A tantrum is the display of intense emotions, especially anger, accompanied by anti-social behavior such as kicking, screaming, crying, hitting, and biting.
There are two types of tantrum-stopping strategies: short-term and long-term.
Traditional methods such as ignoring or time-out can give the parents fast relief but do not help children’s emotional growth over the long run.
Let’s examine these two approaches for managing tantrums in children ranging from 18 months to 7 years old and explore how to prevent meltdowns.
- 1. Understand the consequences
- 2. Look for common triggers
- 3. Use Simple Choices Or Distractions
- 4. Co-regulate to self-regulate
- 5. Validate and emotion coach
- 6. Help them regulate
- 7. Stay calm by being kind and firm
- How to prevent tantrums?
- 5 Don’ts
- Tantrum vs meltdown
- Why do toddlers have tantrums?
- 3-year-old tantrums
- 4-year-old tantrums
- 5-year-old tantrums
- 6-year-old and 7-year-old tantrums
- More Tantrums Help
1. Understand the consequences of stopping tantrums
Organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommend parents ignore their children or give them a time-out when they throw tantrums. The belief is that children crave attention. Giving kids attention during tantrums rewards the behavior and encourages more tantrums.
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 called operant conditioning, proposed by psychologist B.F. Skinner.1
Behaviorism has lost popularity since the 1950s because it often doesn’t work. Kids are more complex than animals. Often, kids’ tantrums are not willful behavior that can be easily controlled.2
However, if you are stressed out and desperate to stop tantrums, you might try this ignore / time-out method. Sometimes, ignoring children might work in the short term.
Keep in mind that this strategy doesn’t teach children how to manage their emotions properly or develop regulation skills. Without guidance, children may develop unhealthy ways to deal with strong emotions, creating more harm in the long run.
Ensure your child is in a safe space if you choose to use ignoring. Children who feel ignored may escalate and become aggressive.
Follow evidence-based guidelines if you choose to give a time-out. Research shows that most time-out advice online is inaccurate.3
Here are the proper steps to time out effectively.
- Give a Warning: Specify the rule to your child. Inform them that a time-out will be given if they continue the undesired behavior. This is their only warning.
- Immediate Time-Out: If the misbehavior continues after the warning, initiate the time-out immediately. Clearly state the reason and avoid giving a “second chance” or negotiating.
- Choose a Quiet Place: The area designated for time-out should be free from distractions like toys, activities, or social interactions. The less stimulating the environment, the more effective the time-out will be.
- Ensure They Stay: If the child leaves the time-out area, gently guide them back. Be consistent and kind, but avoid interacting with them during the time-out.
- Brief Duration: Contrary to popular belief, the duration shouldn’t be long. Studies suggest that 2-5 minutes are as effective as longer periods.
- Calm Before Release: Even if the time is up, the child should display a few seconds of quiet and calm behavior before being released from the time-out.
- Reissue Original Request: Before ending the time-out, restate the initial command that led to it. The child must comply to successfully conclude the time-out.
- Positive Reinforcement: When the child is not in time-out, focus on positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior. Praise them when they act appropriately.
The following steps can help address a child’s emotional development in the long term, but they tend to work slower and require more patience.
2. Look for common triggers
Take a moment to assess whether your child 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.
Addressing these basic needs can often prevent further emotional escalation.
3. Use Simple Choices Or Distractions
Tantrums often start when a child’s emotions take over. So, when a tantrum emerges, it’s often possible to stop it in its tracks by engaging your child’s thinking brain.
Think of a child’s emotional brain as the accelerator that propels tantrums and the thinking brain as the brake that regulates emotions.
Offer simple choices or distractions to activate your child’s thinking brain and prevent emotional outbursts.
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. Or sing a silly song to raise their curiosity and divert their attention.
This strategy works well in children younger than 3 years old because they have shorter attention spans and are more easily distracted.4
4. Co-regulate to self-regulate
The long-term solution to tantrums is to teach children emotional regulation skills. Children’s emotional regulation skills develop through co-regulating with their parents.5
Emotional co-regulation is the back-and-forth interaction between a parent and child that helps both manage their emotions.
You adjust your emotional state to match your child’s emotional state in a controlled way.
Co-regulation is a continuously changing process that involves some of the following steps.
- Make eye contact
- Mirror your child’s emotions
- Respond to your child’s vocal cues and actions
- Focus on making a connection rather than stopping the tantrum
5. Validate and emotion-coach
To regulate emotions effectively, a child must first recognize and be aware of their emotions as they occur.
You can help children older than 4 years old develop this self-awareness by validating and emotion-coaching them.6
Validating is acknowledging that their feelings are important and deserve attention.
Emotion-coaching involves naming and teaching your child about their feelings. Name each emotion so they learn to identify anger, sadness, and fear. Labeling your child’s feelings also teaches your kid vocabulary so they can express themselves instead of having tantrums.
Here are some examples of validation and emotion coaching.
- “You seem really sad right now. It was 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.”
- “Your sister said something bad about you, and you are angry. You must be very hurt.”
