Toddler and Preschooler Tantrums: A Comprehensive Guide

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
March 6, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

What comes to mind if I ask you to complete this sentence, “Tantrums are …”?

When I ask parents this question, I often get answers like this: 

  • “Tantrums are confusing. I feel helpless because I don’t know what set them off.”
  • “Tantrums are overwhelming. The whining and crying are triggering.”
  • “Tantrums are frustrating because nothing I do seems to get my child to stop and listen.”
  • “Tantrums are stressful. I feel like everything upsets my toddler.”
  • “Tantrums are embarrassing. I don’t want to leave the house.”

But what if you had the tools for tantrums? What if you were so confident navigating your toddler or preschooler’s big feelings that it didn’t feel so helpless, frustrating, irritating, or embarrassing?

This comprehensive guide to tantrums will provide you with the tools you need to understand what tantrums are, why they happen, and how to navigate them calmly and effectively! 

Understanding Tantrums: The What and Why

Tantrums are your little ones’ ways of communicating. A tantrum might be them saying:

  • “I’m hungry!”
  • “I need a break!”
  • “I wanted that toy!”
  • “I’m stuck, and I need help!”
  • “I’m overwhelmed right now!”

The brain of a toddler or preschooler doesn’t have the ability to reason, so they can’t think logically. They can’t think:

  • “I’m hungry, so I should ask for food.”
  • “I need a break, so I’m going to take a break.”
  • “I really wanted that toy, but I can have it later.” 
  • “I’m overwhelmed, so I’m going to take a few deep breaths.” 

Without emotional awareness or intelligence, toddlers and preschoolers act on impulse; they are driven by their emotions. In addition to a lack of emotional awareness, they don’t have the skills to regulate their emotions. 

These bursts of emotion can be a sign that your little one’s brain isn’t developed enough to use logic to help them navigate their feelings. 

Tantrums are often a signal that your toddler or preschooler has a need and are missing a skill that could help them get that need met more effectively. Whether it’s an emotional regulation skill, communication skills, or impulse control, tantrums are a way of getting their caregivers’ attention and a sign that they need help!

It’s important to understand that toddlers and preschoolers have tantrums to cope with their feelings; this is what they know to do. A tantrum can act as a release of pent-up confusion, frustration, sadness, anger, and anxiety. And, at times, an emotional outburst serves to help our little ones get the attention of their caregivers, so their needs can be met. 

Related Post: Why Do Toddler and Preschooler Tantrums Happen? The Science Behind the Outbursts

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A happy family of four enjoying time together at an amusement park. The photo captures a close-up of a smiling woman on the left and a beaming man on the right, both facing each other. They are looking lovingly at their two young sons, who are nestled between them. The older boy is grinning broadly and the younger one has a cheeky smile. The background is softly focused, with lights from carnival rides subtly illuminating the scene.

Your Reaction Matters: Staying Calm During Tantrums

Caregivers have an important role to play during tantrums. Since our little ones can’t regulate their emotions, they need a calm caregiver to “lend” them some calm in these moments. 

It can be extremely challenging to stay calm during a tantrum; this is one of the most difficult parts of raising toddlers and preschoolers. It can be especially challenging if you weren’t taught how to cope with feelings as a child (or as an adult). This was the motivation behind “The Art of Staying Calm: How to Keep Your Cool During a Tantrum” blog post and the reason why there are specific modules dedicated to this topic in our parenting courses

4 Ways to Help You Stay Calm During Tantrums

1. Acknowledge Your Emotions
If you’re feeling angry, overwhelmed, annoyed, frustrated, or exhausted, simply naming it can help remove some of the power from the emotion. This might sound like, “I’m feeling frustrated. And that is okay.”

2. Use a Calming Tool 
Whether you implement a deep breathing exercise or repeat a grounding statement, such as, “This moment is really tough, but it will pass,” having a calming tool in place for these moments can be a game changer. 

