Skip to Content

7 Steps to Deal with 2-Year-Old Tantrums

To deal with 2-year-old tantrums, parents first choose between short-term and long-term goals. Short-term strategies such as ignoring the child may yield fast results but do not benefit children’s emotional regulation development in the long run.

The 7 steps to handling 2-year-old emotional meltdowns include staying calm, identifying common triggers, giving choices, co-regulating, validating, helping them regulate, and teaching. When dealing with uncontrollable tantrums, prioritize safety, intervene gently if necessary, and reconnect post-tantrum.

If a two-year-old hits or throws things during tantrums, instruct calmly, remove the child from the harmful environment, and collaboratively explore underlying issues post-incident. Understand that ignoring a child during tantrums is a short-term strategy that doesn’t benefit the child’s emotional regulation skills.

toddler having terrible-twos tantrums

How to deal with 2-year-old tantrums

To deal with 2-year-old tantrums, follow these 7 steps.

1. Stay calm and determine your goal

If the goal is to stop the tantrums immediately instead of teaching the 2-year-old to regulate their emotions, ignoring the child is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The belief is that children crave attention. Giving kids attention during tantrums rewards the behavior and encourages more tantrums.

However, this belief stems from a branch of psychology called behaviorism. Behaviorists believe that actions can be changed using rewards and punishments, like training a dog with treats. This method is based on operant conditioning, which psychologist B.F Skinner proposed. Behaviorism has lost popularity since the 1950s because it often doesn’t work in the long run or has unexpected side effects.​1,2​

If the goal is to stop the tantrums in the long run, focus on teaching the 2-year-old emotional regulation and recognize that having tantrums is a necessary part of the learning despite the inconvenience. Concentrating on your child’s learning will help you stay calm.

Staying calm can directly impact your parenting behavior and your child’s reaction during tantrums. Recent research analyzing 53 studies from 2000-2020 showed that a calm parent can adopt more sensitive and positive parenting behaviors that help the child self-regulate.​3​

2. Look for common triggers

Assess whether your 2-year-old is experiencing common triggers like hunger, fatigue, or loneliness. If you identify any of these triggers, act quickly to resolve them. 

For instance, offer a nutritious snack if they’re hungry or guide them towards a restful nap if they’re tired. 

In addition, addressing these basic needs ahead of time can prevent related emotional escalation.

3. Give choices or use distractions

Giving simple choices to children can alleviate the frustration of not getting what they want and engage your child’s cognitive thinking.

When a two-year-old feels overwhelmed, an emotional part of their brain called the amygdala takes over, resulting in tantrums. However, the thinking part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, helps them think things through and calm down. Helping your 2-year-old use this thinking part of the brain by giving them simple choices or distractions can help avoid meltdowns.

For example, if your child doesn’t want dinner, instead of forcing them to eat, which will bring on more emotions, you can ask them to choose to eat the egg or the vegetable first. If they refuse both, ask them why or what alternatives they suggest, engaging them in more cognitive thinking. Avoid a terse “No!” which signifies no other choice, making your child feel helpless and frustrated.

Distractions that pique your child’s curiosity, such as singing a silly song, can also activate their thinking brain, but this strategy tends to work only in younger children because they have shorter attention spans and are more easily distracted.​4​

4. Co-regulate to help self-regulate


Co-regulation is a gentle back-and-forth “dance” where you mirror your child’s emotions to guide them toward calmness and teach them self-regulation.

Coregulation starts with a simple connection. Make eye contact with your two-year-old and listen closely to their cries. Gently mirror their facial expressions to let them know you understand and slowly wait for them to calm down, adjusting your expression to match their emotional state in a controlled way.​5​

5. Validate and emotion-coach

Validation is acknowledging and accepting your kid’s feelings to build a bridge of understanding and support. Emotion-coaching is teaching your child about their emotions and guiding them through.

Validate your 2-year-old by naming how they feel. Labeling their emotions shows your child that their feelings are important and deserve attention. Your child will learn to recognize their feelings and develop self-awareness. They will also learn vocabulary to express themselves through words instead of tantrums.

For example, “You seem very sad right now. It is very disappointing we can’t go to the park. You were looking forward to playing with your friend, but now we cannot go. You are very frustrated. I can understand that.”

Another example is, “Your sister said something bad about you, and you are angry. You must be very hurt.”

6. Help them regulate

Hug your two-year-old or pat them on the pack if they need more help calming themselves.

If your child is still having difficulty regulating after you attempt to co-regulate, validate, and emotion-coach, hug them to help them restore their hormonal balance. Positive touch, such as hugging, can trigger the release of oxytocin, a feel-good chemical, to calm a child’s nervous system.​6​

Hugging is showing your child love and care. Hugging does not reward children’s tantrums because parental love should be unconditional and not used as a reward or punishment.

