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How to deal with tantrums

We’ve all been there: You are at the supermarket with your 2-year-old. He eyes the chocolate chip cookies
How to deal with tantrums
Updated: April 19, 2024

We’ve all been there: You are at the supermarket with your 2-year-old. He eyes the chocolate chip cookies. You are late to react and knows what is coming: A full-on meltdown in aisle 31 of the supermarket begins when you tell him he cannot have the cookies. After all, it is almost dinner time. Your fellow customers alternate between giving you the look of “What a bad parent” or “I totally get you, don’t worry”. What do you do? Do you carry your child kicking and screaming out of the supermarket or do you let him cry out for what seems like the longest time of your life?

Let’s look at the science behind tantrums. 

What is a tantrum?

They are brief episodes of extreme and sometimes aggressive behaviours in response to frustration or anger. They usually include: Crying, hitting, throwing items, biting, pushing, going limp and breath-holding. 

Why do tantrums happen?

They happen because at this stage it is very difficult for your child to control their emotions. And at this age when they are happy, they are VERY happy and when they are angry, they are VERY angry. At this same time, children become more independent. Most of them can now walk around and with this newly gained physical independence, they want to be allowed to DO things. And when you tell them ‘NO’ the frustration begins. And because they cannot control that frustration and they don’t have the ability to tell you how they are feeling, the tantrum begins! 

So… Can I prevent tantrums to happen?

Good news- Yes! Tantrums happen because of hunger, tiredness, illness and frustration. Therefore, prevention is the best way to avoid them. 

Some useful tips are:

  • Establish a consistent routine so the child knows when it is time to go to bed, have a bath, eat, and play. 
  • Take snacks with you when you are out and about to avoid your child getting hungry.
  • If possible, avoid ‘boring’ activities like going to the supermarket or to the post office around nap time or lunch time when your child is more likely to be cranky. 
  • Have toys at the ready so you can distract your child if he starts getting frustrated. 

The theory is great but I could not prevent it and I am now facing a massive tantrum: What do I do? 

There is not much you can do once the tantrum starts. The best thing to do is to wait it out. Make sure your child is safe (they sometimes bang their heads against the wall or the floor), stay close but don’t do anything. Once they finish, wipe their tears and redirect their attention to another activity. 

The acronym R.I.D.D. can help you handle tantrums (easier said than done, we know):

Remain calm 

Ignore the tantrum

Distract the child as soon as it is over

Do make sure your child is safe but don’t give in to demands. 

Do not give in. If you give into the tantrum, you are reinforcing the behaviour and your child will know that if he throws a tantrum, he will get what he wants. We know it may be painful to watch, but the best thing for your child is for you to wait until he is done.

My child is approaching two: How often can I expect tantrums to happen?

Tantrums happen between the ages of two and three but may occur as young as 12 months. They happen in 87% of 18 to 24-month-olds, 91% of 30 to 36-month-olds, and 59% of 42 to 48-month-olds. They tend to occur once a day for around three minutes. There are no differences in the prevalence of tantrums by gender or ethnicity. 

As the child grows and they learn to put their feelings into words, the frequency, length and severity of the tantrums decrease (don’t despair! -There is light at the end of the tunnel).  

What about tantrums in the case of neurodivergent children?

Neurodivergent children may experience more frequent and aggressive tantrums because they usually have more difficulties expressing their feelings. 

In the case of children with autism, it is important to differentiate between tantrums and meltdowns. A meltdown is more emotional, bigger, lasts for longer, and is more difficult to manage than a tantrum. A meltdown happens because a sensory or emotional overwhelm. It is a sign of distress that cannot be controlled by the child. Meltdowns may last for as long as 20 minutes and can happen at any age. 

Like tantrums, meltdowns can be prevented by recognizing the triggers and using techniques like distraction and keeping a consistent routine. The most important thing to do in the case of a meltdown is to make sure your child is safe and cannot get hurt while it lasts. 

Ok, I understand how to take care of my child during a tantrum or a meltdown but what about me?

Tantrums and meltdowns can really push you to the limit. We are with you. 

Try to remain as calm as you can. If you think you are going to lose it, make sure your child is safe and leave the room for a few seconds to calm yourself down. Another useful technique is to ring a friend and have a chat to distract yourself while making sure your child is safe. Or ask a neighbour to come in. 

Toddlers can really push your buttons. Try to remain calm and not lose your patience. And remember, this phase won’t last forever even if sometimes it feels like it. 

We hope you find this article useful. Remember to contact your REC Parenting therapist if you need support. For any questions or comments, do drop us an email at We are here to support your and your family. 



Photo credit Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

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