How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums

By Dr Harvey Karp – CEO of Happiest Baby Inc. and one of America’s most-trusted paediatricians and child development experts

Toddler tantrums usually peak at 18 to 24 months and then peak again around 3 ½ years. At these ages your child’s brain is virtually bubbling over with an intense and explosive mix of primitive impulses: greed, stubbornness, aggression, and impatience.

To soothe a toddler who is having a blow-up, many parents are taught to calmly acknowledge their child’s unhappy feelings and then gently correct them. Sounds reasonable, but mature comments like those often backfire and can make livid toddlers shriek even louder! That’s because little children aren’t mini adults. Their immature toddler brains struggle to understand long sentences and to control their bursts of powerful emotions.

Here’s the thing: How you say your words mean much more to your child than what you say. When you convey emotion, your child perceives empathy. He’ll think, okay. My mom really gets me.

Why Toddlers Have Tantrums

They don’t communicate well – Wouldn’t you get frustrated if you lived somewhere you couldn’t speak the language? Well, your toddler also gets irritated when she can’t communicate. No wonder little kids with limited language skills often resort to nontalking forms of communication like foot stomping, arm waving, eye bulging, and screaming! 

We set a bad example – Venting your anger in front of your child may train her to scream more. She’ll learn that unleashing her rage is totally fine. After all…Mummy does it.

They get stuck in an emotional corner – For many little ones, forcing them to give in can make them feel humiliated. When their primitive sense of pride gets bruised, they go crazy. The harder these kids struggle against us, the more they get painted into an emotional “corner,” unable to gracefully back down and recover from their upset. 

They have “temper” temperaments – Intense and spirited toddlers have bigger meltdowns because, well, they do everything bigger. You can’t change your child’s temperament, but using my method of Feeding the Meter, the Fast Food Rule, and learning to speak your toddler’s language (aka Toddler-ese) you will help keep him from exploding into anger with every frustration and disappointment. 

How to Stop a Tantrum

Connect with respect – When your toddler starts to lose it, the first thing you should do is connect with respect. Squat down to his level and echo back a bit of his feelings by using the Fast-Food Rule and Toddler-ese. Practice this several times on small eruptions before trying it out on a major outburst. Amazingly, at least 50% of the time this simple step alone will quell tantrums in seconds. 

Give your message – Once your child begins to quiet, it becomes your turn to give a message (‘But nooo, sweetheart. You know the rule: Cookies are after dinner.’). 

Offer a distraction or win-win compromise – After you give your message, you can encourage your child to be even more cooperative in the future if you take a moment to feed her meter with a little distraction or a win-win compromise. 

What to Do If the Tantrum Gets Worse

Offer a hug – Your toddler may just be having a bad day . . . we have all been there. Try offering your upset child a hug…but be prepared to duck (just in case your irate little child takes a swing at your nose).

Solve the problem – Occasionally, if you are really in a time crunch, it is okay to give in. For example, you might say to your upset 3-year-old, ‘You are so sad! You really want a cookie . . . now! The rule is no cookies before dinner . . . but you were so helpful picking up your toys this morning, Mummy will bend the rule—a tiny bit—and give you one cookie. Do you want it in a napkin or on a plate?’

For more advice about how to handle toddler tantrums—with real-life examples!—I recommend checking out my book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, which gives parents the tools they need to prevent toddler tantrums and boost cooperation. Learn more at

About Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, CEO of Happiest Baby Inc.

Dr. Harvey Karp is one of America’s most-trusted paediatricians and child development experts. He is on the faculty of the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Paediatrics.

Dr. Karp practiced paediatrics in Los Angeles for over 25 years. His landmark discoveries and unique ability to translate complex science into effective techniques to empower parents have revolutionized our understanding of the needs of young children. He is the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a smart-tech and parenting solutions company that invented the SNOO Smart Sleeper, a responsive bassinet that mimics the sounds and motions of the womb to extend infant sleep by 1-3 hours.

Dr. Karp is also the best-selling author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He is an advisor to Parents, Ser Padres and American Baby magazines and a paediatric expert on BabyCenter.  He has appeared numerous times on Good Morning America, CNN, Today Show, The View, Dr. Oz, etc. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, LA Times, Parents, People Magazine, among others.

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