Since the frontal lobe of their brain still forming, your toddler’s ability to reason, use logic and practice self-control is still pretty small. As a result, there may be several times in a day when they throw a tantrum and completely melts down. There might be times where these tantrums become aggressive and downright scary. As they grow, you may notice a shift in types of tantrums, what causes them, where and when they are likely to happen, what you can do to prevent them from happening in the first place, and how to keep from escalating them when they do.
What makes a tantrum “aggressive”?
In a Journal of Pediatrics study, experts divided tantrum behaviors into a few different kinds, including:
- Aggressive-destructive: Kicking others, hitting others, throwing objects, breaking objects
- Self-injurious: Hitting self, head banging, holding breath, biting self
- Non-destructive aggression: Non-directed kicking, stamping feet, hitting walls
- Oral aggression: Biting others, spitting on others
If any of these types of tantrums become frequent (happening more than five times a day or lasting longer than 20 minutes) and don’t tend to happen based on obvious triggers, it may be time to seek medical attention, since they could be a larger concern.
Why do aggressive tantrums happen?
The first and most common reason for tantrums in toddlers is tiredness. Baby is more mobile than ever, and probably spending plenty of time outside and with other children. This can take a toll on energy levels and leave your little one feeling drained and exhausted. Exhaustion can then easily lead to tantrums. Frustration is another cause of tantrums – toddlers around this age spend a lot of time trying to accomplish new skills and tasks, and often it takes a few – or more than a few – tries before they get it. After several attempts at making something happen a certain way and with no progress, you might watch Baby spiral into a tantrum rooted in feeling completely frustrated that things aren’t going their way. Offering to help often won’t help to prevent these tantrums, either – Baby wants to be able to do whatever it is themself.
Lastly, simply put, toddlers have moods that shift in throughout the day. Sometimes, Baby is in a great mood and the world is wonderful. Sometimes the fun snack they always love is suddenly the most disgusting piece of food you’ve ever put in front of them, and how dare you do such a thing!
By knowing times and places that these tantrums happen, you can sometimes predict their behavior, and start to notice patterns in their actions. Common times for meltdowns are when exhaustion, frustration, and mood are on the rise. Typically that can happen at times like naptime, bedtime, at the end of a play-date or in the car.
Responding to aggressive tantrums
Luckily, you and your family are not the first ones to deal with tantrums and there are well-known techniques for both avoiding tantrums and helping diffuse them when they are happening.
Before a tantrum is even on the radar, there are ways to avoid them.
- In the cards: One technique that many parents have found useful is to use “routine cards,” which are a series of cards you can line up on a desk or bathroom mirror that outline how naptime, bedtime or mealtime routines will go. These illustrations make it easy for parents to show toddlers what is coming so there isn’t as much surprise and heated discussion.
- Fork in the road: Giving your toddler a few, acceptable choices can help them feel in control while still getting what you want accomplished. For example, you might ask “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?” or “Which book would you like to be your last book for tonight?” Baby still makes it into bed, but without feeling like they have no control over their own life.
- Five, four, three: Providing several countdowns has also been shown to help toddlers deal with transitions more easily, and make it so changes don’t come as much of a surprise. “You have five minutes left at the park,” followed by “You have two minutes left at the park,” can make “It’s time to leave now,” less of a shock.
- Law of the land: Lastly, consistency in routine and in boundaries is a strong ally in the fight against tantrums. If most days, nights, and procedures follow the same routines, it is easier for your toddler to anticipate what is coming and easier for you to say things like “Just like every night, we brush our teeth before books.”
During a tantrum, it can seem like a minute is more like an hour. During tantrums, it’s important to remember that your toddler has little control over what they're doing – it’s nothing personal, no matter how it can feel in the moment. Don’t try to reason with a toddler who is melting down, because you won’t ever understand what is going on in their head sometimes.
Still, there are some techniques some families find helpful in getting past tantrums.
- Many parents have found that developing a deep breathing exercise that is both fun and calming can help to quiet these emotional outbursts.
- Modeling positive behavior yourself helps to set an example for future outbursts – next time you’re mad, or you stub your toe, or the store is out of your favorite ice-cream, talk out loud about how you feel and what you’re doing in that moment to feel better about it. Let Baby see how you handle strong emotions in a healthy way.
- When your toddler is aggressive during a tantrum, removing them from the situation immediately as this is a strong signal that this is not okay behavior. Removing them from the situation that triggered a tantrum can also either help to remove the trigger or just change the context enough to slow the tantrum down sometimes.
- You can give your toddler an action to use instead by showing them with stuffed animals what gentle touch is, and how biting and hitting really hurts people. Make sure you’re praising gentle touch when you see it.
- There are healthy ways to get out aggression like biting a pillow or throwing a ball hard against the wall outside. You can show your toddler how to release these stressful feelings in a healthy way.
Overall, when faced with a tantrum, the big things to keep in mind are to remain calm and not to give in. You have the opportunity to model positive behavior, teach empathy by example and give your toddler an outlet for when they need one.
- Beldon, AC, Thomson NR, Luby JL. “Temper tantrums in healthy versus depressed and disruptive preschoolers: defining tantrum behaviors associated with clinical problems.” Journal of Pediatrics. 10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.06.030. January 2008.
- “Top Tips for Surviving Tantrums.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved August 24 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Temper-Tantrums.aspx.