Robin Barker's guide to toddler tantrums

Kinderling News & Features


Robin Barker is the acclaimed author of The Mighty Toddler and Baby Love. 

Tantrums are common in the toddler years. Variations are wide. Some toddlers rarely have tantrums, others do sometimes and some never stop having them.

A continual round of tantrums from sun-up to sun-down is exhausting, depressing and debilitating for parents, particularly the parent most responsible for the day-to-day care (I have personal experience).

Why are tantrums so common?

1.  It’s developmental
Toddlers, like teenagers, have a great urge to be independent. To do things for themselves, explore and make their own decisions about cleaning their teeth, going to bed, eating vegetables, being strapped into a car seat.

At the same time, they are acutely aware that they need their parent's protection. And they want their parents’ love and approval even as they seem to doing all they can to put this in jeopardy.

2. Toddlers have difficulty communicating
Their language skills are still developing and even when they have acquired reasonable language, they still don't know how to describe what they are feeling inside and tend to act it out.

3. It’s hard for them to regulate emotions
Their responses often veer wildly between excitement and anger, affection and animosity, fear and trust, laughter and tears.

4. Time doesn't mean much to toddlers
They don't like waiting. Toddlers live for today, the hour, the minute. Their wishes are immediate and concrete.

5. Toddlers are egocentric
From their point of view, it is reasonable for their needs to take priority.

6. They might scared
Tantrums can be a protective response to events toddlers see as frightening. For example, a haircut, the bath water running down the plughole, getting their hair washed, a trip to the doctor, being left with an unfamiliar baby-sitter, day-care.

Specific reasons why children might throw tantrums:

  • They’re attention-seeking, especially if they keep getting rewarded.
  • As a way of testing limits - 'do you really mean it?'
  • Temperament plays a role.
  • Too many 'no's' and 'don't's'. Parents need to let unimportant things go through to the keepers and give choices whenever possible.
  • The transition times in the day are often wobbly times - getting dressed in the morning, waking after the daytime sleep, dinner, bath and bedtime.
  • Over-stimulation
  • Boredom
  • Hunger, over-tiredness, minor illnesses, middle ear infections.
  • Major changes in life - new baby, childcare, divorce / separation, moving house. Even holidays.

How to approach (and avoid) tantrums

  • Try not to expect too much of your toddler when she is hungry, tired, has a minor illness or is dealing with a significant change in her life.
  • Warn them in advance when you are about to change their activity.
  • Toddlers aged up to three are not fantastic socialisers and some toddlers find socialising - all that sharing - more difficult than others. There is a tendency to expect more of them than they can manage.
  • When they reach their limit at playgroup or at a friend's house, be prepared to go home.
  • If it's possible avoid the supermarket, extended shopping, restaurants and too much time in the child-free homes of friends’ who haven't a clue or have forgotten the realities of life with a toddler.

Planning ahead

Avoiding tantrum triggers is not always possible or feasible so planning can be helpful.

Planning includes carrying things to amuse your toddler while you wait at the doctor's, skeeter around the supermarket, visit great aunt Freda.

It also includes working out a reasonable time for exposing the toddler to whatever it is you are doing. You know your toddler's breaking point. Most toddlers are okay for a certain time but beyond that things can fall apart.

Planning takes the possibility of a tantrum into consideration and lets you work out in theory at least what you might do should one erupt.

Try simple intervention

There are many times when simple things like shifting your toddler's attention to another activity or removing him from the frustration works well.

At other times, a diversion will do the trick, like 'Look at the plane'. If the toddler’s been hurt or is unwell, holding and rocking can help.

Pretend to ignore tantrums

This is for routine tantrums, not when the toddler is sick, frightened or has been hurt.

Pretending to ignore tantrums is tricky but with practice, it can be done. At home. It's almost impossible to pretend to ignore outside the home. But improvement in tantrum throwing inside the home helps reduce them outside the home.

What to do:

  • Stay calm - deep breath, count to ten.
  • Remind yourself that your toddler needs you to stay in control so you can show him what to do. His inner world is in collapse, his outer world - you - needs to remain intact.
  • Tell him you understand why he is upset - even if you don't, sometimes it's hard to know - but stay firm about whatever is causing the tantrum.
  • If you are bathing, dressing or otherwise attending to his care, continue if the struggle is not too difficult.
  • If it is too hard or if the tantrum is because they can't do something they wants to do (water play in the toilet, for example), leave them somewhere safe to get on with his tantrum and busy yourself with something.
  • Hum. Think of greener pastures. How they look when they're sleeping. They won't be a toddler forever.
  • When the tantrum has subsided, let there be no recriminations or lectures. Start over.
  • If, during the tantrum, the toddler is at risk of hurting himself or the furniture, or if you are feeling you might do something you'll regret, put him somewhere safe until you both cool down.

Dealing with tantrums when out and about

Public tantrums make parents feel embarrassed, vulnerable, agitated, foolish and upset.

What to do:

  • Think before you act. The more attention the toddler gets, the more intense the tantrum will become.
  • Simple intervention can work especially in the early stages. This is a time I support bribery - a lolly snake can have an immediate effect.
  • When all else fails, finish your business as quickly as possible and make an orderly retreat with your dignity intact.

What about the onlookers?

Dealing with curious, judgemental onlookers is more difficult than dealing with the toddler.

Try to ignore the people around you. Avoid eye contact and work on getting out as soon as you can.

A public toddler temper tantrum is a common event and is almost an obligatory rite of passage into parenthood.

Toddler tantrums help adults learn to think things through, develop their own self-control, adjust their expectations, become more tolerant and never again look down their noses at someone else's toddler performing in a supermarket.

If problems persist…

Tantrums indicate a more serious problem where the tantrums are endless and the toddler keeps hurting himself out of unresolved frustration and despair. Sometimes tantrums indicate developmental or medical problems. Even if it turns out the tantrums fall into the normal spectrum it's always a good idea to seek help if worried.

Check out Robin's books on Pan Macmillan's website and Booktopia, and her e-books on the Xoum website. She is also the author of Close To Home, a book of short stories about love, life and family.

Also see:

:: How to survive screen time tantrums
:: Robin Barker's tips for fussy eaters
:: Robin Barker's guide to understanding toddlers