As a parent, you want to help your child when they’re upset. But when your child is in the middle of a temper tantrum things can get a little tricky.

When a child has an extreme emotional reaction to a situation, how we respond can help them learn emotional maturity – or unintentionally teach them that throwing tantrums may work to get what they want.

Below, we explain what temper tantrums are, how to respond to them appropriately, what you can do to discourage future tantrums and more.

What exactly is a temper tantrum?

A temper tantrum may take the form of kicking, screaming or other disruptive behaviors, but at its core, it’s an attempt to communicate. Young kids have a lot of curiosity and desires, but they’re still developing their communication skills and emotional control.

When something gets in the way of them getting what they want, or becomes too much for them, they can become frustrated. And they may not have the tools to express that frustration. This is where a lot of tantrums come from.

Why toddler temper tantrums are most common

Tantrums are a normal part of childhood development. They’re most common in kids between 1-4 years old (which is why they’re sometimes called “toddler tantrums”). During this time, kids are learning about cause and effect – they’re trying to figure out what will happen if they do certain things.

If I cry, who will respond? If I scream, what will happen? How will my caregiver react?

Tantrums are part of this learning process. But as kids continue to grow and socialize, they become more aware of their behavior and get better at communicating. As a result, temper tantrums typically become less frequent with time.

Distinguishing tantrums from meltdowns

Another important point to be aware of is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, especially for children with autism. All children have meltdowns. And while tantrums are often characterized by frustration over unmet desires, meltdowns are the result of distress.

Many children, have sensitivities to certain sensory experiences, such as touch, smells and sounds, and overstimulation can lead to a meltdown. Meltdowns can also result from communication difficulties and changes in routine. From the outside, a meltdown may appear similar to a tantrum.

But because they’re often characterized by distress, meltdowns are usually preceded by signs of overstimulation. This may take the form of heightened emotions or an inability to follow directions, or the other extreme of withdrawing and becoming quiet and still. The best approach to preventing or addressing a meltdown is to be calm and patient, and to do whatever you can to reduce or remove sources of stimulation and give them time.

The first step in handling a temper tantrum is to make sure that the child is in a safe space for it. The second step is to make sure that the behavior isn’t rewarded, either positively or negatively. Children are looking for all kinds of attention at this age. So, giving in to a child’s demands during a tantrum teaches them that that behavior serves a purpose and gets them attention. And showing anger or aggression teaches a child that those are appropriate responses to someone being upset.

So when responding to a tantrum, the best course is to:

  • Stay calm and speak slowly in a low voice.
  • Try to identify the cause of the tantrum and encourage your child to use words if they have the language skills to do so.
    • If it’s a matter of tiredness, hunger or another physical need, then the solution is to address that need (again, without giving in to demands). If the cause is something else – like a desire to go somewhere or get something off-limits – more steps may be required, like moving your child to a different area.
    • If your child is especially young or is more distressed than frustrated, it can be good to stay near them, offer them physical comfort like a hug, and make sure they know that you understand what they’re feeling. If your child is more frustrated than distressed, it may be appropriate to ignore the tantrum until they’ve calmed down.
  • Praise your child once they’ve calmed down and explain why they aren’t getting what they want. This will help set boundaries and encourage emotional control in the future.

Tips for preventing temper tantrums

Since temper tantrums are a normal part of childhood development, there’s no sure way to prevent them. However, you can make them much less likely by anticipating triggers and modeling positive behavior.

Working around tantrum triggers

You know your child best, and you probably have a sense for what’s most likely to start a tantrum – whether it’s a cool toy at the store, a midafternoon energy slump or a change in daily routine. You may be able to avoid some triggers entirely just by planning ahead or keeping them out of your child’s sight and mind.

But if you can’t avoid a potential trigger, you still have options. Distracting items or activities can keep your child’s attention off a trigger. Regularly offering them low-stakes choices (such as between outfits, snack options or the timing of an activity) may make them feel more empowered and less likely to make demands. And talking to your child about schedule changes or irregular events ahead of time can help adjust their expectations and reduce related anxieties. What you can do depends on the age of your child and the type of trigger you’re working around.

Demonstrating positive behavior

Another way to discourage tantrums is to model the behavior that you want your child to grow into. By remaining calm during tantrums or meltdowns, for example, you can show them that stress can be managed without extreme behaviors. And by showing your child that you understand what upsets them and praising them when they calm down, you’re setting the stage for healthy emotional growth. Practice using emotion words like happy or sad with kids as they gain language skills.

You can take this further by giving your child positive attention throughout the day, praising positive behavior more widely and making a regular practice of talking and asking about feelings. These things will help your child feel seen and loved, and get them used to the idea of expressing feelings in words. For especially young kids, making faces to demonstrate emotion words can be a useful visual aid.

When to see a doctor about tantrums

Tantrums should become less frequent as your child grows. Talk to your child’s doctor if:

  • Tantrums continue or get worse after age four
  • Tantrums are consistently severe or longer than 15 minutes, or happen very frequently
  • Your child has a lot of difficulty with cooperation or communicating in general
  • Your child has headaches, stomachaches or other symptoms during their tantrums
  • Your child harms themselves or others during tantrums

Wondering what’s normal? Ask an expert

Even though they’re perfectly normal, tantrums are dramatic, and it can be hard to tell what’s appropriate for your child’s particular stage of development. Your child’s doctor can help – pediatricians and other kids’ health specialists have the expertise to answer any questions you have and can refer you to a behavioral specialist if necessary.