Most children feel better with a caring hug.​ However, if your child doesn’t like to be touched during a tantrum, stay close or hold their hands while you continue to co-regulate with, validate, and emotion-coach them.

7. Praise and review to teach self-regulation

When your two-year-old finally calms down, point out and review what was working for them so they know how to do it again to regulate their emotions next time. The next time they have a tantrum, remind them to use the technique they learned before to calm themselves.

Praise their effort even if your child couldn’t calm themselves this time. Here are some examples.

“I could see that you were struggling and couldn’t stop crying, but you stuck with it and kept trying. You worked very hard. I could tell.”

“I saw that you resisted hitting me this time, and that was excellent self-control. I’m proud of you.”

“It took a while, but you finally calm down. Remember how it felt to stop crying gradually? It felt good, right? Remember how it feels so you can do it again next time you feel upset, ok?”

2.5 year old child lies on the ground throwing fit, toddler meltdown

How to handle uncontrollable tantrums in a 2-year-old

To handle uncontrollable tantrums in a 2-year-old, prioritize safety for everyone involved. If the child is at risk of hurting themselves or others, gently intervene to create space. This might involve removing them from the situation or, as a last resort, gentle restraint such as a hug.

While doing this, stay calm and empathetic. Speak softly to acknowledge their intense emotions. For example, “I see you’re really upset right now.” Avoid harsh words or threats, as they can escalate the situation. Explain that you intend to keep them and others safe and help them regulate their emotions.

Once the child has calmed down, focus on reconnection and understanding. Cuddle, offer quiet comfort and let them know you’re there for them. When everyone is calm, consider discussing the situation and teach them vocabulary and ways to help regulate themselves.

Tantrums are a normal part of child development. However, if tantrums are frequent or significantly disruptive, seek professional support. A pediatrician or child psychologist can help identify potential triggers and develop strategies for managing big emotions more effectively.

How to stop a 2-year-old from hitting and throwing things

To stop a 2-year-old from hitting and throwing things, calmly instruct them to stop, explaining why it’s unacceptable. If your 2-year-old’s anger outbursts or screaming fits are out of control and the disruptive behavior continues, gently relocate them to a safe area where there are no objects to throw and they can’t hit others. Allow them to calm down in this controlled environment for a minute or two.

Review the incident together once the child has calmed down to understand its root cause. Find a solution collaboratively that meets their emotional needs and helps prevent similar occurrences in the future. Toddlers often struggle to communicate, so it might take a few tries to get to the bottom of the issue and understand what’s bothering them.

Should you ignore tantrums?

Although organizations such as the CDC recommend parents ignore their screaming 2-year-olds during tantrums, note that this method will not teach children healthy emotional regulation skills.

How to stay calm when toddler tantrums

To stay calm when your toddler is throwing tantrums, take a few slow, deep breaths and focus on the breathing (instead of the tantrum). Remind yourself that your child can only be calm if you are calm. In addition, prioritize self-care, such as regular exercise or daily meditation, because staying calm when stressed or depleted is challenging.

2-year-old tantrums when to worry?

A 2008 study by the Washington University School of Medicine suggested that there are 5 red flags for two-year-old tantrums (given the causes are not due to hunger, sleep problems, or illness.)

  1. Show aggression directed at caregivers, violently destructive behavior toward objects, or both more than half the time.
  2. Use self-injurious behavior during tantrums, regardless of frequency, duration, intensity, or context.
  3. Display 10 to 20 discrete tantrum episodes on separate days at home in 30 days, or on average, more than 5 tantrums a day on multiple days.
  4. Throw extended tantrums lasting more than 25 minutes on average.
  5. Cannot calm themselves without help from a caregiver most of the time.

If your 2-year-old demonstrates these characteristics, seek help from your child’s pediatrician for a comprehensive evaluation.

What should I do if a 2-year-old tantrums all day?

It is normal for a 2-year-old to have tantrums daily. However, if your two-year-old has constant tantrums, more than 5 a day, on multiple days, or if there are other red flags mentioned above, such as violence or destructive behavior, consult your child’s pediatrician or a psychologist for help.

How to prevent toddler tantrums

To prevent toddler tantrums, here are 10 tips.