3. Connect With Other Parents 
Parenting can feel triggering and isolating, especially when navigating a little one with big feelings. I strongly recommend that parents connect with other parents, whether in the community or online, to get emotional support. Hearing other parents’ stories and sharing your own experiences can be incredibly healing. 

4. Set Realistic Goals
Every single parent will have moments where they feel overwhelmed by their child’s emotions. This is normal! It isn’t fair to expect perfection. If we acknowledge our imperfections, make room for mistakes, and prepare for them, it removes some of the pressure. An important piece of embracing imperfections is using these opportunities to show our kids how to repair the relationship after rapture. Instead of beating ourselves up for losing our cool, we can use this as a chance to teach your child about responsibility and nurture the relationship. It can be as simple as saying, “I don’t like how I reacted. Can we start over?”

Why Ignoring Tantrums Isn’t the Answer

I often hear parents say that ignoring tantrums is the only way to make them stop. Behind this belief is often the fear that acknowledging a tantruming child is “giving in,” which will send the child the message that their behaviour is okay.

But the truth is, ignoring tantrums isn’t a long-term solution for the following three reasons:

1. Toddlers don’t have the ability to regulate their own emotions; they need help learning this skill. So, leaving them to figure it out on their own doesn’t make sense! Ignoring a dysregulated child doesn’t give them the tools or skills to handle the big feelings they’re experiencing, and instead, children get the message that their feelings are too much for their caregivers. 

2. Ignoring your child’s tantrums can negatively impact their emotional health, well-being, and relationship with their caregivers. When a child is left alone with their feelings, they’re getting messages like this:

  • “My feelings are too much.”
  • “I need to stop having these feelings.”
  • “I can only get my caregiver’s attention when I’m calm.”

3. Ignoring a child’s tantrums doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Leaving kids to figure it out on their own is only a short-term solution. You might think it’s effective because a child stops crying, but without addressing their underlying needs, we aren’t getting to the root of the tantrum (which means it will likely happen in the future). 

For some caregivers, ignoring tantrums is their only tool. If you don’t have any other resources for tantrums, you might not know there are other ways to respond. The Nurtured First Approach uses a tool referred to as emotion coaching. 

Emotion coaching involves acknowledging and validating a child’s emotions. You can implement emotion coaching using a 3-step framework: sportscast, wait, and connect. 

Read our blog, “Why Ignoring Isn’t an Effective Strategy,” to learn more about how to implement emotion coaching during a tantrum and the long-term benefits of responding positively to tantrums. 

Dealing With Highly Sensitive Children

Highly sensitive kids will often have more frequent and intense tantrums. 

They have a deep sensitivity to lights, sound, smells, taste, and textures, making them more easily overstimulated. This is why they need a different approach during tantrums.

Highly sensitive kids can often appear strong-willed. This makes sense, as demanding a preference or asserting themselves can serve to protect themselves from painful or overwhelming sensory input. For example, your highly sensitive child may seem demanding and resistant at dinner time, but in reality, it’s your little one’s way of protecting their body as it feels overwhelmed by the casserole’s smells, tastes, and textures. 

This doesn’t mean we have to give in or let them be in control, but it does mean we need to change our approach and consider how we respond to highly sensitive children during a tantrum.

3 Ways to Respond to Highly Sensitive Children During a Tantrum

1. Nurture the Relationship

  • “You can be upset that Daddy’s leaving for work. I’m here for you.”
  • I shouldn’t have yelled when you threw your lasagna on the floor. That’s not how I wanted to talk to you.”

2. Acknowledge the Depth of Their Feelings

  •  “You’re so upset that macaroni isn’t on the menu. You really don’t like the taste or smell of the lasagna.”
  • “You threw the lasagna on the ground because you wanted me to know it felt really tricky for you to eat it.”

3. Set Clear and Reliable Boundaries

  • “You can be upset about the menu, but I can’t let you throw your food.”
  • “Food is not for throwing. Let’s clean it up together.”

