How to handle your child’s temper tantrums without losing your cool

Little kids sure can create big scenes! No matter how sweet your child is or how good a parent you are, meltdowns are a fact of toddler life. So try to remember that your child’s tantrums aren’t a reflection of your parenting skills: They simply mean you’ve got a frustrated little kid on your hands. Here’s how to handle them without losing your cool.

It may seem like your child’s having a meltdown for no reason (or for a silly one). But there are real causes.

Toddlers can’t express themselves very well. Your 2- or 3-year-old may know a lot of words, but he doesn’t yet have the ability to construct complex sentences  – or put words to all the emotions he’s feeling. That’s why instead of saying, “Mom, I’d really like orange juice with my toast, but only in the red cup because it looks weird in the blue one,” he screams bloody murder when you gave him apple juice in the blue cup.

They are easily overwhelmed. Toddlers thrive on routine, and a change can really throw them off. That means that adding in an extra errand or missing naptime by even 15 minutes can spell disaster. Certain places, like busy stores, can be overwhelming, too.

They want to do more than they can handle. Toddlers are naturally very curious  – and are thrilled to discover they can suddenly do so many things on their own. Unfortunately, your child’s physical prowess doesn’t keep pace with his curiosity, so he gets frustrated when the block tower falls or he’s not allowed to climb the kitchen stool.

They don’t understand delayed gratification. Little kids live in the here and now, not in our cookies-are-for-after-dinner world. Not getting what they want, when they want it, is a top tantrum producer.

They think they’re the center of the universe. In the me-me-me life of a toddler, no one else’s needs matter as much as his own. That’s why sharing is so difficult.

Defusing tantrums

Acknowledge that she’s frustrated. Your best first defense is to look your child in the eye and let her know you feel her pain. By saying “I know you want a cookie,” or even just “I know you’re upset,” you’re telling her you’re there to help her feel better. That might be enough to calm her down so you can add, “I wish we could have cookies, too. It’s too bad we can’t right now.”

Be silly. Laughter can be a great tantrum buster. If your child starts to pitch a fit about getting into the tub, try singing a goofy song  – anything to make her giggle.

Try a distraction. Give her something else to think about. Try saying, “Let’s finish shopping by picking out bananas together.” Or if it’s time to leave the park, but she doesn’t want to, “How many dogs do you think we’ll see on the drive home?”

Ignore it. Sometimes, tantrums escalate because your toddler thinks she’ll get what she wants if she screams loud enough. If you don’t react, she may give up.

Leave the scene. When all else fails, get out of line, off the slide, whatever. But do it without making a fuss  – you’ll be modeling calm behavior. It may be inconvenient, but it shows who’s in control: you.

Preventing meltdowns

Avoid the triggers. Try to figure out what sets your child off. Does he lose it when he’s hungry or tired? When he’s in the car seat for longer than 20 minutes? Plan ahead to stave off tantrums: Carry a snack, make sure he’s rested, or stop for a break between errands.


Toddlers have tantrums because they’re frustrated or overwhelmed, not because they want to make you crazy. Understanding the underlying cause can help you both get through a tantrum.

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