The first thing to understand about toddler tantrums is that they are a normal part of development. As a graduate student, I looked at the development of anger, and we found that, on average, anger reactivity increases from 4 to 16 months across all children. In another study, we found that for most children, externalizing behavior (including tantrums) starts relatively high at age two and slowly decreases with age.
Moreover, tantrums, outbursts, and meltdowns don’t magically disappear at age four when toddlerhood ends. I distinctly remember parent orientation at my son’s preschool for his “age 4s” class. The teacher said they expected better regulation and fewer tantrums this year. Several parents looked uncomfortably around the room to see each other’s reactions because we all knew tantrums were not a thing of the past — were our kids the only ones? No, they weren’t, and even the teacher qualified her statement and said that yes, they do happen, but regulation is typically better at this age.
- What are Temper Tantrums?
- What Causes Temper Tantrums in Young Children?
- The Best Way to Handle Tantrums is Prevention: Proactive Strategies
- Use the C.A.L.M. Method to Handle Tantrums in the Moment
- More Resources
- What to do next…
This is true for most children — emotional outbursts begin to subside with experience and brain development. However, this is not the case for some children, especially highly spirited children, whose brain maturity seems to take a little longer. It is also the case that some parenting strategies can support and perhaps even speed up the development of self-regulation.
On average, in children between 18 months to 4 years of age, tantrums occur once a day for up to three minutes, with the more common duration being closer to .5 to 1 minute long. Researchers have found that tantrums occur in 87% of 18 to 24-month-olds, 91% of 30 to 36-month-olds, and 59% of 42 to 48-month-olds (source).
Takeaway #1: Temper tantrums are common and part of typical development in children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years due to immature brain development and their ability to express emotions.
What are Temper Tantrums?
Temper tantrums are short episodes of distressed and sometimes aggressive behaviors in response to anger or frustration. To adults, tantrums often appear to be an overreaction to the situation, e.g., the toast was cut into rectangles instead of triangles.
Tantrum behaviors include screaming, flailing, hitting, throwing, stomping, kicking, going limp, pushing, biting, breath-holding, and crying (source).
Should I Worry About My Child’s Tantrums?
The duration and intensity of tantrums naturally decrease with age for most children. For some children, persistently high and intense tantrum behavior can indicate underlying mental health and/or behavioral problems.
In my research, we found that around 10% of children followed from age 2 to 5 had chronically high externalizing behaviors that did not decrease with age. These children had more problems with regulation and attention than did children whose externalizing behaviors decreased with age.
Most temper tantrums are a part of neuro-typical behavior, and with brain maturity, they will subside.
However, if your child consistently has tantrums or outbursts that last longer than a few minutes, occur more than a few times a week, and that doesn’t seem to lessen with growth and experience, it may be time to consult with a physician or mental health care provider.
Takeaway #2: If your child has frequent, long (10 minutes or more), especially intense tantrums or meltdowns, focus on soothing their nervous systems first. It could be a good idea to consult a mental health specialist to work on stress management and sensory therapy.
Is it a Temper Tantrum or a Sensory Meltdown?
Temper tantrums occur when your child wants to communicate a need or emotion they can’t effectively verbalize or express.
For example, your child is struggling to put on their shoe. They know the word for “shoe,” but they don’t understand how to tell you that the tongue is crumpled up inside, causing discomfort and blocking their goal of putting the shoe on, and your child screams in frustration because they can’t get their shoes on.
A sensory meltdown is an intense nervous-system reaction to being over-stimulated or overwhelmed. Overstimulation can be a cause of tantrums in a neurotypical child. However, sensory meltdowns or sensory over responsivity (SOR) can affect 16% of children with sensory integration challenges and in 50 to 70% of children with Autism (source)
While there are fewer studies on SOR, these episodes are longer (10 to 60 minutes) than tantrums and more intense. Children also show relatively high sympathetic nervous system activation (source).
If your child is routinely suffering from sensory overload, the main goal is to work on stress reduction. Think about the things that would help soothe your child’s nervous system. Working with a therapist on stress management techniques and reducing situations where overload can occur can be helpful.
