A Pediatrician’s Guide to Understanding Toddler Tantrums

Parents often find themselves with countless questions about tantrums. What are they? Is this normal? When will my toddler grow out of this? How should I respond? To help provide guidance, Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s, discusses what caregivers should understand about toddler tantrums and addresses some of the most common misconceptions.

A developmental phase

For small children, it can understandably be quite difficult to express needs effectively through words and to regulate emotions. This can often lead to tantrums.

“We think of this as a developmental phase when children have a mismatch between their desire, goals and needs,” Dr. Grow explained. “The cognitive capacity to be able to engage in emotional self-regulation is evolving in the early years of life.”

In time, she says that children will learn how to regulate those big emotions through adult modeling and responsive, nurturing relationships and caregiving.

It’s completely normal

“It’s helpful to think of tantrums as a developmentally normal response to a perceived unmet need or desire,” Dr. Grow added.

One of the common misconceptions, she says, is that children with tantrums are trying to be difficult or manipulate their parents.

“Children in the toddler age range get easily overwhelmed and frustrated between the mismatch of need or desire and what is allowed or possible,” she said. “They ‘flip their lid’, so to speak, because their self-regulation is more limited at this age.”

A resource parents can use during a toddler tantrum moment is to use the acronym HALT.

“Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired,” Dr. Grow explained. “These are similar triggers that can lead adults to have undesirable behaviors!”

Responding to tantrums

Dr. Grow also provides the following advice for identifying, averting, and reacting to a toddler tantrum.

“It’s helpful to prevent tantrums by thinking ahead of time of what a child may need and to provide for those needs the best we can,” she said.

Those needs could include support, connection, food, sleep, protection and more. It’s also beneficial to teach children emotions by labeling them.

“Saying things like ‘You’re feeling angry or frustrated’ may help them learn how to express emotions in words later on,” Dr. Grow explained.

Children generally thrive on responsive, supportive, caregiving with routines and predictability, she added.

Dr. Grow notes though that sometimes, even when all of those things are met, children may still have tantrums.

“When that happens, know that most of the time, children need to run through the big emotions before they can get back to regulation. Many children don’t want to be touched or spoken to during a tantrum. Sometimes that even makes it worse. Sitting calmly nearby and saying something simple like ‘I’m here when you need me’ is usually preferred,” she said.

Dr. Grow also advises that parents who need to physically remove a child from an unsafe situation can gently pick them up and say, “We are moving you to be safe until you feel better.”

Growing out of tantrums

So, when can parents anticipate the end of toddler tantrums? Dr. Grow says that will likely happen by the age of four.

“Children’s ability to express themselves and regulate is improving. There may still be a few tantrums now and then after that, but the frequency and severity should be much better.”