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Tantrum: Causes, Misconceptions, and Solutions

Every parent has been there: the sudden outburst of crying, screaming, and flailing that signals a full-blown tantrum. Temper tantrums are a common part of childhood, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating or challenging. Understanding what causes tantrums and how to effectively manage them can make these episodes less stressful for you and your child.

What causes tantrums

Toddler tantrums start around the age of two when children start to walk and explore their environment and are also known as the terrible twos.

Tantrums are a normal part of child development and are most common in toddlers and young children. They are typically a response to frustration or an inability to express complex emotions. 

Common triggers of tantrums include hunger, tiredness, and overstimulation.​1​

Children may also throw tantrums when trying to assert their independence but cannot do what they want. This is particularly common during transitions, such as moving from playtime to bedtime or when a child’s routine is disrupted. 

While tantrums can be challenging to deal with, they are a normal part of child development because they allow the child to learn how to regulate their emotions. With proper teaching, a child will learn to tolerate negative emotions and calm themselves, and the tantrums will decrease in frequency and intensity.

However, if not appropriately handled, tantrums may escalate, and the child may develop behavioral problems such as oppositional defiant disorder.

toddler crying

Misconceptions about terrible twos tantrums

Toddlers have tantrums because they don’t get their way

This understanding only provides a partial picture. While it’s true that unfulfilled desires can trigger tantrums, the primary cause often lies in a toddler’s undeveloped emotional regulation and stress tolerance abilities.​2​

Just like any other skill, these capabilities aren’t inborn; rather, they need to be cultivated and nurtured.

“Terrible twos” is just a phase

Calling something a “phase” implies it will naturally resolve without intervention like a child losing their baby teeth. 

However, tantrums don’t necessarily follow this pattern. 

Without guidance and teaching children the essential skills to self-regulate, or worse, if harsh punishment is used to suppress tantrums, the situation may intensify rather than improve.​3​

Terrible twos aren’t exactly “just a phase,” as the lack of intervention could lead to escalated behavioral issues.

Toddlers throw tantrums to manipulate or control their parents

Intense emotions, either genuine or contrived, are unpleasant, if not horrible, to experience. If a child feels the need to resort to this level of discomfort to meet their needs, it could indicate a gap in how they perceive the process of seeking help.

Instead of focusing on whether they are or are not manipulative, it might be more beneficial to teach them appropriate ways to ask for help and handle rejection.

Our children often reflect our perceptions of them. If we view their tantrums as manipulation, they may internalize this. But if we see them as needing help and offering guidance, they will likely feel our support and learn to self-regulate.

Ignoring tantrums is the best way to make them stop

The effectiveness of this approach can vary.

Infants are not born with the ability to regulate emotions. These neural pathways require life experiences to develop.​4​

If we metaphorically handed a baby a bicycle and expected them to ride it without guidance or demonstration, they would be utterly confused. If a child’s tantrums are consistently ignored, they may learn to suppress their feelings or develop a callous attitude to others’ emotional suffering, neither of which are desirable outcomes.

Responding to a child’s difficult emotions is not rewarding the child with attention. It shows your care and concern. 

Build a consistent and caring relationship where your child feels seen and understood, no matter their emotional state, and they won’t feel the need to resort to tantrums to get your attention.

Tantrums happen because the child is too stubborn

Whether a child is strong-willed or not doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with tantrums. Labeling our children negatively will not be constructive but may instead contribute to our frustration. 

Tantrums are not a character flaw but a part of a child’s developmental process that can be guided with patience and understanding.​5​

Tantrums are a sign of poor parenting or discipline

Tantrums are a normal part of toddler development, similar to learning to walk. 

Just as a child is bound to stumble and fall while figuring out how to balance and control their muscles, they’re also bound to experience tantrums as they learn to recognize, regulate, and control their emotional “muscles.”

We wouldn’t judge a parent for their child stumbling while learning to walk; we shouldn’t judge them for their child having tantrums either. It’s all part of the learning process, and with patience, understanding, and support, both the child and the parent can navigate this stage of development successfully.

How to handle tantrums

Stay calm

When it comes to handling tantrums, staying calm is the key.

A child’s tantrums often stem from their struggle to manage overwhelming emotions. Just as a child who hasn’t seen someone ride a bike may struggle to understand how to use it, a child who hasn’t witnessed an adult self-soothe during moments of distress will not know how to manage their own emotions.

If you find it challenging to stay calm, take a few deep breaths.

Consider the difficulty we as adults face, then envision the challenge for your child. With their still-developing brains, lack of role models, and the intensity of their emotions, it’s a significantly more formidable task for them. Keeping this in mind will give you a different perspective during tantrums.

