Tips for Tempering Toddler Tantrums

How to cope with your toddler's temper tantrums

Tips for Tempering Toddler TantrumsWe’ve all heard about the terrible twos, but what if your little darling is stomping, crying and having back-arching fits on the floor and she hasn’t even hit her second birthday? “Tantrums can start as early as one year,” says Catherine Ciardulli, a toddler development expert at the North Toronto Early Years Learning Centre. But acting out at one can be very different from a seemingly similar screaming session a year later. Here’s how to deal with your toddler’s tantrums as they progress.

12 to 18 months
“Prior to one year, a child is not physically capable — nor does she have the intention — of throwing a tantrum,” says Beth Urquhart, a child care centre supervisor at The Macaulay Child Development Centre in Toronto. But around 12 to 18 months, parents will start to notice a difference between distressed crying and a tantrum.

At this age, “acting out” isn’t about getting attention. Early tantrums are an emotional outburst that occurs when a child becomes frustrated. “Toddlers are trying to become independent and accomplish tasks and communicate on their own,” says Urquhart. “But they have limited language and this can be a frustrating time for them. Acting out is their way of expressing their angst.”

Tantrum tamers

  • Distract or redirect your child’s focus. “If one of my kids is visibly frustrated with an activity, I’ll offer them a favourite toy,” says Kelly Cescon, a Toronto-based mother of 18-month-old twins. “It’s comforting to bring them back to something familiar and usually takes their mind off what was bothering them.” It can also help to offer assistance if your child has a tendency to throw a tantrum while trying to complete a task.
  • Look for a trigger. Is your child hungry, tired or feeling under the weather? Avoid outbursts by making sure all your child’s basic needs are met. Also watch for early clues that your little one is becoming overstimulated (too much birthday party) or bored (too long at the mall) to nip cranky behaviour in the bud.

18 months to 2.5 years (maybe a little older)

As your toddler gets closer to his second birthday, it will take more than simple distraction to ease a tantrum. Depending on how parents and caregivers have reacted to tantrums in the past, toddlers can begin to use acting out as a way to manipulate. “Tantrums are more purposeful with older toddlers,” says Urquhart.

Tantrum tamers

  • Avoid any positive reinforcement of a meltdown. “Don’t offer candy or cookie if she stops and don’t give her what she wants,” says Urquhart. It’s best to give tantrums as little attention as possible. If you’re at home, let the tantrum run its course. If you’re out at a store or an event, leave with her and come back (if you choose) after the tantrum has ceased.
  • Communicate calmly. Give your child the power of choice to help her determine the outcome. Try saying, “It looks like you’re having a hard time being calm; do you need to sit down for a while or do you need some help?” Or if the tantrum is in full swing, leave the situation and say: “When you’re calm you can come back.” “When you provide choice you empower your child,” says Ciardulli. This not only helps to abate the current tantrum, but it can help prevent future act-outs.
  • Be consistent. Explain child-appropriate expectations ahead of time and set boundaries. If your child has a temper tantrum while you’re out, threaten to leave if she doesn’t stop. Then follow through every time. If you give into a tantrum once, you are confirming to your child that acting out is a good way to get what she wants.

All kids are different
“Don’t take it personally if your child is prone to tantrums,” says Urquhart. Children have different temperaments, and some are more likely to throw a tantrum than others. It may help to remember and repeat that tantrums are a normal part of your child’s emotional development and, yes, temporary (they tail off around age four).

Nancy Ripton, co-founder of, had to leave her first store a few months ago after her son had a major breakdown.

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