Every toddler has tantrums, sometimes it’s the most insignificant things that can set them off. Like asking them to wear the blue coat instead of the yellow one. When your child is in the middle a big meltdown, it isn’t easy knowing what to do to calm them down. Understanding why your toddler is having a tantrum will help you to remain calm and to find ways to help your toddler get over whatever has upset them. 

Why tantrums happen

I’m a true believer that there’s always a reason for a behaviour , so when your toddler does something that may seem ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult‘ – there is always a reason for this.

From birth, the brain is only about 25% of the size that it will be in adulthood and it’s suggested that, eventually, it gets to its full size at around age 21. So that’s a huge amount of growing!

The first part of this brain growth is done in the first couple of years in life. Think of how many new emotions, feelings and experiences your toddler is learning every day? This can be quite overwhelming for a small child and it feels very real. They’re having to get to grips with so much more than we are so tantrums are a normal part of their development and do not mean that they’re just being naughty.

It’s suggested that there are 700 neural synapses that are created every second in a toddler’s brain.

By their third birthday, there have been one thousand trillion new connections made in their brain. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise to us, as adults, that a toddler can’t always cope with you denying them a snack or asking them to put their shoes on when they’re playing.

Toddlers have an ‘upstairs / ‘downstairs’ brain. One is primitive and this deals with sleep and digestion. The other one, the pre-frontal cortex, isn’t fully developed and this deals with emotion, control, planning and empathy. All of the things that a toddler is not!

That part of their brain isn’t developed so a tantrum happens when a child can’t control an impulse.  Understanding why they’re doing this is key in helping them to move through an emotion.

What happens when a child has a tantrum?

When a child has a tantrum, they have lost all control. They cannot control the thought or feeling that was consuming them and so they break down. By having a meltdown, it helps to push these feelings out. It’s our job as adults to help them to calm down, self-regulate and not lash out.

Different type of tantrums and what you can do about them

A strategic tantrum

This is when your child knows that if they do X then they will get Y. This is a strategy and during this type of tantrum, a child is in control. This is often when they kick off because you’ve said ‘no’ to something and so they try this behaviour to see if it gets them what they want. To encourage your child out of a strategic tantrum, you can use distraction techniques or ignore the behaviour so they don’t get a reaction for it.

An emotional tantrum

A 2-3 year old may have a major meltdown – an emotional tantrum – once a day or once every few days. This type of tantrum will need your help to encourage them out of it, because when a toddler has an episode like this they can’t get themselves out of it. This is because their brains aren’t developed in a way to help them come out of this type of tantrum.

Don’t see it as your job to stop the tantrum. First of all, we need to check in as parents and check that we’re in the right frame of mind to support the child. Taking 10 deep breaths before responding means you’ll be far better placed to support their nervous system to calm down. If you approach them when you are cross, they won’t calm down.

Secondly, make sure your child is safe and then sit or stand next to them and attempt to reassure them. If you can tell them HOW they’re feeling, they’ll be able to deal with it a bit better. For example, ‘I can see you’re feeling angry because Mummy won’t let you have that yoghurt’. This helps their thinking process and allows them to communicate and connect their emotion with the situation.

If you find that talking doesn’t help, then simply being near them with your physical presence will help them to calm down.

Don’t throw alternative situations at them or confuse them: keep it really simple.

Show your child you’re there for them

The most important thing for them is to show them it’s ok to feel a certain way, you understand that they feel a certain way and that you’re there for them, if they need you.

Once your child starts to come out of the tantrum, this is the ideal time to talk to them and to explain the situation upset them. Starting to help your child to understand what happens and suggest how they may react next time they feel that emotion, will help them. This shows them that we’re ready to listen and are there for them, whatever happens.

If we’re there for our children at this age, they learn that we’ll be there for them in the future. We want our children to know that their feelings are valid, so one of the most important things you can do during this stage of their development is show you’re here for them.

For further information, check out our other information on tantrums and toddler’s.