Why Do Kids Have Tantrums — And What Can Parents Do?

It starts with a routine shopping trip.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, your 2-year-old spies something tempting in the toy aisle. Before you know it, everyone is staring as your child’s piercing screams fill the air.

It’s a tantrum.

Why is this happening? Is your child trying to embarrass you on purpose? Are you starting to doubt your parenting skills?

First, take a deep breath and relax. Believe it or not, tantrums are actually a normal part of early childhood development, and they occur most frequently between ages 1 and 3.

Second, kids this age typically don’t have tantrums “on purpose.” They don’t yet understand concepts like “public,” “private” or “embarrassment.” All they know is that they are upset and don’t have any other way to express their feelings.

Let’s review why tantrums happen, how to reduce them, what to do when they happen and when to seek further help.

Common Reasons for Tantrums

Remember, social and emotional development takes time, just like learning to read, do math or ride a bike. Tantrums are associated with a lack of skills that younger children simply haven’t mastered yet.

  • Impulse control
  • Problem-solving
  • Delayed gratification
  • Communicating wants and needs
  • Knowing which behaviors are appropriate in different situations

Here are some common situations that can cause children to have tantrums:

  • Feeling frustrated or upset for various reasons
  • Lack of vocabulary for describing their feelings
  • Feeling tired or hungry
  • Disappointment at not getting something they want
  • Difficulty figuring something out or completing a task
  • Sense of helpless, or inability to control their environment

Most tantrums are momentary and will end within a few minutes. They also tend to decrease as your child’s language skills develop.

Ways to Reduce Tantrums

Preventing tantrums completely is unlikely for most young children. However, there are many ways to reduce their frequency.

  • Follow a consistent routine. Young kids feel more secure when bedtime, naptime, mealtime and other activities happen at the same time each day.
  • Plan ahead. Offer a healthy snack or toy to keep your child occupied in situations where tantrums may occur.
  • Teach your child the words we use to talk about our feelings. Good examples include “I’m thirsty,” “I’m tired,” and so on.
  • Offer choices. Instead of always saying “no,” ask which of two activities your child would like to do.
  • Avoid triggers. At home, keep inappropriate objects out of sight and out of reach. Stay away from the toy aisle when shopping, if you don’t plan on buying any toys. Avoid public outings when your child is feeling tired, hungry or irritable.

Finally, praise good behavior, such as when your child asks for something politely or learns to accept the occasional “no.”

What to Do When Your Child Has a Tantrum

Remember, tantrums don’t last, even if it feels like they will never end! Knowing what to do goes a long way toward helping your child calm down.

  • Stay calm. If you become agitated, the situation may only escalate. Besides, when you keep your cool, you’re setting a great example for your child on how to handle stressful situations.
  • Address the reason for the tantrum if possible. Is your child tired? Let them take a nap. Are they hungry? Offer a healthy snack.
  • Distract your child with an acceptable alternative if you’ve just said “no” to something. An appealing book, toy or activity usually helps.
  • If your child appears to be simply seeking attention and no one is in danger, ignore the tantrum. You can even leave the room if you’re at home. This teaches kids that yelling and screaming are not the way to get Mom or Dad’s attention.
  • If the tantrum happens in public, find a quiet place for a timeout, such as a restroom or dressing room. Give your child time to calm down, then return to the activity at hand.
  • Sometimes tantrums escalate to include aggressive behaviors like kicking or hitting. If this happens, hold your child still until they calm down. Enforce a short timeout, about one minute for every year in age.

When your child calms down, remind them that we use words to express our feelings, not a tantrum.

When to Seek Help

Tantrums are the most common reason parents seek mental health services for their children. Although they are normal for most kids, it’s also good to know when to have a talk with your pediatrician.

  • If tantrums continue or become worse after age 4
  • If your child continues having trouble speaking at an age-appropriate level
  • If your child repeatedly behaves aggressively toward others or engages in acts of self-harm

The doctor will look for any physical or psychological issues that may contribute to tantrums. Addressing these problems early is the best way to help your child deal with them successfully.

At Little Sunshine’s Playhouse & Preschool ®, we understand that social-emotional skills are just as important to your child’s development as academic subjects. The more you know about tantrums, the more effective you can be in turning a stressful situation into an important learning opportunity.

Our Reggio Emilia-inspired Creatively Shine™ curriculum emphasizes social skills by encouraging a positive interaction with teachers and peers during classroom activities.

Contact a location near you to learn more!


Additional Blog Posts:

4 Ways to Build Confidence in Your Child

What to Do When a Child Bites or Hits at Preschool

Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and Toddlers