Takeaway #3: If your child frequently reacts to sensory overload, the main goal is to work on stress reduction. Practicing things like deep breathing in a game-like way in calm times will help you be able to soothe your child in the meltdown moments too.
What Causes Temper Tantrums in Young Children?
There can be many causes of tantrums in young children, but the most common are physiological triggers (hungry or tired) or emotional frustration from having their goals blocked:
Hunger – Maybe it’s snack time. Growth spurts and cognitive leaps can cause crankiness partially due to increase hunger. Load up on healthy fats for your child’s growing brain.
Being Overtired – Tantrums may start quicker than usual if it’s close to nap time or bedtime. Or if your child hasn’t been sleeping well, their ability to regulate will be affected too.
Illness – When your child feels physically unwell, their ability to communicate needs and regulate will also be affected.
Frustration and Attention – Young children want to be independent, and yet, they still need our help and want our attention. When their goals are blocked, they become frustrated and don’t yet know how to express their feelings verbally.
Over-stimulation – Too much stimulation can push the limit of your child’s ability to regulate. Think about vacations and holidays when physiological triggers may be combined with many new experiences their brain is trying to process. Try to keep the anchors of your routine consistent — for example, try to have snacks on hand when traveling and schedule a break during the day when your child typically naps.
Takeaway #4: Tantrums are most commonly caused by physiological discomfort or dysregulation, over-stimulation, or your child’s drive for exploration and independence is blocked.
The Best Way to Handle Tantrums is Prevention: Proactive Strategies
The sooner in the process that you can identify a likely tantrum coming, the better it will be for you to be able to help your child regulate. Become a stress detective for your child. You know them better than anyone else. Does your child always get cranky when they miss a snack? Do they need quiet time even when a nap is impossible? Are certain types of events stressful for your child?
Think about your child’s tantrums as evidence of a dysregulated nervous system. What will calm them down the most? My son loves to swing. Swinging always calmed him down and on stressful days I would take him to the park so he could just swing!
Here are a few tips for avoiding tantrums before they start.
If you are traveling, try to keep snack time the same regardless of where you are. Pack snacks for a long day out or traveling. Even when a big holiday meal is planned for 3pm, give your toddler a small snack at 2pm if that is when they typically have one.
Pay attention to noise and stimulation. If your morning has been particularly overstimulating, turn off the TV that afternoon and have some quiet time. Create a calm-down corner in your home so your child has a concrete place to work through emotions.
Create a daily routine. When kids know what to expect from their day, they are less likely to resist transitions. Even if you don’t want a full routine, you can have some daily anchor points — snack time, outside time, bedtime, etc. I love these toddler routine charts that they can help make and that are flexible to changes.
Stop saying no automatically. We say no to our kids all of the time. No, you can’t run, jump, play, or dip your toast in orange juice. Consciously think about it first — is there any harm in dipping toast in orange juice? The more your child can express their independence and explore their world — the fewer tantrums they will feel the need to have!
Takeaway #5: Tantrums are evidence of a dysregulated nervous system. You know your child best. You know what creates stress for your child and how to soothe your child. Be a stress detective for your child and look for their tantrum triggers.
Use the C.A.L.M. Method to Handle Tantrums in the Moment
Use this system of C.A.L.M. to help you work with your child through tantrums. I discuss these steps in more detail here: The C.A.L.M. Method to Handle Tantrums. This guide shows you how to manage your child’s tantrums and build their emotional intelligence.
Much is happening under the surface of your child’s brain during the first several years of life. How you help them manage stress and emotions will share how they handle difficult feelings throughout their life. Remember that tantrums are a normal part of development.
Your relationship with your child is the safe space they need to learn to work through positive and negative emotions.
What to do next…
1. Get advice from Dr. Ashley Soderlund sent right to your inbox. ❤︎
2. Emotional and mental wellness begins at home.
Get the tools you need in my shop! Digital printables you can instantly download and print to foster connection, emotion regulation, and more! Check out the Nurture and Thrive Shop.