a displeased girl screaming in anger

Taming Temper-Tantrums in Toddlers


How do you tame tantrums in toddlers? It is one of life’s mystery to most parents! 

This article will provide you with powerful tools to deal with little kids and big emotions

You will learn why young children have temper-tantrums, what is going on in their brains and the 3 easy steps that will stop temper-tantrums in their tracks.

Here is the classic example:

On a trip to your local grocery store, there is a little child not getting his way in the candy isle. Mom refuses to buy him his favorite chocolate candy bar, the special one with the caramel. So the child lets out a spine-shivering scream and flops down to the floor. Mom is overwhelmed with embarrassment. Shoppers from nearby isles stop by and stare. The situation quickly spirals out of control…

How would you handle this tricky situation with your 3 year old? Would you grab him by the arm and quickly rush out of the store? Would you take a moment to kneel down at eye level on the cold, grocery store floor and reason with him? 

Read on for scientific insights into the child’s developing mind.

By the end of this article, you will have a deeper understanding and the tools to navigate full blown tantrums. 

So without further a dew, let’s get to it.

By SciShow Psych

What is a Temper-Tantrum?

An emotional brain storm, where extreme emotions highjack the immature child’s brain.

They typically occur between the ages of 2-4.

Overtaken by aggression, crying, screaming, going limp, hitting, throwing, breath-holding, pushing or biting, the child becomes inconsolable.  

When down in the temper-tantrum trenches, remember that as unpleasant as it may be, it is a healthy part of child development and will typically disappear by school-age in the majority of children.

Why Do Little Children Have BIG Tantrums?

According to child development experts, there are several causes to childhood tantrums. 

Being aware of these reasons will allow you to intervene early and prevent the situation from snowballing into a temper-tantrum avalanche.

1. A Physiological Change

The child’s physiology is out of balance. The child might be hungry, tired, ill, or even injured.

With limited vocabulary and lack of body awareness, the child can’t communicate properly and does not understand what he is feeling.

Stay in tune with the child and help them reach a state of equilibrium.

2. Feeling Frustrated and Disappointed

Little children are constantly learning and making sense of their world.

Grownups have set rules, boundaries and expectation, with children having little control over many aspects of life.  

Young children also lack the vocabulary to express themselves fully. Research in toddlers found that as the vocabulary size increases, the severity and frequency of temper-tantrums decreases (red arrow in the figure below). Modified violin plots from Figure 1 of the paper show the mean (diamond) and distribution (width) of temper-tantrums as self-reported by parents of 24-38 month-old toddlers.

Immerse your child in literacy at an early age using the 5 effective steps for reading success.

3. Attention Seeking Behavior  

A study of 2-4 year-old preschoolers found that over 87% of recorded tantrums were attention seeking.

Screaming and shouting were seen as most common behaviors.

Parents in the study used natural consequences (time-outs) and ignoring the child as their favorite coping strategies. 

In the next sections we will learn what happens to the toddler brain during a tantrum and the 3 effective parenting tools to manage the situation.

Your Child’s Brain during a Temper-Tantrum State

Buried deep inside the child’s brain are two primitive structures activated during a temper-tantrum:

1. The Amygdala – the center for emotions like anger and fear.

2. The Hypothalamus – your body’s smart control system of automatic functions like core temperature and heart rate regulation. 

During a temper-tantrum, we make futile attempts to talk to and reason with the child. We intuitively apply adult psychology to the situation at hand, trying to show the child just how inappropriately they are acting. After all, that is what we do with coworkers and friends who cross the line. 

While this technique might work for other adults by engaging the front part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – it is a recipe for disaster in young children.

There are several reasons for this. The brain’s threat-detection system has been triggered and the child’s stress response has kicked into a high gear. The primitive brain centers are functioning on overdrive, which dampens the child’s capacity for gaining self-control. The brain’s higher order cognitive functions located in the prefrontal cortex are immature and inaccessible, so the child cannot listen to you!

Sounds familiar? We have all been there before.

Don’t worry, my friends, with awareness comes great wisdom. 

We will now reveal evidence-based strategies and solutions, focusing on what not to do mid-tantrum!

The 5 Behaviors to Avoid Mid-Tantrum

1. Excessive Talking

Brief, simple explanations are best. Too much negotiation, discussion and arguing gives the child attention and encourages subsequent tantrums.

