How To Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums and Emotional Outbursts

How To Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums and Emotional Outbursts

When To Worry about Tantrums: Here’s a guide for understanding why tantrums happen and what really helps your child feel better and calm down. 

Most children have tantrums and emotional outbursts during the toddler years.

Tantrums can also happen when children are three or four years old, and even later.

Unless your toddler is crying most of the day, every day, or seems absolutely inconsolable you don’t have to worry about tantrums being a problem.

Tantrums and emotional outbursts are actually normal

Tantrums are just the way your child releases big feelings and this is a completely normal part of child development.

You can expect that most children will have a tantrum at some point, if not many, as tantrums are just expressions of overwhelm, frustration and other big emotions.

Throwing a tantrum is part of learning to control impulses and developing self-control.

A quick way to stop or reduce tantrums is to see these moments as a an opportunity to give your child some guidance.

Instead of trying to discipline a child during a tantrum, aim to understand and support them until they have calmed down.

Tantrums are emotional outbursts not naughty behavior.

During a tantrum a child may meltdown, cry and scream. Sometimes children also hit, kick, bite and bang things during a tantrum.

If your child is having a tantrum, aim to stay calm.  Remember that tantrums happen when your child is overwhelmed.

Overwhelm can come from being scared, frustrated, tired, hungry, confused or uncomfortable.

Children of all ages can have tantrums, but toddlers in particular are more likely to have tantrums.

The toddler brain is still very immature and impulsive.

If your toddler, three or four year old has a tantrum, it is not a sign that they are naughty, bad or spoiled.

What really helps children when they are having a tantrum?

1. Doing less during a tantrum is a good first step: 

A lot of children get worked up when they are in pain or frustrated.  We forget that they really can’t tune in to what we are saying.  It’s hard to cry, protest and scream all while trying to absorb your wise words for a teachable moment.

 Don’t worry about teaching during a tantrum. Say less. Listen more. Be present. 

One morning  leaving toddler playgroup, my daughter wanted to bring home a Minnie mouse toy. It didn’t belong to her. Being just two years old at the time, that was just so incomprehensible to her. While I validated and acknowledged how wonderful the toy was, I also made it clear that the toy had to stay at playgroup.  My daughter cried for about a minute. Then she whimpered a bit more. I offered her a smile mixed with empathy and open arms. She climbed into my lap and three minutes or so after the tantrum was done.  All I had to do was listen. Then, she placed the toy on the shelf and we left hand in hand.

2. Make Peace with Tears 

Tears are not the enemy or a sign of parental failure. It is a normal, physiological and emotional reaction for a young child to cry and express unhappiness.  A lot of parenting advice talks about “how to stop tantrums” and to “ignore” tantrums.  Letting your child feel her feelings and cry when they feel overwhelmed is so vital to their long term well-being.

If you find it hard to listen to your child’s tears, Aletha-Solter offers an important explanation:

It is difficult to allow children the freedom of tears because most of us were stopped from crying when we were young. Our well-meaning, but misinformed, parents may have distracted, scolded, punished, or ignored us when we attempted to heal our childhood hurts by crying.

The sooner we make peace with the idea that our child may at times have a tantrum, the easier it becomes to respond in a kind, calm and connected way.

It also teaches children that they can get upset and then move forward. 

3. Listening to a Tantrum is not the same as giving in:

You can listen to a tantrum and validate feelings and still keep your limit.

The safer a child feels the sooner their tantrum is likely to subside. A calm, confident presence gives your child a sense that they are OK, even if they didn’t get their way.

Listening and validating also gives your child words to fill up their emotional vocabulary, which is vital to developing emotional intelligence and self-regulation skills.

4. Make corrections in a connected and calm way:

I will not let you kick me.” Is enough to make it clear that the tears can go on, but that hurting you is not acceptable.  Lecturing on and on as the child cries and tried to hurt you will only escalate the tantrum.

Another calm correction is to carry or accompany your child out of a public area into a more private space.

It might sound like:  “Let’s find a better place to be right now. Follow me.” Or simply walking away together. 

5. Stop Negotiations and Redirection

It may be tempting to redirect or bribe your child to stop tears. Under most circumstances, it’s best to avoid that.

Strive to accept your child’s feelings. Next, show faith in both your child and the limit that you have set.

If you don’t believe in that limit, then your child has no reason to respect it either.

Keeping clear limits isn’t the same as being rigid or inflexible. It’s about being calm and confident in your guidance.

When we negotiate endlessly, you send mix messages. “No you can’t…oh wait…yes you can…I don’t know…” This attitude makes children anxious, nervous and more prone to tantrums.

tantrum help positive parenting

Distractions negate your child’s real feelings. Listening to tears and offering guidance helps your child learn to manage feelings.

6. Coach, Connect and Then Correct

Your child will need you to coach them through big feelings before they are ready to listen to your corrections and limits.

The ability to calm down, instead of melting down (i.e. self regulation skills) develops gradually. It will take many trials and errors.

Children also learn a lot from observing their trusted adults self-regulate too.  It’s ok if you need to walk away for a moment and calm yourself down as well.

Strive to keep appropriate expectations, meet your child’s needs and to use a positive and respectful approach to discipline.  Remember temper tantrums can be an opportunity to step in and show your child that you care about them.

Peace & Be Well,


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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

12 Responses to How To Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums and Emotional Outbursts

  1. Great article BUT the description of a tantrum as a minute of crying and some whimpering that finished 3 minutes later is not a tantrum.

  2. Hi, I hear you, and it’s true that in the example, the tantrum or crying was very short…but mostly because feeling comforted and validated, the emotional upset passed and the crying subsided. Of course, it is possible for children to have very long, drawn out tantrums. THis can be because the child has stored up a lot of emotional upsets, because they feel sick/tired/hungry and aren’t able to convey that message well or…. while it’s not the rule, so very often tantrums escalate because the child is not given the emotional support or practice she needs to feel a full range of emotions and calm. Many children’s tantrums are interrupted with contradictory information “you are fine, stop it, it’s nothing!!” which makes them second guess their own feelings…Other times, children are scoled, ignored, or hurt and this just brings up a bigger emotional charge that perpetuates the tantrum or “crying because I was crying and told not to cry…which makes me cry…” Other children just really need long to process whatever it might be and that is ok too… But if a child isn’t receiving the care and information to develop the skills for self-regulation, such as been allowed to cry in arms or being supported / listed / validated in a compassionate attuned, helpful manner, these emotional overloads or upset tend to get longer, more aggressive or “wilder.” When children have permission to cry and we accept that the crying has a purpose then it’s also possible that no matter how long they need, is really just that…how long they need, be it one or one hundred minutes. Thanks again for bringing that up.

  3. Great article. Can you recommend a book that expands upon these philosophies? Thank you!

  4. Hi Jennifer,

    Some books that share a similar philosophy are “Listen” by Patty Wipfler, “Tears Heal” by Kate Orson and you may also like my book “12 Alternatives to Time Out” . Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I hope these suggestions are helpful to you.

  5. Hi I really liked ur article and it’s quite good I hope it gets into my mind when a tantrum occurs, but I wanted to ask something more complicated my 9 yr old boy has started to lie on certain issues and when being confronted he simply start telling more lies I’m so disturbed what to do plz help me thanks

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