Toddlers and Tantrums

The next time your three year old acts out, here’s what to do.

Toddlers and Tantrums


Watching your toddler kick and scream in the grocery store is an embarrassing and frustrating experience for parents. What are you supposed to do when your child has a tantrum?

Tantrums are common in kids between the ages of 18 months and three years for a number of reasons: their language is just developing – they may not be able to tell you they are tired, thirsty or bored; they have short attention spans and are self-centred – they don’t like to be told “no;” they may not understand what you want them to do and become frustrated; and they haven’t learned how to handle their emotions.

If your child often “melts down,” stamps his feet, or holds his breath when he is angry, hungry, bored, or frustrated, read on for some coping strategies.

Preventing tantrums

Here are some ways to prevent tantrums from occurring at home or in public.

Reduce the number of times you have to say “no” to your child by putting away special things that you don’t want her to touch.

  • Keep your child busy during the day, so he doesn’t get bored. Keep a box of toys and activities on hand to pull out when the moment seems ripe.
  • Plan your outings. Don’t go out to public places if your child is already tired or wound up from her morning’s activities. Choose a better time. Then, take along a bag of items to keep her busy, as well as a snack and drink.
  • Create predictable routines. Transition times are difficult for most young children. Stick to your usual routines so your child knows what to expect. For example, if your child knows that before bed he always follows the same routine – brush teeth, read a book and say goodnight – there should be fewer tears.
  • Praise your child when she is behaving well. Be descriptive. “You put all your blocks away! I’m so proud of you.” Praise builds self-esteem and encourages her to repeat the behaviour.
  • Before you say “no” to a request from your child, ask yourself if it is reasonable. Sometimes we say no without thinking. If you do decide to say no, stick to your decision.
  • If you see your child is becoming frustrated about something, step in and try to distract or redirect him.

Dealing with outbursts

If your child does lose control, how should you react? Physical punishment, such as hitting or spanking, is never appropriate. Take a deep breath and try some of these suggestions: 


Ignore the tantrum. This technique works well for children under two years of age when you are at home alone. Don’t look or speak to your child, pay no attention, and walk away. Make sure your child is in a safe space where he can’t be hurt and stay nearby so that you can hear him. As soon as he is quiet, praise him, “You are being very quiet now. Would you like me to help you put on your shoes?”

Tell your child what to do. When other adults or children are present, try this. Stop what you are doing, get down to your child’s level, and calmly but firmly tell her what to stop doing and what to do instead: “Jessica, stop screaming and speak in a quiet voice.” Make sure to praise your child when she does as you ask.

Use time out. Time out is not a punishment; it’s an opportunity for both child and parent to calm down. Time out is suitable for kids ages two and older if other strategies are not working.

  • Tell your child what he has done wrong and the consequence. “You have not stopped screaming, so now you need to go to time out.”
  • Take your child away from the place where the tantrum occurred, to an uninteresting, safe, place where he will not feel alone or afraid, that is well lit, and where you can hear him.
  • Tell your child he must be quiet for one minute before he can come out of time out.

* When your child has been quiet for one minute, he may continue his activity or try something new.
  • Praise your child for behaving well.

Leave the situation. When your child has a tantrum in a public place, the best thing you can do is to take her out of the store. Hold her on your knee or sit beside her and tell her she must sit quietly for 30 seconds. If this doesn’t work, you may have to abandon the shopping and take her home.

Tantrums are difficult for parents, but staying calm and cool and employing the strategies above will help you and your child get through this stage of  development.

Author: Nancy Doherty

Nancy Doherty is a registered Early Childhood Educator at the Peterborough Family Resource Centre.

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