The child’s emotional brain center takes over, interfering with language and reasoning capabilities.

Solution: use non-verbal forms of communication (touch, hug, eye level interactions) to calm the child.

Explain the problem and brainstorm solutions together once the tantrum has passed and the child is calm.

2. Parental Sabotage

 The issue is with a divided caretaker team. For instance, dad promises dessert after the meal but mom says not today.

You are withdrawing power from the other adult and undermining their authority.

This will result in more tantrums when both parents are around because the child learns to manipulate adults.

Solution: parent as a cohesive unit.

3. Loosing Your Temper

Our brain’s emotional mirror neuron network allows us to mimic another’s emotional state.

Model the appropriate response and your child will follow your example. 

Solution: Maintain your cool by walking away for a minute, as long as your child is safe, to regain your composure. 

4. Dismissing a Child’s Feelings

Avoid telling a child “it doesn’t matter” and that they are “being ridiculous.” 

Disregarding their emotions will build up frustration and self-doubt, lowering self-esteem in the long-run. Teach emotional regulation tactics, instead.

Solution: validate your child’s feelings by saying: “Tell me all about it. Does that make you sad (fill in the appropriate emotion)? I get sad too sometimes when this happens to me.”

5. Taking It Personally

Children say things out of anger that they don’t necessarily mean in the heat of the moment, including “you’re mean,” “I hate you,” and the all-time favorite – “go away.”

Recognize that the brain’s emotional center is fired up and access rational thinking and reasoning is compromised at the moment. 

Solution: ignore the comments and help your child discover self-soothing techniques like deep breathing and walking it off.

Dealing with a Tantrum: 3 Powerful Strategies

The best solution is early intervention in an attempt to stop the temper-tantrum dead in its tracks.

Once triggered, the heightened emotions tend to spiral out of control.

Here are 3 powerful strategies of dealing with a tantrum to lessen its severity and achieve the best possible outcome:

1. Find Your Calm

Walk away from the situation, as long as your child is safe, and find a quiet place where you can manage your own emotions

Take few deep yogi breaths to calm the body and mind. Box breathing is an excellent way to get fast results. In fact, it is so effective, that it is used by Navy Seals in combat situations to find calm.

Please refer to my video at the beginning of the blog for a demonstration of the box breathing technique.

* Why Does Finding Your Zen Moment Mid-Tantrum Works? 

When we see an angry child, oftentimes, we tend to become angry ourselves. You can thank your brain’s sophisticated mirror neuron network system for this. 

Being emotionally attuned to tribe members offers an evolutionary advantage. Our brain cells will imitate human emotions to increase our connection with others and, in turn, our own survivability. 

Approaching your child with calm energy will improve the child’s response


2. Soothe the Child

At this point your child’s brain triggered the danger cascade and the body’s stress response is at full force.

Your objective is to dampen this response by showing the Amygdala (the emotional command center of the brain) that there is no danger.

Take a warm and gentle approach, modeling emotional control with non-verbal cues including soft touch, hugging, massaging and getting down to eye level.

Be mindful to keep talking to a minimum, in a soft tone of voice, as talking is known to raise the energy level.

Introduce healthy coping mechanisms including slow breathing, taking a walk, going outside or redirecting – which works well for a very young child.

3. Validate the Child

Build the child’s emotional vocabulary through a technique known as “name it to tame it.”

Discovered by Dr. Siegel, this methods strengthens the connections between the raw emotions in the primitive Amygdala and the brain’s language processing centers, thus helping the child calm down and self-regulate.

* Why does verbalizing emotions work? 

Labelling the emotions your child is experiencing recruits higher functioning brain centers involved in speech processing and language comprehension, which can then override primitive, emotional brain structures. 

Using this technique will teach your child emotional regulation and  provide them with essential self-soothing tools that will serve them well into adulthood. 

Explore more clever strategies for dealing with tantrums in toddlers here.

silhouette photo of a mother carrying her baby at beach during golden hour


Now that you are aware of the main tantrum triggers and the behaviors to avoid mid-tantrum, you can parent like a pro!

Armed with the latest scientific knowledge about the child’s developing brain and the 3 effective steps to taming a temper-tantrum in toddlers, you can enjoy a more peaceful childhood. 

Wishing you and your little one a tantrum-free journey!

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