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Toddler Tantrums: Why They Happen and How to Handle Them

Is your 18 month old starting to throw tantrums? Are your 2 or 3 year old’s meltdowns just exasperating with all the kicking and screaming? Wondering what’s the best way to handle these toddler tantrums? 

Tantrums are a completely normal part of toddlerhood. They allow your toddler to explore limits, feelings, and self-regulation.

But, they can certainly be exhausting, challenging, and even confusing. So, how can we approach our toddlers’ tantrums with compassion and a foster to learn, but still get them to calm down from the chaos? 

In this post, we’ll talk about why toddler tantrums happen and give you 7 pro-tips to help tame those tantrums. 

**This post contains affiliate links. See my full disclosure here.

What Causes Toddler Tantrums?

Of course, being hungry, overly tired, or just having a bad day can spark tantrums in your toddler. I mean, we all get “hangry” and have bad days. But, most of the time, a period where your toddler is having recurring tantrums and meltdowns, is ignited by a developmental leap

In order to understand toddler tantrums, you need to first understand what is going on inside their mind. When your toddler is about to hit a developmental milestone, their brain gets all “jumbled up.” It may seem like your 2 or 3 year old is having a meltdown over absolutely nothing, but what’s going on in their brain is completely overwhelming for them. 

From ages 1 to 3, your little is growing and changing so rapidly. They’re starting to identify their likes and dislikes, but can’t always communicate their needs, and that can be incredibly frustrating and lead to tantrums. Children often lack impulse control until their about 3.4-4, so it’s common for toddlers to react inappropriately, such as hitting or biting (source). 

The toddler brain is truly fascinating, and I think all of us parents really should take the time to understand what’s going on inside of it and how we can best nurture it. If you want to learn more about the developing brain, I highly recommend the book The Whole-Brain Child. 

7 Ways to Tame a Toddler Tantrum

7 of the best ways to handle a toddler tantrum.  I can’t take full credit for these techniques though. Most of these strategies I’ve implemented and tweaked from the books, How Toddlers Thrive and How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen

1. Distract and Redirect

Distraction seems to be the best method for younger toddlers. If your toddler is under 2, try throwing a ball, handing them a different toy, or just start playing with their toys yourself to distract them. You could even sing a song or make some silly faces. 

Our secret weapon for our toddlers has been our cats. They always seem to cheer them up whenever their upset. I’m not sure how fond of it the cats are though. Lol. 

2. Empathize

Ever heard the phrase “Your toddler is not giving you a hard time. They’re having a hard time.”? It’s spot on

Toddlers aren’t trying to make our lives miserable with meltdowns. They’re just trying to figure everything out, and it can be incredibly overwhelming and frustrating for them. 

So, the next time your toddler is upset because they don’t want to leave a playdate or can’t get the puzzle piece to fit, try empathizing, instead of directing. You could say something like, “It’s hard to leave our friends when we’re having such a good time” or “Puzzles can be frustrating sometimes.”

Let their emotions ride. It’s important to let them explore how they’re feeling and react to those feelings. We need to show them that it’s okay to feel sad or angry sometimes.

If they’re lashing out by hitting, kicking, or biting, then give them a safe outlet to let all that anger out. Let them hit the couch cushion, throw a soft object, or kick an inflatable punching bag

3. Write It Down

This technique has been an absolute lifesaver in our house. No joke. 

Whenever my toddler is upset that we’re out of berries or her favorite cereal, then we write it on our grocery list. Like, we physically write it down with her watching and say “I know how much you love blueberries. We’re out of them right now. Let’s put them on our grocery list.” 

This also works great when you’re out shopping, as you can put toys and other objects on your toddler’s wishlist. If your toddler isn’t wanting to put their helmet on, show them where it says “always wear a helmet” on their bike. 

4. Make a Game out of It

This parenting technique really comes in handy when your toddler is refusing to something. 

For example, if your toddler doesn’t want to get in the car or go potty, you could say “Can you hop all the way over to the potty?” or “Can you make it into your car seat in 10 seconds? Ready? Go!” 

My biggest recurring challenge with my toddler has been getting her dressed. But, we’ve finally came up with a solution that works almost 100% of the time.

She’s super into Wild Kratts, so we’ve got tons of clothes with animals on them, and when we want her to get dressed will ask her “Which animal powers should we wear tonight?” And, then to get into her clothes, we’ll ask her “Do you want to hop in like a kangaroo or do you want to climb in like a red panda?” We usually get a huge smile out of her.

5. Give Positive Options

When handling toddler tantrums, it’s important to keep it positive and tell them what they can do. If your 2 or 3 year old is doing something they’re not supposed to be, start by telling them why they can’t do that and give them 2 different positive options of what they can do. 

Keep it simple. Stick with “That’s not safe. I can’t let you do that.” “Timmy is playing with the car right now. We’ll have to wait our turn.” And, then follow it up with “Do you want to play with the stacking cups or do you want color a picture?”  

If your toddler is refusing to do something, you could ask, “Do you want to get your shoes on before or after we put your coat on?” or “Do you want to get in the bath in 2 minutes of 5 minutes (and then set a timer)?”

6. Fantasize

If your toddler is upset and just having a major meltdown, just sit down with her, and ask her a question that will spark her imagination and take her mind off the negative. 

For example, say your toddler is upset because she just doesn’t want to leave the zoo. You could ask her, “If you could be animal in the whole world, what would you be? I think I’d be a penguin.” Or maybe she’s sad that dad had to leave to go to work. You could empathize and then fantasize, and say, “I know, I wish daddy didn’t have to go to work either. If daddy could stay home all day, what would you do together?” 

7. Remove from the Situation

If your other strategies just aren’t working or if things have gotten completely out of hand, you may need to completely remove your toddler from the situation.

Take your toddler to a different room to catch their breath, calm down, and recollect their thoughts. Have them blow on “hot cookies” or “candles.” Re-enter the room when they’re ready.

If your kiddos are fighting and you need to intervene quickly, simply say, “That’s not safe. I’m going to have to separate you.” and physically move your toddler. Safety should always be your number one priority.  

Tame Those Tantrums

Toddler tantrums can be quite unpleasant, but they are a completely normal part of childhood, and allow your toddler to explore limits, feelings, and self regulation. And in fact, they’re often a signal that your toddler is about to go through a developmental leap and huge explosion in brain development. 

Try to empathize with your toddler and let them explore their feelings when tantrums hit. Then try redirecting, fantasizing, writing it down, making a game out of it, or giving 2 positive alternatives. If things just seem to be too much, then go ahead and remove your toddler from the situation and help them recollect themselves.

What About You?

Have any of these techniques worked with your toddler? Share your best toddler taming tips in the comments below, and be sure to share this post with other toddler moms. 

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  1. Jess Jones on March 30, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    Game Changer. Thank you for this post. We’re getting into the tantrum phase now with our one year old. Understanding what’s going on and having these strategies will be a huge help!

    • Messy Mom Nicolle on March 30, 2019 at 8:50 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Jess! I hope these strategies will help create some peace and understanding. Our second little one is just hitting the tantrum phase as well, so I can totally relate!

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