With a loving approach that builds trust and emotional intelligence, you’ll nurture their growth and eliminate the need for tantrums over time.
- 1.Österman K, Björkqvist K. A Cross-Sectional Study of Onset, Cessation, Frequency, and Duration of Children’s Temper Tantrums in a Nonclinical Sample. Psychol Rep. Published online April 2010:448-454. doi:10.2466/pr0.106.2.448-454
- 2.Roemer L, Williston SK, Rollins LG. Mindfulness and emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online June 2015:52-57. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.02.006
- 3.Hiniker A, Suh H, Cao S, Kientz JA. Screen Time Tantrums. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Published online May 7, 2016. doi:10.1145/2858036.2858278
- 4.Sansavini A, Zavagli V, Guarini A, Savini S, Alessandroni R, Faldella G. Dyadic co-regulation, affective intensity and infant’s development at 12 months: A comparison among extremely preterm and full-term dyads. Infant Behavior and Development. Published online August 2015:29-40. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2015.03.005
- 5.Crucianelli L, Wheatley L, Filippetti ML, Jenkinson PM, Kirk E, Fotopoulou A (Katerina). The mindedness of maternal touch: An investigation of maternal mind-mindedness and mother-infant touch interactions. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. Published online February 2019:47-56. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2018.01.010
- 6.Morris AS, Silk JS, Steinberg L, Myers SS, Robinson LR. The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation. Social Development. Published online May 2007:361-388. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00389.x
- 7.Daniels E, Mandleco B, Luthy KE. Assessment, management, and prevention of childhood temper tantrums. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. Published online July 2, 2012:569-573. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2012.00755.x
- 8.D’Agostino A, Covanti S, Rossi Monti M, Starcevic V. Reconsidering Emotion Dysregulation. Psychiatr Q. Published online February 14, 2017:807-825. doi:10.1007/s11126-017-9499-6