Tantrums are emotional explosions, usually caused by anger or frustration when your toddler isn’t able to do the things they want to do – climb that step, have that toy or put their coat on by themselves. Sometimes tantrums are caused by confusion or fear because toddlers have a limited understanding about the world.

Older children can do the things they want to do or at least talk about it, but toddlers often can’t express themselves . Throwing a tantrum may seem the best solution! Some toddlers also learn that it’s a good way to get what they want and so throw a tantrum whenever there is an audience.

Because toddlers lose control during a tantrum, they sometimes scare themselves. They may scream and shout, fall on the floor, bang their head against the wall, throw things or hold their breath. Don’t worry – it’s impossible for a toddler to harm themselves with breath-holding.

Once the explosion of frustration is over, they may well cry and feel very sad and lonely. The whole experience can make you feel scared and angry, but your child needs you to stay calm and in control.

Avoiding tantrums

Your toddler may rarely have a tantrum, while others are prone to having several every week. If your toddler has a lot of tantrums try to work out what might be the cause. Things such as tiredness, hunger, having to finish what they’re doing to move on – going home from the park or leaving playgroup – can spark them off.

Hannah: ‘Lucy only had to see a supermarket trolley to start a tantrum! Then I realised we did the shopping late in the afternoon when we were both tired. We swapped to mornings, which was better. Not perfect …but better.’

If you can anticipate the problem, you can try to avoid it. Make sure they have a drink or something to eat if they are hungry, or have a quiet time reading a book together if they are tired.

If stopping doing something is the problem, try to make it attractive – play at racing to the park gates, go to see the pigeons/lambs/digger trucks on the way home from playgroup.

If they are having tantrums often, look at their daily routine and see if there are ways to change things around so that life is easier for them. Some toddlers fall asleep after a tantrum, having exhausted themselves. This may be a sign that tiredness is partly the cause.

How many, how long?

Toddlers may have anything between two tantrums a day or three tantrums a week. Some have as many as five a day. Most tantrums last about three minutes, but the older the toddler, the longer they can last. Most children outgrow tantrums by the age of about five years. Seek help if your child is still having them often at this age.

When your toddler has a tantrum

Take a deep breath …..

The key thing is to deal with a tantrum calmly (even if you have to go away and recover afterwards yourself!) Try not to shout or lose your temper as this only makes your child feel more frightened.

You also need to teach them that tantrums are not a good way to get what they want. If they have a tantrum to get a chocolate bar or toy, and you give them a chocolate bar or toy, they will have a tantrum next time they want one. You don’t want them to learn that tantrums lead to getting their own way.

Ways to cope with a tantrum:

  • do not try holding the child while they are shouting and kicking as this may make them even more angry. You may simply need to wait nearby until the worst is over and then hold them when they are crying and feeling sorry
  • they will need your comfort afterwards – a hug, a rock on your lap and gentle reassurance ‘It’s all over now, have a hug with mum, let’s just cuddle for a while’ will help them calm down
  • put into words how you think your toddler is feeling. They cannot express themselves but if you say ‘That made you very cross didn’t it? And now you feel all wobbly…’ it will help them cope with their feelings
  • After the tantrum take some time out yourself to recover.