As toddlers grow, and become more aware of the world around them, they begin to assert themselves: wanting to be independent, doing things
for themselves, and having firm ideas about what they want to do and what they don't. This usually happens between 1-3 years of age when a
toddler's language and communication skills are still emerging and they become frustrated when trying to express themselves.
At this point, parents and carers start to lay boundaries for suitable and acceptable behaviour that is expected of toddlers as they grow.
Being consistent in your response to behaviour is key to laying boundaries, and using positive reinforcements, and praising good behaviour, can be more effective than punishing the negative.
Tantrums usually happen when a toddler is tired, hungry, unwell, or when they feel a parent or carer, or even another child, is stopping
them getting, or doing, something they want i.e. parent won't let them play outside or another child has a toy they want.
As a toddler's language and communication skills develop, meaning they are better able to express their wants and needs, the amount of tantrums they have should decrease.
Tantrums are a normal part of any toddler's development and all toddlers will experience them at one time or another
between the ages of 2-3 years. However, there are ways of reducing the amount of tantrums a child has or the length of time a tantrum
• Distraction Toddlers have a short attention span so if they are frustrated with one activity, or want a toy that another toddler is playing with, distracting them with another toy or activity can be a good way of preventing the tantrum from escalating.
• Control Allow the toddler some control over what they do, or what they have, and give them choices. For example, if a toddler is having a tantrum over what to wear, and there is a power struggle going on between adult and toddler, pick two outfits you are happy with and ask the toddler which one they'd like to wear i.e. would you like to wear the yellow dress or pink dress today? This allows for compromise and gives the toddler some feeling of control.
• Give help and guidance If a toddler is struggling with a task and becoming frustrated, rather than completing the task for them, help the toddler to complete it instead. Help them to learn or consider new ways of doing the task so that they learn the skill for themselves. Give positive reinforcements and praise when they try and when they succeed.
• Consideration If a toddler is asking for something, or getting annoyed, upset, and frustrated because they can't have something, don't dismiss the toddler's request without considering what they are asking for and if it is a reasonable ask. Saying no to everything will lead to more frustration and tantrums in the long run. At least try to meet the toddler in a half way compromise wherever possible.
• Choose the environment carefully When going somewhere, or doing a certain activity, make sure there are plenty of things that the toddler is allowed to do, touch, explore etc. If there are a lot of areas, toys, or objects that are off limits, or are not age appropriate for the toddler, then they should be kept out of sight. If they are in sight the toddler will want them, and will assume they are allowed to play with them, which will lead to frustration and power struggles.
• Give lots of praise and positive reinforcements Toddlers respond well to praise and positive reinforcements, so where possible ignore bad behaviour and praise and reinforce good behaviour. Many toddlers will behave inappropriately, or push the boundaries to see what they are able to do and what they are not, and also to gain an adult's attention. Ignoring them when they behave well, and only giving them attention for bad or inappropriate behaviour (by telling them off or punishing them) is reinforcing that behaviour with the attention. Ignoring bad behaviour where possible, and only giving attention for good behaviour (by praising and encouraging them) will make the toddler more likely to repeat that good behaviour.
• When a toddler is hurting themsleves i.e. head banging, biting or scratching themselves.
• When a toddler is hurting someone else i.e. an adult, child or animal.
Young toddlers (i.e. of 2 years of age) are more likely to have tantrums, or behave badly, out of tiredness, hunger, frustration, or
because they are testing boundaries. The response an adult should give will be different to that of an older toddler (i.e. of 3 years of
age) where their understanding is better. A 2 year old toddler may need reassurance and comfort during a tantrum. Positive reinforcements,
praise, and distraction techniques usually work best with this age group.
As a toddler grows towards 3 years of age, their tantrums and bad behaviour is usually a result of them trying to get their own way and should be handled differently.
• Ask a toddler to try and explain (where possible) their frustrations.
• Explain to the toddler what behaviour is acceptable and not acceptable. If toddlers don't know what the boundaries are, they cannot be expected to keep within them.
• Give the toddler an opportunity to modify their reactions and behaviour by giving warnings.
• Never label a toddler as 'naughty'. Always refer to the behaviour as being bad or unacceptable, not the toddler.
• Allow for thinking time. If a toddler's tantrum, or bad behaviour, is getting out of hand and they are at risk of hurting themselves, or someone else, then they should be placed in a safe area to calm down and then think about their behaviour, giving them time out of the situation that is causing the problem. This can be a quiet corner with cushions, or a bean bag, and should be labelled 'the thinking corner/area' rather than the 'naughty corner or area'.
• Reassure the toddler after they have finished their tantrum and make sure that they apologise for their bad behaviour.
• Always explain to the toddler that it doesn't matter how angry or frustrated they are it is never appropriate, or ok, to hurt themselves or someone else.
• Consider using a reward chart for reinforcing good behaviour. This must be used consistently for it to work effectively.
Dealing with a tantruming toddler, or a toddler that frequently displays bad or unacceptable behaviour, can be quite challenging. An adult staying calm and patient with the toddler is important for the situation to remain in control. Any time an adult feels they cannot cope with the situation, or is feeling angry or unable to control their emotions, temper, or response to a toddler, it is best to remove themselves from the situation and let someone else take over or to take a 5 minutes break in another room.
An adult should always remain in control of their own behaviour. No amount of tantrums or bad/unacceptable behaviour from a toddler is reason for an adult to lose control or use violence towards the child. Parents and carers should contact their Health Visitor or GP if they are struggling to cope with their toddler's behaviour.
• If the tantrums or bad behaviour are leading to relationship problems between parent and toddler, making it difficult
for them to spend quality time together or to maintain a loving bond with each other.
• The toddler's tantrums are getting more frequent, lasting longer, or becoming more violent.
• The toddler is hurting themselves or others frequently.
• The usual methods of dealing with tantrums or bad/unacceptable behaviour are no longer effective.
• The toddler no longer co-operates with daily routines, such as washing/bathing, dressing, mealtimes, bedtime.
If you are concerned about a toddler's behaviour or development, please speak to your Health Visitor or G.P. Usually tantrums are a normal part of a toddler's development and will stop in their own time, but very occasionally they can indicate a problem with speech, hearing, understanding, learning delays, or illness in some toddlers.