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Common Tantrum Scenarios: How to Respond

Key Takeaways

  • Temper tantrums are a normal part of child development.
  • Validating feelings and responding calmly can help children manage emotions.
  • Challenging behavior offers opportunities for children to learn—about rules and limits, about feelings, and about self-regulation—all critical skills for life.
Toddlers often have tantrums because they lack the skills to handle big emotions, like anger and frustration. Our experts offer tips on how to respond in some common scenarios.

Empathizing While Enforcing

When a toddler refuses to get into their car seat…

Try this: Let them know you get it: “I hear you. You really don’t like sitting in your car seat. Be clear about the limit: But the car seat keeps you safe when we’re driving.” Try some humor: “Do you want me to jump you into your car seat like a kangaroo, or fly you in like a bird?”

Try a “first, then” statement: First we’ll get into the car seat, then you can choose what songs I put on. Still no luck? Stay calm and matter-of-fact (not angry) while you lift your child into the car seat and buckle them up. Will they be screaming, kicking, or arching their back? Maybe. But your calm presence is a reminder that some rules can’t be broken. When they’re buckled in, offer them a choice — like whether they want to hold a stuffed animal or not — to give them a sense of control.

Takeaway: Even when a rule is (literally) the law, a child is still allowed to have feelings about it. Try not to take their reactions personally. They aren’t trying to upset you — they are in a situation where they have no control, are unhappy, and don’t have the skills to manage their feelings yet. Let them know you hear how sad and angry they are. This helps children learn that, even when things don’t go their way, your relationship is a place where they are understood.

Modeling Consent

You’re at a family picnic when your great uncle says hello and reaches out to give your toddler a hug. They shout, “No!” and hide behind your leg…

Try this: A quick solution: “You’re not ready for hugs yet, are you? That’s okay. Great Uncle Allen is a new person, isn’t he? Hey Uncle Allen, how about we start playing with the frisbee and maybe [Child Name] might like to watch us for a little bit.”

Takeaway: It’s okay for children to be slow-to-warm-up with new people. And it’s definitely okay for children to choose who they want to hug (or not). This is the foundation for children learning they control their own bodies. It’s also the basis for understanding consent. Ask the new person to join you in a fun activity that the child might enjoy and let them connect at their own speed.

Redirecting Busy Hands

The baby discovers a new game of grabbing your glasses or earrings, or pulling your hair…

Try this: Gently put your hand over theirs and say “stop” firmly and seriously. Avoid big angry reactions (the baby really isn’t trying to hurt you). If the issue is jewelry, try switching to smaller accessories for the short term. When possible, offer something else—a shaker, a rattle or other baby-safe object—for a baby to grasp.

Takeaway: Developing the finger skills to grab interesting things is a major milestone for babies. But those hair-pulls and earring grabs hurt! If it helps, remember that over time, babies learn there are more interesting things to grab and this behavior goes away. In the meantime, offer an acceptable object to grab (instead of your body parts) and hang in there — this stage doesn’t last long.

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Next Up
Toddler Tantrums 101: Why They Happen and What You Can Do
Learn more about toddler tantrums 101: why they happen and what you can do to see tantrums as opportunities for your child to learn.
A toddler squats down crying outside on road.