Sign up

Temper, temper - Tantrum tools for caregivers

Toddlerhood is a developmental stage full of immeasurable joy. During this time, we see our little ones gaining a sense of autonomy. “Me do it!” is a common phrase we hear as toddlers express their desire to do things independently. They start exploring their environment while verbally and physically expressing their needs, wants, and desires. It's magical to watch them begin forming their own little identities. A very normal, yet often triggering part of this stage is the protesting. Their favorite word suddenly becomes “no” and, of course, the tantrums. You may be wondering why these even occur? How do we stop them?

According to the newest early-brain science research, our prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until our mid- to late twenties. This part of the brain is in charge of our executive function skills. These are skills like planning, organizing, self-regulation, impulse control, and problem-solving. This tells us that toddlers have underdeveloped executive function skills and need you to be their thinking brain. In addition, when a child is having a tantrum, their stress response activates; in this case, they have no access to their prefrontal cortex. It's more effective to stay present and model regulation skills instead of throwing out consequences or trying to talk through the tantrum. Remember, you cannot teach new skills during this time because they don't have access to their prefrontal cortex. The toughest part is ‘riding the wave.’ Once they have calmed down, you can model how to problem-solve with them and start teaching new skills.

So why does their stress response trigger? It often triggers when they are frustrated with a limit or directive that the caregiver sets and they simply don't have the skills to communicate or cope with their frustration. This response also triggers more easily if a child has unmet basic needs (if they are hungry, sick, hurt, or tired) or unmet psychological needs (power and control, nurture, structure, connection, and mastery).

Here are some proactive ways to reduce the frequency and duration of your child's tantrums:

Create consistent family rules. Can your child name any family rules? Can you and your co-parent or support network agree on the family rules? Start by sitting with your support network and writing three to four family rules. We have even had children as young as age three participate in the family rule meeting! Once you have written them out, post them in a common area, like on the fridge or in the living room. Family rules should be clear and concrete. There can be a ‘don't rule,’ but it should always be followed with a ‘do’ rule. For example, ‘No yelling or name-calling’ (don't rule). ‘We use calm, kind words even when we are upset’ (do rule). Refer to these rules often. One day, your child might even start reminding you of the rules. “Hey, you're breaking rule number two!”

Implement clear and predictable routines. Early-brain science tells us that predictability provides a sense of psychological safety. Of course, there will be special occasions where we can be flexible, but generally, routines should be consistent. What does your morning routine look like? How about bedtime? Before and after childcare/school? Which routine do you feel you have mastered? Which routine do you want to work on?

Give transitional warnings and use timers. Transitions can be tough for kids, especially when they're moving from a high-preferred activity like playtime, to something less preferred, like sitting at the table for mealtime. Simply providing a five-minute warning between transitions can prepare your child for the next change and reduce the likelihood of tantrums. Using a timer is great because it takes the responsibility away from the parent, giving a directive to a neutral signal, and providing the directive to transition.

Teach about feelings and calming strategies when your child is calm. Remember that your child cannot learn while they are having a tantrum. It's essential to help them identify feelings and calming strategies while they are calm and engaged throughout the day. The stronger your child's ability to identify emotional states, the stronger their ability to implement calming strategies. Some excellent books can help you coach and guide your child in learning these skills. Our favorites include The Color Monster by Anna Llenas, Breathe Like a Bear by Kira Willey, and When I Have Big Feelings by Lara Higgins and Joanna Piekarski.

Implement ten minutes per day of child-led play. This is almost a ‘golden ticket’ strategy. A big reason we see more outbursts or tantrums is when our child's psychological need for power and control, or connection, is unmet. Setting aside ten minutes of focused time per day where you play with your child, allowing them to take full lead in their play, can meet these needs and reduce the frequency and duration of tantrums in the home. During this time, avoid making suggestions or asking questions. Simply narrate as if you're a play-by-play sports commentator or embrace the play role if you're invited into one. This is easier said than done, and ten minutes of play as an adult may feel like an eternity, but we can guarantee that this is one of the most powerful strategies!

We hope we were able to provide you with one new tool to add to your caregiver toolbox. The best way to reduce the frequency and duration of tantrums is your curiosity, connection, and consistency when reacting to your child's outbursts. And finally, give yourself some grace, too. Sometimes, stepping away safely to take a breath before addressing the situation may be the best option. Remember, we can't pour from an empty cup!


Lara Higgins, BA, and Joanna Piekarski, M. Ed, R. Psych, are child mental health advocates who started Psyched About Kids (PAK) in 2016 because they are obsessed with human potential! PAK empowers parents with science-backed knowledge, strategies, and tools to solve our most pressing parenting issues today and make life a little easier, along with ongoing support to implement the desired change. Small actions over time can have an unimaginable impact on child growth and development for lifelong health and wellness. Learn more at


See our related articles:


Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2024 Calgary’s Child