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Why do toddlers have tantrums?

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Tags: emotional development, pre-school, independence, babies and toddlers

It can sometimes feel as though your child’s toddler years are made up of one tantrum after another, and it’s all too easy to give in to them, just to keep the peace and give your eardrums a break.

Often, it’s tough to pin down exactly what’s set off your little one’s latest kicking, screaming, stiff-limbed episode – and when you do get to the bottom of it, the reasons might not always seem to make much sense. For example, one mum told us how she was faced with a tantrumming two-year old who was extremely upset because “My biscuit’s asleep and I can’t wake it up!”

Intense extremes of emotion are one of the hallmarks of this age group, as small children try to work out how to manage their feelings in different social situations – and tantrums are a natural part of that learning process.

Where do tantrums come from?

It might feel as if your growing toddler is getting more and more independent, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always know what to do with the feelings they experience in new situations such as starting nursery (when they might have to negotiate being in a large group of children for the first time), sharing toys with another child on a playdate or even having a new baby at home.

Being exposed to lots of new emotions often leaves children this age feeling quite unsettled, and many of the typical toddler behaviours you might face – such as throwing tantrums, or saying ‘No!’ a lot – actually come from your little one’s attempts to take back some control and make sense of their feelings.

Children who are going through this stage need as much consistency as you can give them. Having reliable routines and structure to their days – as well as firm boundaries in terms of what is and is not acceptable – will help them to feel safe and sure of themselves.

It can be difficult to stand your ground in the face of a full-on toddler tantrum (especially in public, when you just want to make it stop!), but be consistent and make sure they understand when ‘no means no’. It might not always feel like it, but every tantrum or falling-out does help your 2-4 year old learn more about coping with their emotions and negotiating social situations.

Children do draw on past experiences and other occasions when they’ve felt frustrated or upset – and they will naturally use this to figure out how to handle things differently next time. That’s why, for example, it’s always worth pausing before you dive in to defuse a tantrum, just to see if your little one is able to settle themselves down.

If not, stay close and offer them support and reassurance. It’s important for your child to know that they can seek out an adult when they are feeling particularly unsure or out of control.

What can I do to help?

The more you can do in everyday life to help your toddler understand and name their feelings, the better chance you will have of avoiding a tantrum in the first place.

Talk about emotions

For example, if you’re reading a story together, talk to your child about how the characters might be feeling at different times, and ask your child how they think they would feel, or what they might do, if they were faced with the same situation. Research has shown that regularly reading stories to children makes them much better at understanding how another person might be feeling.

Give them jobs

If you’ve got a little one who’s trying to assert their independence and always wants to do things for themselves, look for opportunities to give them little jobs to do (like helping to put away their own clothes, or wipe the table).

It’ll give them a sense of responsibility, and make them feel as if they have some control over their world – and they’ll love helping you.