  1. Give positive attention: Praise for good behavior can satisfy a child’s need for connection and offer feedback that can shape and reinforce positive behavior.
  2. Say more “yes” than “no”: Pick your battle. Help children feel more in control by saying more “yes” to little things unrelated to safety or health.
  3. Put away off-limit objects: Removing objects that are not suitable for your child helps prevent struggles.
  4. Teach problem-solving: Guide your child in learning how to tackle problems to reduce frustration.
  5. Avoid triggers: Plan for basic needs such as snacks or naps.
  6. Be mindful of your child’s limits: Be aware of how much your child can handle in terms of physical, mental, and emotional capacity to avoid overwhelming them.
  7. Establish routines: Create predictable daily routines to minimize unexpected disruption. Things to include in these routines include mealtime, playtime, bath time, teeth brushing, screen time, and bedtime.
  8. Use non-punitive discipline: Non-punitive discipline, such as positive and inductive discipline, can reduce tantrums.
  9. Use a warm, responsive parenting style: Research shows that a warm, responsive parenting style can lead to better self-regulation in children.
  10. Model good regulation: Children also learn to regulate by observing how their parents control their own emotions. Model how to regulate your negative emotions and resolve difficulties constructively.

What are the triggers of toddler tantrums?

Here are 9 triggers of toddler tantrums.

  1. Needs not met
  2. Disruptions in routines
  3. Changing activities
  4. Constantly being told “no”
  5. Feelings not being understood
  6. Tiredness
  7. Hunger
  8. Boredom
  9. Sensory overload

What not to do when handling toddler tantrums?

Here are 6 things to avoid when handling toddler tantrums.

  1. Don’t get angry: If you are angry at your child for throwing tantrums, you are modeling how to behave when things don’t go your way.
  2. Don’t reason: During a tantrum, a child’s amygdala, an emotional processing center in the brain, becomes highly activated, triggering the release of stress hormones. This hormone impairs the function of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical thinking and reasoning. As a result, the child’s ability to process reasoning and logic diminishes significantly.
  3. Don’t punish: Punishment escalates tantrums rather than stopping them because punishment weakens emotional regulation and promotes aggression. Punishing also does not teach the correct behavior but emphasizes the wrong behavior.
  4. Don’t ignore: Ignoring children does not teach them proper emotional regulation skills. Ignoring only teaches children to be insensitive and uncaring toward others’ suffering.
  5. Don’t give in: Giving in can reinforce the tantrum behavior. However, not giving in doesn’t mean not paying attention. Be kind and firm without compromising.
  6. Don’t treat it as “just a phase”: Whether the terrible twos “phase” will pass depends on how adults deal with their child’s tantrums. A child who does not learn healthy emotional regulation skills may develop externalizing issues, such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or internalizing issues, such as depression.​7​

What are 2-year-old tantrums?

2-year-old tantrums are uncontrolled emotional outbursts, typically seen in young children, characterized by crying, screaming, kicking, or defying guidance. These meltdowns often occur when a 2-year-old’s needs are unmet, and they feel overwhelmed by their emotions. Anger, frustration, fatigue, hunger, or overstimulation can trigger severe temper tantrums in 2-year-olds.

What are terrible twos?

The term “terrible twos” describes a developmental stage typically around age two, characterized by emotional outbursts, tantrums, and challenging behaviors. This phase is a normal part of childhood development.

What is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

Some parents believe that the difference between tantrums and meltdowns is the child’s intent and the behavior’s controllability. Tantrums are often seen as manipulative behaviors that can cease when ignored, while meltdowns are viewed as involuntary reactions to sensory overload that can’t be easily controlled. However, there are no medical definitions distinguishing the two terms. Generally, both tantrums and meltdowns refer to a child losing control due to overwhelming emotions without any presumed intention behind the behavior.

Is it normal for 2-year-olds to have meltdowns?

Yes, it is normal for 2-year-olds to have meltdowns or throw tantrums. They are a normal part of child development as 2-year-olds have not yet learned to regulate emotions and communicate effectively. A 2003 study at the University of Wisconsin surveyed parents of 335 children aged 18 to 60 months and found that 87% of 18 to 24-month-olds in that study had tantrums.

Why do 2-year-olds have tantrums?

Researchers have found that tantrums in two-year-olds are caused by two overlapping emotions – anger and distress. When unmet needs and limited language trigger these feelings, they become tantrums if the toddler cannot self-regulate. Toddler tantrums are a natural part of child development. Kids are in deep emotional pain when they have temper tantrums and won’t stop crying or screaming. They cannot cope independently and need their parent’s help.​8​

When do tantrums stop?

The frequency of tantrums often drops significantly around age 4, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin. A 2003 study involving 1219 families revealed that only 59% of children aged 42-48 months had tantrums, a drastic drop from 91% at 30-36 months and 87% at 18-24 months.

When do tantrums start?

Toddler tantrums usually start in children 12 to 18 months old, when toddlers start becoming mobile but don’t yet have the language skills to express their needs.​9​

How long do 2-year-old tantrums last?

In the same 2003 University of Wisconsin study, researchers discovered that 75% of the tantrums lasted between 1.5 and 5 minutes, but the most common duration was 0.5 to 1 minute.

