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Toddler Tantrums: Do's and Don'ts

Crying. Screaming. Stomping. Yep, your toddler is in full-blown tantrum mode.

As a parent, you may feel better knowing that this is actually a fairly normal part of a child's development. Most kids between ages 1 and 3 throw at least an occasional fit. And, believe it or not, these outbursts can actually help your little one learn self-control.

Tantrum-taming tips

It's tricky to know what to do when your child gets so upset. But, before you get frustrated, too, take a deep breath – and remember these strategies:

  • Resist the urge to give in. Unless your child is hurting him- or herself or someone else, ignore the behavior as best you can. Easily gaining your attention – or always getting his or her way – may encourage future outbursts.
  • Create a diversion – and be thankful for a toddler's short attention span. It won't always work, but sometimes a distraction is all that's needed. Did you see what Daddy's making for dinner?
  • Try a timeout. A few minutes separated from others may help your tot cool off. You might put a chair, pillow or rug in a quiet spot in your home that you can use consistently. Here's a general time guideline: Make it one minute for each year of your child's age. (So, a 3-year-old would be in timeout for three minutes.)
  • Save your breath. Don't try to reason with a toddler in meltdown mode. Your words will make a bigger difference when your child is calmer.
  • Once the tears are dry, don't punish your child. That can send the message that it's not OK to let feelings out. Instead, talk about better ways to express anger or frustration. Encourage your child to put his or her feelings into words.

Heading off unhappiness

You might be able to stop some tantrums before they start. Look for patterns. For example, children may become upset more easily if they're tired, hot or hungry – or even bored or overstimulated. Maybe your toddler needs a healthful snack before you head out on errands. Or, perhaps an earlier or regular naptime might do wonders for a testy temperament.

Beyond a bad day

When tantrums erupt in public, take your child to a quiet spot to calm down – or just go home.

Sometimes extreme outbursts are a sign of emotional problems. Talk with your child's doctor if you have concerns, including if your toddler regularly:

  • Hurts others – or himself or herself – during tantrums.
  • Holds his or her breath to the point of passing out has other behavior problems that are difficult to manage.
  • If a child older than age 4 has tantrums that get worse, also let the doctor know.

Source: Healthy Mind Healthy Body®, Karis Gabrielson, R.N., March 2012.

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