Distract or give options

For very young children, distraction is often effective. For slightly older children, including toddlers, giving them simple options tends to work well.

The ability to make choices is a fundamental aspect of human autonomy, regardless of age. 

Having no control over our own lives can be unsettling and feels horrible. By allowing children to make choices, we can help foster their sense of control and autonomy.

Offering options isn’t giving in. It means giving them two or three alternatives that we deem appropriate and acceptable. 

Be creative. Having some choice in the matter, even if it’s not exactly what they had in mind, feels a lot better than just getting a hard “no.”

Safety and other considerations

In some cases, you may need to remove your child from the situation, causing the tantrum.

Safety is important. If your child becomes aggressive and hurts themselves or others, move them to a place where their behavior can be contained to keep others and your child safe.

A common worry for many parents is the perception of others. The fear of being judged as a bad or inadequate parent can be quite daunting.

These bad feelings of inadequacy often stem from our own self-doubt, especially when we struggle to manage our children’s behavior.

But parenting is not about exerting control over our children. Instead, it’s about imparting essential life skills and abilities to equip them to thrive as adults.

Tantrums provide opportunities for toddlers to learn how to regulate their emotions. If we shift our focus to this learning process, the fear of judgment tends to fade. So, let’s give ourselves some grace and concentrate on the bigger picture of helping our children grow.

Emotional coregulation

Children learn to regulate their emotions first by co-regulating with their caregivers. This interactive method lays the foundation for the child’s emotional growth and self-regulation capabilities. Mother-infant coregulation at 3 and 9 months is found to predict the child’s emotional regulation ability at 2 years of age.​6​

Here’s how coregulation might look in a real-life situation.

Start by acknowledging their emotions, saying, “I see you’re upset because…”. 

Then, validate their feelings, “I bet that feels really unfair…”. 

At this point, put a full stop. No need to tack on a “but…” at the end.

Acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings is very important. Not getting what they want is hard enough, but feeling misunderstood can add an extra layer of frustration.

So, show that you understand their feelings. However, avoid appending a “but” at the end of your empathetic words. 

That word can undo all your previous empathy, signaling that you don’t really get their feelings after all.

Helping a child learn to self-regulate is not about “teaching” them the “right emotion.” They need to know that their strong emotions are accepted to move on.

Teach them an emotional vocabulary

Talking to children about feelings can help reduce tantrums.

Introduce your child to basic emotions, such as happy, sad, angry, scared, and surprised.

You can also tell them what grown-ups feeling angry is like and how you deal with it.

By consistently using these words, you’re helping your child build language skills and an emotional vocabulary. Over time, they can replace tantrums with vocal expressions of anger and control frustration.

Prevention of childhood temper tantrums

While it’s not always possible to prevent tantrums, some strategies can help reduce their frequency. Sticking to routines for meals and sleep times can help prevent tantrums caused by hunger or tiredness.​7​

Understanding your child’s triggers can also be helpful. 

If you know your child’s tantrum triggers, you can try to anticipate difficult situations that might cause frustration and intervene before a tantrum starts.

Positive attention

Some reasons children have temper tantrums include getting attention for tantrums.

However, the antidote is not ignoring them during tantrums, which, as discussed, is counterproductive. The solution is spending more quality time with your child to reduce the need for getting attention from parents through tantrums.

This doesn’t necessarily mean planning elaborate activities; it could be simple calming activities, such as reading a book together, playing a game, or taking a walk.

Children thrive on positive attention and acknowledgment. Offer lots of praise when you catch them on good behavior. Genuine praise for positive behaviors reinforces these actions and encourages your child to repeat them. 

Giving your child positive attention can help prevent tantrums. Showing interest in their activities, listening attentively when they speak, and participating in their play communicates that they are important and valued.​8​

How to deal with tantrums at different ages

As children grow, learning self-regulation skills often leads to decreased tantrums. However, if tantrums persist or even intensify, other underlying issues may need attention.

Each age might bring unique developmental milestones and challenges. Here’s a closer look at the considerations for tantrums at different ages:

Also See:
Tantrums vs. Meltdowns
Emotional Regulation in Children

When to worry

While the development of temper tantrums is normal in children, severe tantrums might indicate a deeper issue.

For example, if your child engages in severe self-injurious tantrum behavior, such as banging their hand or holding their breath during tantrums to the point of fainting, it’s time to seek help from mental health professionals.


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    Lunkenheimer ES, Olson SL, Hollenstein T, Sameroff AJ, Winter C. Dyadic flexibility and positive affect in parent–child coregulation and the development of child behavior problems. Dev Psychopathol. Published online April 18, 2011:577-591. doi:10.1017/s095457941100006x
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Updated on May 18th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


    * All information on 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. *