6. Help them regulate
Some children need more help calming themselves. If your child is still having difficulty regulating after you attempt to co-regulate, validate, and emotion-coach, hug your child to help them restore their hormonal balance.
Hugging can trigger the release of oxytocin, a feel-good chemical, to calm a child’s nervous system.7
Most children feel better with a caring hug, as a positive touch is comforting and essential for growth and well-being.
Hugging does not reward children’s tantrums. 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.
7. Stay calm by being kind and firm
Staying calm is important because children mimic grownups’ emotional control.
If you get angry and start yelling at your child when they throw a tantrum, you are modeling how they should react when things don’t go their way.
However, staying calm teaches your child to face difficulties and upsetting situations without losing control.8
In addition, negative feelings are contagious. Your anger or negative emotions will increase your child’s stress.
Being kind and firm can help you stay calm while not giving in to their demands.
For instance, kindly and firmly say, “I see you are very angry and frustrated. I get it. But you cannot have a candy right before dinner, and dinner is almost ready.”
How to prevent
Shift your mindset
Shifting your mindset from simply wanting to stop tantrums to helping your child learn self-regulation skills can help speed up skill development and prevent future tantrums.
Identify triggers to prevent tantrums because tantrums are hard to stop once they start.
Here are some common triggers of tantrums in toddlers.
- Disruptions in routines
- Changing activities
- Constantly being told “no”
- Needs or feelings not being understood
- Sensory overload
Discuss and create predictable daily routines to minimize tantrum triggers. Things to include in these routines include mealtime, playtime, bath time, teeth brushing, screen time, and bedtime.
Have the entire family stick to the routines as much as possible.
Give positive attention
Giving positive attention to desired behavior can satisfy a child’s need for connection and offer feedback that can shape and reinforce good behavior.
Say more “yes” than “no”
Help children feel more in control by saying more “yes” and avoiding too many “no.” This can be achieved by offering options and choosing battles when the issues are unrelated to safety or health.
Hearing “yes” more often than “no” also increases the impact of the occasional “no” when it becomes necessary to use.
A positive family environment is also related to better self-regulation in children.9
Use non-punitive discipline
Non-punitive discipline, such as positive discipline and inductive discipline, can reduce tantrums.
Positive discipline teaches children proper behavior using respectful and positive methods.
Inductive discipline uses reasoning to teach children the difference between right and wrong instead of instilling fear through punishment. Inductive discipline also helps children develop the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in life.
Use a warm, responsive parenting style
Research shows that a warm, responsive, and accepting parenting style can lead to better self-regulation in children. When parents are responsive and warm, children are more likely to seek help from parents to regulate their emotions. These kids show better self-regulation and less tantrums.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.
In addition, avoid fighting, arguing, or yelling in front of your child.
Teach problem-solving skills
Guide your child in learning how to tackle problems during calmer moments. Problem-solving is an essential life skill. Brainstorm multiple solutions and how to reframe challenges to improve your kid’s coping skills.
Help your child make amends if your child has hurt others with words or actions during a tantrum.
Explain how their behavior impacted others to cultivate empathy.
Have them take age-appropriate responsibility, like apologizing or giving a hug. But do not force amends against their will. Instead, patiently guide them to mend wounds and use mistakes as learning opportunities.
Make time for self-care, as it’s difficult to model emotional regulation when stressed or depleted. Your well-being will enable you to optimally nurture your child’s development.
5 Don’ts when dealing with temper tantrums
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.
Take slow, deep breaths if you have trouble calming yourself. Daily meditation can also help you stay calm during your child’s tantrums.
Punishment escalates tantrums rather than stopping them because punishment weakens emotional regulation and promotes aggression.
Additionally, punishing does not teach the correct behavior but emphasizes the wrong behavior.
Ignoring children does not teach them proper emotional regulation skills. Ignoring only teaches children to be insensitive and uncaring toward others’ suffering.
Also See: Should You Ignore Tantrum
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.
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.11
What is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?
Some parents differentiate between tantrums and meltdowns based on the child’s intent and 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.
Why do toddlers have tantrums?
Toddlers have tantrums when flooded with strong emotions, often due to unmet needs they don’t have the language skills to express. Toddler tantrums are a natural part of child development.
When kids have temper tantrums and won’t stop crying, they’re in deep emotional pain. They cannot cope independently and need their parent’s help.
Are they normal behavior?
Tantrums are very common in children between 18 months and 4 years. They are the most common childhood behavioral problems reported by parents. A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin on 1219 families showed that 87% of children at 18-24 months had displayed temper tantrums. At 30-36 months, 91% did. The prevalence then decreased to 59% at 42-48 months.12
What are terrible twos?
The “terrible twos” is the stage in which toddlers start having tantrums because these tantrums tend to appear around age two.
What are the two types of tantrums?
There are two types of temper tantrums — emotional meltdowns and non-emotional tantrums, also known as the Little Nero tantrum.
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.
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.13
Also See: 18 month-old Tantrums
When do tantrums stop?
