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Childhood tantrums

Tantrums are a completely normal part of child development – the so-called ‘terrible twos’.

They usually happen between the ages of 18 months and three in the presence of a child’s main carer. This may not feel like a compliment, but it is – your child feels safe and confident enough of your reaction to behave this way.

It’s estimated that one in five two-year-olds has two or more tantrums a day.

Around this age, a child’s intellectual and cognitive abilities are developing fast. Children become increasingly independent and start to assert themselves.

Tantrum triggers

Tantrums are especially likely if a child is hungry, tired, over-stimulated or bored.

Other common triggers include feeling frustrated. For instance, if a child is having trouble fitting shapes into a sorter, or they are angry because they have been thwarted in some way.

For example, you may have said no to a biscuit five minutes before a meal. This may seem a reasonable limit to you, but not to your child.

A child’s character plays a part too. Children who are persistent, stubborn or who need a lot of attention are more likely to have tantrums.

And those who are slower to develop verbal skills or have speech or communication problems can also feel frustrated and be more prone to them.

Averting a tantrum

Averting a tantrum is better than having to deal with one. The following might help reduce the frequency of tantrums:

  • Give your child plenty of opportunities to let off steam during the day by running around in the park or garden, if you have one.

  • Ensure regular naps and a regular routine for bath and bedtime.

  • Avoid long stretches where your child goes without food.

  • Try to reduce the need to say no, therefore avoiding conflict.

  • Provide simple choices to help your child feel in control and reduce the risk of tantrums, for instance you could say "do you want to play with this toy, or that one?"        

Dealing with a tantrum

When your child does have a tantrum, the best strategy is often to ignore it completely.

Make sure the environment is safe with no sharp corners and stay cool and calm. This will give your child a reassuring message that you are in control.

There’s no point trying to reason or argue with a child of two who will not understand rational argument.

Also, don’t laugh – even if the reason for the tantrum seems ridiculous. The anger and frustration that triggered your child’s tantrum will be genuine.

Public tantrums

If you are in a public place like a supermarket, ignoring your child’s behaviour will be more difficult. It might be best to pick them up and carry him to a more private place or take them outside until they have calmed down.

Some toddlers can be distracted out of a tantrum. It might be worth showing your child a favourite book or puzzle and talking about it in a quiet, normal tone of voice.

When the tantrum’s over, forget it. There’s no point punishing or lecturing your child. Simply move on to an activity that preferably isn’t frustrating for your child.

More information

If your child is having more than two tantrums every day, if they continue on a regular basis after the age of four, or if you feel you are having trouble handling them, consider seeing your doctor.

Last reviewed by Great Ormond Street Hospital: 2 December 2009