The toddler years are a time of great change and development. One of the most challenging tasks for parents is dealing with tantrums in 2-year-olds. Parenting an average 2 years old can be hard enough, but when their mood suddenly changes it can be very frustrating.
Most toddlers get aggressive sometimes. Tantrums and aggressive behaviours—hitting, kicking, scratching, and biting—doesn’t mean you’re a terrible parent, but they are a call to action. Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.
In this post, we’ll cover some helpful tips to help you deal with those temper tantrums!
What Is a Temper Tantrum
A temper tantrum is an intense storm of emotions, such as anger, loss, disappointment and deep frustration.
In toddlers, this emotional outbreak can lead to crying, thrashing, screaming fits, stomping, hitting the parents, falling, kicking, biting, throwing things, banging the head or breath-holding.
What Are the Two Types of Toddler Tantrum
There are two temper tantrums — emotional meltdown and non-emotional tantrums, sometimes known as a Little Nero tantrum.
Fits and tantrums are not always about trying to control or manipulate parents. 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 (prefrontal cortex).
Young toddlers (2-3 yo) are not capable of reasoning or manipulating. They tend to have emotional toddler meltdowns when they’re upset.
Why Little Kids Get Nasty
At least up to three, an aggressive young child is not “bad” or disobedient. They are trying to tell you something and haven’t yet developed the language skills or emotional habits to communicate more effectively. Either that, or they don’t feel you’re listening to them, and violence is the only way to get your attention.
Toddler aggression usually happens when a little one is not getting what they want, whether that want is reasonable (food, attention, a cuddle) or not (candy, someone else’s toy, something dangerous). And context matters. Quite predictably, toddlers are more likely to be aggressive when tired, worried, not feeling well, hungry, or otherwise stressed.
Looked at from a child’s eye view, lashing out at someone is a reasonable reaction to the powerlessness of being a toddler. What else can they do?
Why Do Tantrums Happen?
A tantrum is the expression of a young child’s frustration with his or her limitations or anger about not getting his or her way. Perhaps your child is having trouble figuring something out or completing a task. Maybe your child doesn’t have the words to express his or her feelings. Frustration might trigger an outburst — resulting in a temper tantrum.
If your child is tired, hungry, feeling ill or has to make a transition, his or her threshold for frustration is likely to be lower — and a tantrum more likely.
Do Young Children Have Tantrums on Purpose?
Young children don’t plan to frustrate or embarrass their parents. For most toddlers, tantrums are a way to express frustration. For older children, tantrums might be a learned behaviour. If you reward tantrums with something your child wants or allow your child to get out of things by throwing a tantrum, the tantrums are likely to continue.
Can Tantrums Be Prevented?
There might be no foolproof way to prevent tantrums, but there’s plenty you can do to encourage good behaviour in even the youngest children.
- Be consistent. Establish a daily routine so that your child knows what to expect. Stick to the way as much as possible, including nap time and bedtime. A child’s temper can become short if he or she doesn’t have enough rest or quiet time.
- Plan ahead. Run errands when your child isn’t likely to be hungry or tired. If you’re expecting to wait in line, pack a small toy or snack to occupy your child.
- Let your child make appropriate choices. Avoid saying no to everything. To give your toddler a sense of control, let him or her make choices. “Would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?” “Would you like to eat strawberries or bananas?” “Would you like to read a book or build a tower with your blocks?”
- Praise good behaviour. Offer extra attention when your child behaves well. Hug your child or tell your child how proud you are when he or she shares or follows directions.
- Avoid situations likely to trigger tantrums. Don’t give your child toys that are far too advanced for him or her. If your child begs for toys or treats when you shop, steer clear of areas with these temptations. If your toddler acts up in restaurants, choose places that offer quick service.
Toddler Discipline #1: Timeout
Timeout is a “take-charge” consequence where you very briefly deprive your child of two precious things: freedom and the privilege of being with you. Time-out requires one piece of equipment—a timer—and has three simple steps (Note: For dangerous or bad behaviour, you can skip right to step 3):
- Step 1: One last warning. If your 2-year-old is having a meltdown at the dinner table because you won’t let him play with the sugar bowl, clap-growl (a toddler warning technique—clap your hands three to four times and grrrrrrowl), frown and shake your head “no” (even do a double-take) once you have his attention say, “Mad. Mad. Jamie’s mad at Daddy. Jamie wants the sugar, now! But…no sugar! No sugar! But you know what? Daddy’s going to let you hold something else. Do you want to hold a piece of bread or your police car?”
- Step 2: Count to three. If your child ignores your warning, put on a severe face and calmly echo his desire; then say “No,” and count to three. You want your child to learn that the timeout is something he’s doing to himself (not something you’re doing to be mean). If your child stops misbehaving before you get to three, don’t do a timeout. Reward his cooperation by playing the boob. Later on, compliment his good listening with a bit of praise and gossip and a little bedtime sweet talk before you turn out the lights.
- Step 3: Put your child in isolation. Now the time for talking is over. Calmly lead him (or, if you have to, carry him) to the timeout place. It’s a good idea to pick your timeout place ahead of time. A chair or bottom step may work with some tots. But young ones, and feisty toddlers of all ages, usually need to be confined—in a playpen if they are under age two, or gated into their bedroom if they are over age two.
Timeouts should last one minute per year of age. You’ll want to buy a timer with a loud ring. Timers are great to let both you and your child know when the timeout is over. Introduce the timer to your tot as Mr. Dinger and let him hear what it sounds like. It will allow your child to hear when the timeout is over, and it also gives you a good answer when he begs to come out (“It’s not up to me, it’s up to Mr. Dinger.”)
Once the fit is over, and your child is free to go, don’t talk about the timeout for 30 minutes or so. Just join him in some play or give a bit of attention. It’s time to let go of your anger and allow your heart to forgive. If he’s still mad, connect with respect, but then let him be on his own. Many kids need to sulk a little after being punished.
A while after a timeout, express your regret for having had to do it. Later in the day, talk to him about what happened and gossip to his toys about the incident (and the lesson you want him to learn). At bedtime, reinforce the lesson by telling a fairy tale about a bit of a bunny who misbehaved and what happened to him.
Toddler Discipline #2: Giving a Fine
If the timeout is like going to jail, giving a fine is like, well, being fined. It’s a “take-charge” consequence that targets your toddler’s growing love of freedom and ownership. This tactic is best used for toddlers two and up (especially three and up).
Giving a fine penalizes your tot by removing a valued privilege or toy. Make the punishment related to the misconduct. In other words, if he defies you by playing basketball in the house, remove the ball for a while. (Penalties that connect the punishment to the misbehaviour are also called logical consequences.)
When you take away a privilege, tell your child you know how much she wants it, but what she’s doing is not OK. For example, if your three-year-old refuses to stop tossing crackers to the dog, remove the crackers and say, “You like to see Rusty eat crackers, but crackers are for people…not dogs. Mommy said, ‘Stop, no, no, no!’ but Eleanor didn’t listen to Mommy’s words, so…bye-bye crackers. No crackers for dogs. Now you can get down and play.”
Sometimes the “prized possession” you remove is–you. It’s time to use the kind ignoring technique (give a teensy cold shoulder to nudge a tot to cooperate): “Mommy doesn’t like it when you say those words. They don’t make me laugh. They hurt my ears. I’m going to the kitchen, and I’ll be back in a little bit when you remember your nice words.”
Once your child stops the negative behaviour, do a little something that shows him that good things happen when he follows the rules. Later, you might gossip to Daddy on the phone about when he did good listening and stopped when Mommy said stop.
What’s the Best Way to Respond to a Tantrum?
Typically, the best way to respond to a tantrum is to stay calm. If you react with loud, angry outbursts, your child might imitate your behaviour. Shouting at a child to calm down is also likely to make things worse.
Instead, try to distract your child. A different book, a change of location or making a funny face might help. If you’ve asked your child to do something against his or her will, follow through by offering to help. If you’ve asked your child not to play in a particular area, consider showing him or her where playing is OK.
If your child is hitting or kicking someone or trying to run into the street, stop the behaviour by holding him or her until he or she calms down.
When your child quiets down, calmly explain your rules.
Give Your Child Your Full Attention.
As much as possible, avoid using electronic devices when you are with your child. Respond attentively when they say or do something, so they don’t have to escalate their communications into tantrums and aggression to get your attention.
Snuggle your child frequently. Provide warm, close cuddle time throughout the day. Show your love actively and often.
Maintain a Schedule for Playing, Sleeping, and Eating.
A dependable schedule helps a child feel the world is safe and predictable. It also increases the likelihood their physical needs are being met.
Provide Reasonable Small Choices.
Give your child as much control and as many choices as you reasonably can. For example, you can say, “It’s time to put your shoes on. Do you want to do it yourself, or do you want help?” “Would you like peanut butter on your banana slices?” “You choose a book, and I’ll read it to you.”
Look for Different Kinds of Stimulation.
Sometimes toddler aggression reflects boredom. Make sure your child gets enough different kinds of stimulation—musical, physical, intellectual, social, and visual.
Ensure Ample Time for Active Play.
A two-year-old needs three hours of active physical exercise every day. Ideally, a good portion of that is outdoors. Toddler aggression sometimes reflects a need for more physical activity. My Baby Nursery has a wide range of baby nursery playpens for your little bub.
Create a Harmonious Environment.
Children mimic what’s happening around them. Are there other kids they spend time with who use hitting to get what they want? Are there worries or tensions at home or daycare they might be reacting to?
Role-Play Different Possibilities.
In a calm, easy moment and a lighthearted manner, re-enact a recent violent episode. Think together about possibilities other than violence, aggression, or tantrums. These could involve finding words, using a punching pillow, one of the alternatives listed below, or something else entirely. Then reverse the roles, so you’re playing the aggressive child, and your child plays the parent role. I’ve seen even very young children develop delightfully inventive alternatives that adults would never have thought about.
Create a Checklist of Good Alternatives to Bad Behaviour.
Print a list of some good brief alternatives to violence. Ask your child for suggestions. You can illustrate it if you like, or paste on a photo of an angry bird or a violent child (crossed out with a big X) as well as a happy image.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Use your words. Help your child learn to use words instead of hitting.
- Walk away. Teach your child to walk away when they feel someone is maltreating them. You don’t want them walking away from you, but that’s almost always better than scratching you.
- Go to your quiet corner. Make a particular corner where your child can choose to go when they feel like they need to hit. Let them keep books, toys, or stuffed animals there. If they have a special blanket or other objects, let them take it to the quiet corner. You can ask if they want to go to the quiet corner when they’re aggressive, but don’t send them there as punishment. You want them to experience it as an excellent place to collect their thoughts and gain control of their emotions.
Some toddlers benefit from physical alternatives to aggression. In a calm moment, work out some options your child likes. That might include hitting a hitting pillow, stomping their feet while punching the sky, doing an angry dance, or touching their toes.
Breathe Out the Nasties.
Have your child breathe in to the count of five, hold their breath to the count of five, then breathe out like a dragon to the count of five. “Breathe out all your fire,” you can say, or “Breathe out the nasties and the angry, and then we can talk.”
Ask for Help.
Help your toddler translate their aggressive urge into a request for help. Develop a code to let you know they want to get violent and enjoy your use, preventing that. It can be “I need a hug,” or “Please help me,” or “I’ve got the angry again.” And then whenever the child uses the code, be sure to hug them and listen to what’s going on.
What If My Child Becomes Destructive or Dangerous?
If a tantrum escalates, remove your child from the situation and enforce a timeout:
- Select a timeout spot. Seat your child in a boring place, such as in a chair in the living room or on the floor in the hallway. Wait for your child to calm down. Consider giving one minute of timeout for every year of your child’s age.
- Stick with it. If your child begins to wander around before the timeout is over, return him or her to the designated timeout spot. Don’t respond to anything your child says while he or she is in timeout.
- Know when to end the timeout. When your child has calmed down, briefly discuss the reason for the timeout and why the behaviour was inappropriate. Then return to your usual activities.
- Don’t use timeouts too much, however, or they won’t work.
What to Do If Your Toddler Won’t Listen
Commonly, toddlers won’t listen, and these little cave-kids may need some gentle discipline to learn right from wrong. We recommend reserving the above discipline tactics for “red-light” behaviours. If your toddler still doesn’t listen, try communicating with them in Toddlerese (aka their native language!):
- Speak in short phrases: One- to two-word terms are bite-sized enough for a toddler’s stressed-out brain to understand when in the middle of a tantrum.
- Use repetition: If your toddler is upset, words may whiz by their brain too fast to understand. You may need to repeat the exact phrase twice…or three, four, maybe even eight times just to get your toddler’s attention!
- Mirror your toddler’s feelings: Make your toddler feel understood by mirroring their feelings with your voice and gestures.
- Connect with respect: Keep a calm, respectful tone and avoid hurtful words—even if you feel outraged.
- Get on your child’s level: Squat or kneel, so you’re just below your child’s eye level. This shows that you respect her and you care.
- Praise ‘green-light’ behaviours: When you catch your child listening—or performing other good behaviours—be sure to praise it! Praising a child’s positive actions throughout the day can help reinforce the kind of behaviour you want to see.
When Is Professional Help Needed?
As your child’s self-control improves, tantrums should become less common. Most children begin to have fewer tantrums by age 3 1/2. If your child is causing harm to himself or herself or others, holds his or her breath during tantrums to the point of fainting, or has worsening tantrums after age 4, share your concerns with your child’s doctor. The doctor might consider physical or psychological issues that could be contributing to the tantrums.
Why Parents Should Handle Toddler Tantrums With Care
At birth, babies have billions of brain cells (neurons) but not many brain cell connections (synapses).
The network of connections is formed through life experiences. Temper tantrums are some of the most crucial life experiences in sculpting the brain. Being able to regulate emotions during temper tantrums allows proper brain cell connections to form.
These neural pathways are essential for the child to manage stress and be assertive later in life. If a kid is not allowed to learn these regulating skills, for example, if temper tantrums are met with anger or punishment, the child may grow up unable to handle stress well or be assertive.
The child may also struggle with internalizing problems (e.g. depression, anxiety disorder) or have externalizing issues (e.g. aggression, drug/alcohol abuse). Emotion dysregulation can also affect future social competence as well as academic performance.
But if handled with care, temper tantrums can become an invaluable life lesson in emotion regulation which has been shown to link to resilience in children, social competence, academic success and even popularity. So remember that not only are temper tantrums a normal part of child development, but they are desirable in helping toddlers’ emotional development.
Temper tantrums are desirable? You can read our article about How to Discipline a Difficult Toddler.
Yes, you read that right. Dealing with a toddler temper tantrum is not about stopping it. It’s about helping the toddler calm the tantrums. Helping toddlers regulate their emotions during temper tantrums is essential in parenting during childhood development.