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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Terrible Toddler Temper Tantrums

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 12th 2011

Terrible Toddler Temper TantrumsHave you ever been around a parent when their two year old throws a temper tantrum? You feel utterly helpless in the midst of a storm whose origins you do not understand. If you are the parent caught in the midst of this crisis, and everything you have tried to calm the child has failed, you are left with feelings that range everywhere from angry, worried, guilty for wanting to give your child away to being convinced that there is something the matter with the child to something must be wrong with you. It's at times like this that everyone must be reminded that it's called the terrible twos for a reason.

I was amazed the first time I saw my little grandson throw himself on the floor, head on the carpet, butt in the air, screaming and crying as though something terrible happened. I got scared until I quickly realized that, "Hey, I sometimes want to do that too!"

That is the point. Tantrums are quite normal, especially between the ages of two to five years old. However, even we "grownups" can find ourselves in the midst of an emotional burst of frustration. If you have ever been in a traffic jam when you have an important appointment to keep, you know what I mean.

Toddlers experience these outbursts for a number of reasons. Some of the reasons are obvious: hunger, exhaustion, over-stimulation or excitement, and sickness set the stage for a child's loss of it's fragile self control. An underlying problem to all of this is the frustration the child must feel with it's inability to explain what it's needs at the moment are. For example, it is estimated that parents of toddlers understand what they are saying fifty percent of the time and friends and relatives even less. Then, too, given the age of the child, it's attention tends to be in the moment so that the concept of "wait a little while" has no meaning. That is why the toddler has not yet learned that, "Wanting does not mean getting." Why did my two year old grandson throw a tantrum when I happened to be there?" His mom told him it was time for dinner, something he knows the whole family does together. However, he wanted to play with his fire truck and the "guys"(toy firemen) who fit into the truck.

What can a parent do when those inevitable and exasperating times occur? First, there are no single set of solutions for all parents, babies and circumstances. Each family must use its creativity when the "crisis happens." However, following are some suggestions that I have seen work, including when my kids were small.

1. Regardless of how trying the situation may be, remaining calm and patient are vital. Getting angry will not help and will only worsen the tantrum.

2. The child is not deliberately throwing the tantrum. In other words, do not take it personally. The child did not and is not able to plan or plot this.

3. Calmly encourage the child to tell you what he wants. I saw my daughter and wife do this when they said to him, "You don't have to cry, just tell me what you want." This may not bring results for a long time but the message does get in there and does succeed once the child's ability to verbalize increases.

4. Either at home or in a restaurant, allow toys at the table or in the high chair so that the he has a way to be preoccupied.

5. When out shopping with your child, make every effort to avoid hot spots: toy and candy departments of stores. However, there are times when this and other things cannot be avoided. In those and similar places, it is perfectly all right and necessary to say "no." another way of saying this is that kids must begin to learn that they cannot have everything they want and that throwing a tantrum will not succeed.

6. Use time outs of a minute or less so that they have to sit and calm down. This means no toys but comforting talk about what is expected and the reason for the time out are helpful.

7. Ignoring the tantrum is often what works best and for two reasons. First is the fact that children are able to calm themselves. Second, paying attention to this reinforces the tantrum, with the likelihood it will be repeated. Even when out in public, it is best to ignore the tantrum. If it's in a restaurant, going outside to calm down is a good idea.

8. Children do best when they are on a regular schedule so that they know what to expect. This can help head off a lot of tantrums.

9. Even as young as two, children can and should be allowed certian choices such as what they want to eat, colors they prefer, as two examples.

10. Kids should be praised for the things they do correctly.

Adults must remember that very young kids are easily distracted. A little imagination and the tantrum will end. Be calm, it will end. I have seen how ignoring the storm defuses the situation, as the child calms himself and plays quietly at other things.

What are your trials and tribulations with the terrible twos and what works for you?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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