Related Post: Understanding Tantrums in Highly Sensitive Kids

How to Handle Tantrums in Public Spaces

Toddlers and preschoolers often experience tantrums in public spaces. This makes sense if we consider the way our little ones are wired. Toddlers love to explore their environment and feel in control. But, when they’re in public places, they can’t explore their world as freely or predict what’s coming. Several common situations make public places triggers for tantrums, including:

  • Seeing toys they can’t touch at the mall. 
  • Being hungry and staying seated for long periods at a restaurant. 
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the lights, smells, noises and people in the grocery store.
  • Being in the sun for long periods at the beach.
  • Transiting from the playground to the car when they’re having fun. 

Here are three tips for handling public tantrums:

  1. Prepared for the unexpected. Instead of waiting for a tantrum, prepare for them in advance. Pack snacks in your bag for the mall. Pack some sensory toys to take with you to the restaurant. 
  2. Tell your child the plan ahead of time. This might sound like, “We’re going to go to the park for 15 minutes, and then we’ll go back home. I’ll set a timer when you have 5 minutes left to play!” 
  3. Offer a creative yes, when possible. Whether it’s a grocery store tantrum or a burst of emotions in the restaurant, use a creative yes to help your little one feel a sense of control in an unpredictable setting. For instance, “You can’t have french fries right now, but you can have something to eat. Would you like some crackers or a granola bar?”

For more tips and examples, check out our blog post, “6 Effective Strategies for Handling Tantrums in Public.”

Redirecting Tantrums Through Playfulness

Play Is a Toddler’s Language
We might not understand why our little ones are having a tantrum, but if we speak their language, we can get a glimpse into their world and make sense of their outbursts. 

For example, if your toddler is having a tantrum at bedtime, instead of saying, “Stop crying! I don’t understand what’s wrong!” You can use their favourite stuffed animals to try and get to the root of the problem. “Hmmm, I need your help. Mrs. Cheetah is upset. She cries a lot before bed. What do you think she needs?”

Playfulness Can Shift a Toddler’s Attention
Instead of getting caught up in the chaos, you can redirect your little one using silly faces, noises, or songs. 

For example, if your preschooler has a tantrum when you ask them to brush their teeth, try inserting playfulness to shift the mood. “You’re upset because you don’t want to brush your teeth, but how will we get all the little bugs out of your mouth?”

Play Help Children Make Sense of Their World
If your little one struggles to adjust to the transition to preschool, you can use role-play to help them build their confidence. “Let’s pretend I’m going to preschool. Do you want to be the parent who drops me off or the teacher waiting in the classroom?” You can act out the role of the scared preschooler to show your child what they can do when they’re afraid. Then you can switch places and let them role-play being the preschooler so they can practice doing the drop-off.

Play Is Essential for Development
Play is a child’s tool for growth because it exposes them to new ideas, concepts, and citations, allowing them to think critically, solve problems, and communicate. 

For example: Imagine your toddler has difficulty controlling their impulses. You can play games like, What Time Is It Mr. Wolf to playfully practice controlling the urge to “go.”

Play is nurturing. It’s such a powerful tool for parenting while also providing opportunities for connection.

Related Posts: The Power of Play: How Fun Helps Diffuse Tantrums

Tantrums Are Opportunities for Connection and Nurture

Once parents understand why kids have big outbursts and have the tools to navigate tantrums, caregivers feel less confused, stressed, frustrated, and embarrassed. They feel so much more confident, and this confidence helps them calmly sit with their crying toddler, bravely bring a preschooler to a restaurant, and connect more deeply with their child. 

This is why I love tantrums. This might sound strange, but hear me out! 

Tantrums are opportunities for connection and nurture. Every single time we show up and sit with our little ones as they express their big feelings, hold them while they cry, role-play a tricky situation, show them empathy during their struggles, and offer them new tools, we are nurturing the relationship! 

If you found this blog helpful, you’re going to love our Parenting Little Kids course – it dives even deeper into tantrums and offers MORE practical strategies to nurture the relationship, teach a new skill, and redirect your child when they’re bursting with emotion. 

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.