Temper tantrums tend to increase in children from 12 months to 3 years old and then decline. The decline in temper tantrums is most rapid for children of 3 to 4 years, coinciding with their increased vocabulary.14 Meltdowns become increasingly rare after the age of 4.
However, factors like fatigue, hunger, or illness can cause tantrums to be more frequent. Tantrums are also more likely to persist after age 4 if the child has not mastered emotional regulation skills.
How many tantrums a day is normal for a 2-year-old?
Approximately 5%–7% of children between the ages of 1 and 3 years experience temper tantrums three or more times a week, lasting at least 15 minutes. At least 20% of 2-year-olds have temper tantrums daily.4
Why is my 2-year-old screaming and crying for no reason?
A 2-year-old may scream and cry for what appears to be “no reason” because it’s their primary means of communication when they lack verbal and emotional regulation skills.
Common triggers like hunger, tiredness, sensory overload, or a need for attention are usually at play. However, other less obvious factors, such as teething, illness, or physical discomfort, could also contribute.
Therefore, carefully observe patterns and explore the underlying issues to uncover the source of problems. With patience and addressing underlying needs, you can help constructively resolve tantrums.
What causes severe temper tantrums in 2-year-olds?
Toddler temper tantrums are a normal part of child development, often stemming from unmet needs or wants. While these emotional outbursts are relatively common among 2-year-olds, they’re usually not extreme.
If you observe that your child’s tantrums are frequent and intense, causing disruption, they may indicate a more serious underlying issue, and intervention is needed. Speak with your pediatrician if your child’s meltdowns seem pervasive and extreme.
How to stop toddler tantrums in public
Stopping a child’s temper tantrums in public, such as in the grocery store or the toy store, doesn’t require special treatment that differs from the strategies above.
Handling children’s tantrums aims to help kids develop emotional regulation skills. Focus on helping them rather than feeling embarrassed by them.
If the commotion bothers others, move your child to another location and continue to help them calm down.
Also See: How to Stop Toddler Hitting
Why are your 3-year-old’s temper tantrums getting worse?
3-year-old tantrums may worsen if your child lacks emotional regulation abilities. As your child grows, they have more needs, and their frustration rises when unmet. A combination of insufficient regulating skills and pent-up frustration leads to worse tantrums.
How to deal with extreme tantrums in a 4-year-old?
Extreme 4-year-old tantrums may be signs of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD). However, mental health professionals are concerned about misdiagnosis and overtreatment of this disorder. Seek help from your child’s pediatrician or a psychiatrist if you are worried about your child’s extreme tantrums and irritability.15
Are 5-year-old tantrums normal?
Yes, 5-year-old tantrums are normal. 6-year-old tantrums and 7-year-old tantrums are also considered normal. Having temper tantrums is a normal part of child development. Although it may appear that the child is screaming simply because they’re not getting their way, the real issue often lies in their limited emotional regulation and ability to articulate their needs.
However, uncontrollable tantrums or meltdowns over everything in 6- or 7-year-olds may have other underlying causes.
When to worry about my 5-year-old’s tantrums?
Researchers believe that concern should arise if the following five red flags or “tantrum styles” are found.16
- Violent Tantrums – During the last 10-20 tantrums, your 5-year-old child showed consistent aggression toward mother or father, hitting or violently destructive behavior toward objects more than half the time.
- Self-injurious Behavior – Self-harming during tantrums, such as hitting themselves, head banging, breath holding, or biting themselves, regardless of tantrum frequency, duration, intensity, or context.
- Frequent Tantrums – Having tantrums 10-20 times on separate days during 30 days, or on average 5 or more times a day on multiple days.
- Long Duration – lasting more than 25 minutes.
- Cannot Self-regulate – Your child tantrums until they are exhausted instead of gradually calming down.
American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you call your pediatrician or family physician if:
- Temper tantrums get worse after age 4.
- Your child injures himself or herself or others or destroys property during severe temper tantrums.
- Your child holds his or her breath during temper tantrums, especially if he or she faints.
- Your child also has nightmares, reversal of toilet training, headaches, stomachaches, anxiety, refuses to eat or go to bed, or clings to you.
What causes 6-year-old and 7-year-old tantrums?
Here are some less common causes of tantrums in older children that may hinder children’s capacity to develop self-regulation skills.
Children exposed to regular parent fighting or marriage discord may not have adequate emotional regulation skills to cope with high-stress situations.
Witnessing intense family arguments can heighten children’s stress levels. Kids may internalize the conflicts as their fault.17
Children with neurodivergent conditions, such as autism spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may have more challenges in learning regulation.18
Children who have had adverse childhood experiences may be unable to manage strong emotions. Traumatic stress can result in overactivity in the nervous system, making it hard to regain self-control when distressed.
Childhood trauma can range from life-threatening incidents like car accidents to chronic stressors such as bullying or harsh discipline.
Some children may have learned that expressing their needs through tantrums can yield the desired response because their parents have given in to their demands.
Lack of co-regulation
Children who don’t receive co-regulation support from parents or caregivers may struggle to independently develop self-regulation skills.
More Tantrums Help
Calm The Tantrums is a great place to start if you want additional tips and an actual 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.
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