How many tantrums a day is normal for a 2-year-old?

The 2003 University of Wisconsin research indicated that 2-year-olds in that study had an average of 6.2-8.7 tantrums per week, approximately once a day.

Can my 2-year-old have manipulative tantrums?

No, it is unlikely your 2-year-old has manipulative tantrums. A child must understand that others have thoughts and beliefs different from their own. This ability does not develop until after 3 in most children, according to a 2004 study published in Child Development. Therefore, most children cannot perform manipulative acts at age two.

What are the two types of tantrums?

The two types of tantrums are emotional meltdowns and non-emotional tantrums, also known as the Little Nero tantrums.

An emotional meltdown happens when the emotional part of the brain (limbic) becomes over-aroused and takes over the control from the thinking part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex).

A non-emotional tantrum involves the child behaving like a Little Nero. These children are demanding and manipulative. They are not flooded with hormones or intense emotions. They often lack the painful expressions in children with emotional tantrums.

Children younger than 4 years old cannot reason or manipulate. They tend to have emotional meltdowns. Older children may have non-emotional tantrums, but non-emotional tantrums can turn into emotional meltdowns when things get out of control.

Why is my 2-year-old screaming and crying for no reason?

The causes of your 2-year-old screaming and crying for no reason may include the following.

  • Your 2-year-old has not learned to regulate and control their emotions.
  • They do not have the verbal skills to adequately express themselves.
  • Screaming, crying, and having tantrums are their only means of communication.
  • Common triggers, such as hunger, tiredness, sensory overload, or a need for attention, may not be evident to the parent.
  • Other less obvious factors, such as teething, illness, or physical discomfort, may also contribute.

Why is my 2-year-old so angry?

Your 2-year-old is angry, most likely due to frustration when things do not go as expected. But this frustration could be due to more than just not getting what they want. Here are some common reasons for your two-year-old’s anger and fits of rage.

  1. Limited ability to achieve their goals.
  2. Limited verbal skills to express their needs.
  3. Limited freedom or many restrictions on their activities.
  4. Fatigue, hunger, or loneliness exasperating frustration.
  5. Discomfort from sickness, teething, or allergies.
  6. Sensory overload by bright lights, loud noises, or crowded spaces.
  7. Mimicking adults who express anger in their environment.

Why does my 3-year-old have meltdowns over everything?

Your 3-year-old has meltdowns over everything because their needs increase as they develop, and their frustration intensifies when these needs are unmet. This, coupled with insufficient regulating skills and pent-up frustration, results in worse tantrums.

More Tantrums Help

Calm The Tantrums is a great place to start if you want additional tips and a step-by-step plan. It gives you the steps to calm toddler tantrums, teach your child self-regulation, and promote brain development. In this toddler tantrum guide, you will find the top three ways to avoid meltdowns, the strategies for parents to stay calm, and the best way to handle hitting. Once you know the strategies to calm tantrums, terrible twos will no longer be terrible.

summary of the science of toddler tantrums, severe temper tantrums in 2 year-olds in this article

References

  1. 1.
    Bargh JA, Ferguson MJ. Beyond behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2000:925-945. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.126.6.925
  2. 2.
    Staddon JER, Cerutti DT. Operant Conditioning. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online February 2003:115-144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124
  3. 3.
    Zimmer-Gembeck MJ, Rudolph J, Kerin J, Bohadana-Brown G. Parent emotional regulation: A meta-analytic review of its association with parenting and child adjustment. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online October 25, 2021:63-82. doi:10.1177/01650254211051086
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    Guo Y, Leu S, Barnard KE, Thompson EA, Spieker SJ. An Examination of Changes in Emotion Co‐regulation Among Mother and Child Dyads During the Strange Situation. Infant and Child Development. Published online May 2015:256-273. doi:10.1002/icd.1917
  6. 6.
    Scatliffe N, Casavant S, Vittner D, Cong X. Oxytocin and early parent-infant interactions: A systematic review. International Journal of Nursing Sciences. Published online October 2019:445-453. doi:10.1016/j.ijnss.2019.09.009
  7. 7.
    Dunsmore JC, Booker JA, Ollendick TH. Parental Emotion Coaching and Child Emotion Regulation as Protective Factors for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Social Development. Published online February 15, 2012:444-466. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2011.00652.x
  8. 8.
    POTEGAL M, KOSOROK MR, DAVIDSON RJ. Temper Tantrums in Young Children: 2. Tantrum Duration and Temporal Organization. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online June 2003:148-154. doi:10.1097/00004703-200306000-00003
  9. 9.
    Jenkins S, Bax M, Hart H. BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS IN PRE-SCHOOL CHILDREN. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online January 1980:5-17. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1980.tb00011.x

    Disclaimer

    * All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *