Hot Temper, Cool Parenting: How to Handle Temper Tantrums

Parenting January 22, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

Temper tantrums are unpleasant for adults, but a normal part of growing up for children. Learn to respond in ways that help.

You are pushing the kart down the grocery store aisle, when your child throws a temper tantrum. This moment is inevitable for all parents, because all children experience temper tantrums. They may happen for different reasons and at different ages, but they are a normal part of growing up. There are no magic words to make tantrums disappear. Fortunately, however, you can respond in ways that can help.


Understanding Tantrums at Different Ages

A tantrum is a sudden, intense display of uncontrolled anger or frustration. Screaming, kicking, falling on the ground, or other forceful body motions are typical. Tantrums are most common in children ages 15 months to 4 years old.

Infant Crying

Some think that a crying infant is having a tantrum, but this isn’t true. Infants express their needs by crying because it’s their only way of communicating that they need your care. Infants who are comforted and have their needs met quickly develop a sense of security. This leads to less crying in the future.

three toddlers crying

Toddler Tantrums

Toddlers are the kings and queens of tantrums. Toddlers are just learning how to talk, express their feelings, and problem-solve. Because their skills aren’t very good yet, their frustrations sometimes erupt in a tantrum. Tantrums are most likely to happen when toddlers are hungry, tired, frustrated, or overexcited.

Preschoolers and Tantrums

Preschoolers are less likely than toddlers to have temper tantrums, since most have developed better coping and communication skills. But they can still get upset and lose control. Preschoolers need adults to teach them to recognize and express their emotions, needs, and wants in more skillful ways.


4 Steps for Handling a Tantrum

  1. Stay calm. Model the desired behavior for your child by controlling your own emotions. Screaming and spanking make the situation worse.
  2. Pause before you act. Take 10 seconds to decide the best way to handle the tantrum. Four ways to deal with a tantrum include: distract, remove, ignore, and hold (read more here).
  3. Wait until your child calms down before talking about the situation. Then use it as a chance to teach your child acceptable ways to manage anger, such as asking for help or using self-calming strategies. Asking children to “use their words” is only helpful if adults have taught children what those words could be.
  4. Nurture your child. Tantrums can scare kids because they don’t understand the reason for losing control. They need to know there are better ways to behave, but also that you still love them.


Preventing Tantrums

  • Try to understand your child’s tantrums. When and where do they occur? What happens before, during, and after? Who is usually involved?
  • Set realistic limits and regular routines, such as mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Offer acceptable choices. Don’t ask if your child wants a nap unless they can say no.
  • Choose your battles and avoid fighting over little things.
  • Give your child a few minutes warning before ending or changing activities.
  • Help your child find a balance between challenging activities and ones that are too hard.

Read More About It!
For more information, see these extension publications:
Understanding Children: Temper Tantrums
Understanding Children: Disciplining Your Preschooler
Ages and Stages: 2-year-olds

Authors: Alicia Tieskoetter and Diana L. Baltimore, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Iowa State University


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.