The more Baby grows, the better equipped he is to join you as you go out in the world. But just like the world he is exploring with you is new to him – while he tags along with you on trips to the bank, the park, or grocery shopping – his own strong emotions are new territory too. Your toddler isn’t used to his own varying energy levels, and he is only just learning how to express or have control over his feelings. This may mean that it’s becoming more common for tantrums to erupt, seemingly out of nowhere. Knowing why tantrums happen can give you an increased understanding of when they’re coming and how to handle them when they do.
Like most things, tantrum triggers (or the events that set tantrums off) vary from child to child, but there are a few common linking traits.
Exhaustion is the most common trigger for tantrums in toddlers. You’ll probably notice that your toddler has most of his tantrums in the afternoon or evening, as this is when energy levels tend to drop pretty sharply, after a long day of running around.
A related common – and more predictable – trigger happens when a toddler skips a nap or is due for a nap soon. A second trigger for tantrums is hunger. Did you and Baby miss a snack? Push an activity a little long so lunch had been moved back an hour? Don’t be surprised when he crashes into the problem of an empty stomach and low blood sugar, and then expresses his dissatisfaction with the situation – loudly.
Aside from physical triggers, which you’ve probably already noticed, another common reason your pleasant day out with your tot might be interrupted by the outpouring of frustration that is his latest tantrum is a lack of communication.
he is a lot better at both expressing himself and understanding you than he was even a few short months ago. But He is still learning – and you’re still learning the particular quirks of communicating with him too – so misunderstandings are bound to happen now and then. This is especially true when one of you – or both of you – is tired, hungry, or cranky.
When you can’t understand what he wants or is trying to tell you, or when you tell him “no,” and he can’t (or won’t) understand why, the frustration he feels may be too strong for him to handle.
Warning signs of tantrums in toddlers (though there’s very little chance you’ll miss them) can also vary, but they usually include crying, screaming, tensing up the body, throwing their limbs in the air or flailing on the ground. Normal temper tantrums last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes, and are usually most intense at the beginning. Some toddlers may even become so upset that they gasp for air or hold their breath. These are all relatively normal behaviors in a toddler tantrum. Should your toddler have a tantrum that lasts over 15 minutes, or should it escalate into biting, kicking, or self-injury, you may want to check in with your doctor.
Solutions for tantrums depend on the child, and what works like a charm for one toddler may leave others cold, so feel free to play around with different techniques that match your toddler temperament and your family’s values. For some families and some types of tantrums, distraction is key, so being prepared with things like snacks and toys when you start errands may be the way to cut off tantrums before they start.
It can also be helpful just to plan ahead so you can take Baby’s feelings into account. If you know he is really going to be upset if you walk right past without letting him ride the toy horse in the grocery store lobby, and if you’re able to leave a little extra time to do so, that might be a great way to keep all parties feeling good. Baby may be young, but he has as many feelings as you do, and taking a little extra care to honor them isn’t spoiling him.
More practically, if you know he gets cranky right before dinner and you’re out at another child’s soccer game, the best way to head off a tantrum is to keep it from starting, so you can get one step ahead of the tantrum by offering a healthy snack. Talk through the plan, pack snacks, be prepared!
Another solution for tantrums is to remove the audience. A tantrum can be an embarrassing moment for you and even, sometimes, for your toddler. If the supermarket or party or pet store has a back room, go use it. If you can, leave the cart (or the rest of the birthday party) inside and get a breath of fresh air while Baby works through his feelings. Ask your kiddo if he wants to talk about it in the car. If you can’t get away, maybe there’s another adult on hand that can take him for a quick walk to calm down. If not, you can ask Baby to work with you – ask him to breathe with you and walk outside.
Your job is to stay as cool as a cucumber to keep from escalating the situation by adding your own emotions to the mix.
And when the tantrum is over – whether it’s outside, back in the car, or at home that night – it’s a great time to comfort him and let him know that everything is okay. Tantrums are scary for toddlers, too, and he will appreciate the reassurance that you’re not mad and that you’re accepting what happened without judgment.