Why does my toddler fly into a tantrum so easily?

Imagine what it would be like if you didn’t have a filter on your feelings when you got frustrated, angry, or overtired, or when someone disagreed with you. You probably wouldn’t be much fun to be around. Now imagine that, at the same time, you were unable to participate in a world of tempting activities.

Toddlers are caught in the dilemma of craving the independence of older children while still needing the nurturing and coddling of babies. They have a powerful drive to explore and break out on their own. At the same time, they don’t have a realistic sense of their limits and what’s unsafe (a hot stove!) or unreasonable (10 cookies!). They see grown-ups and bigger kids doing things that they’d like to do and when they come up against their physical limitations or are told not to do something, it can be maddening.

Temper tantrums are a normal part of emotional development; they usually peak between ages 2 and 3, then diminish by age 4 or 5. Tantrums tend to occur more often when your child is overtired, hungry, or experiencing some kind of stress—it simply takes less to push him over the edge. These outbursts are the best way your toddler has to express strong feelings. He can’t yet think through emotions; he simply reacts. And he lacks the language skills to express complicated feelings with words. So a tantrum is his way of saying, “Enough! Help!”

A tantrum may pass quickly or last an impressively long time. Sometimes your child may whimper and whine, other times he may wail loudly and even kick or scream. It’s not uncommon for toddlers to have breath-holding spells, which are usually nothing to worry about since automatic breathing reflexes kick in. (Of course, if your child holds his breath to the point of fainting, discuss the situation with your pediatrician.

It’s impossible to prevent every tantrum. Allowing your child to make his own decisions by offering choices in some situations can help, as does having consistent limits, so he learns when you say “no” you mean it. When tantrums erupt, try to stay calm yourself. Offer gentle comfort, but don’t go overboard with fussing and responding, which can further fuel the fire as many toddlers enjoy the added attention. It’s better to be matter-of-fact and move on. Sometimes distraction or humor can change the course when tension is beginning to build.


Mead Johnson data on file.