Dealing with toddler tantrums

If your toddler is upset or having a tantrum, knowing what they are upset about will help you manage it. Sometimes you will need to comfort your toddler, other times ignoring the tantrum might work best. Sometimes toddler tantrums can affect your plans for the day. It’s best if you decide what you’ll do, rather than let your child make the decisions by having tantrums.

Ways to manage tantrums

  • Go out and do something you both enjoy, like a walk or a trip to the park.
  • If you’ve planned a big day together, take some snacks and some favourite toys or books. Toddlers can get tired and bored easily. 
  • If you’re busy, try taking small, regular breaks to play with your child. It makes them happy.
  • Involve your toddler in your activities as much as possible. If they feel needed and important, they’re much less likely to be demanding.
  • Let your toddler rest or sleep to reduce tiredness.
  • Tell your toddler about how their behaviour affects others, as it will help them to learn to get on with others.
  • Don’t rush your toddler if you’re busy, stressed or tired. Toddlers can sense your stress and tend to join in.
  • Tell them what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. For example, you could say, “Can you give me the book?” rather than, “Don’t throw the book”. 
  • Understand what they need at the time. 

How to respond to a tantrum

  • Give your toddler a quiet cuddle.
  • Try to distract them by giving them something else to look at or play with.
  • Pick your toddler up and look outside, talking about what they can see.
  • Try to ignore the tantrum if you think it’s because they want something that they’re not allowed.
  • Stay calm and to make sure your toddler is in a safe place.
  • Stay with them nearby while they calm down.
  • If the tantrum is happening in an unfamiliar place, take them somewhere safe. Stay with them while they calm down, or leave them to calm down while you stay nearby to keep them safe.
  • Use positive language. For example, rather than “Hold my hand in the carpark”, you could try, “Show me how well you can hold my hand when we’re in the carpark”.

When the tantrum is over

Once your toddler has calmed down, give them smiles and tell them you’re pleased with them for learning to control their behaviour.

If you feel like you need to give your toddler a consequence for their actions, make sure it’s reasonable for their age, related to what they did, and respectful.

To understand things, toddlers need your reaction to happen right after what they did. They also need to be able to see how your reaction fits their action.

Hitting and biting

Many toddlers hit and bite, but they need to learn that it’s not okay.  If your toddler bites:

  1. Try to move your toddler out of the room and give the person who’s hurt your attention.
  2. Don’t hit or bite back. This will confuse your toddler. They’ll wonder why you can do it but they can’t.
  3. Praise them when they’re playing well.


New Zealand law has set a standard to ensure that all children have the right to grow up free from violence. Using force to change a child’s behaviour is illegal. Parents can hold or pick up a child to keep them safe, move them, stop them hurting others, or to provide care like changing nappies but this needs to be reasonable for the situation.

Smacking and other kinds of physical punishment shouldn’t be used because:

  • a child learns by copying and may think it’s okay to hit or hurt others
  • smacking or hitting can make them sad and physically hurt them, especially if they’re hit around the head
  • smacking doesn’t show your child how you want them to behave
  • they may not know or understand why they’re being smacked
  • giving attention by smacking can make children keep behaving badly to get your attention. Any attention is better than no attention from a child’s point of view.
  • Never shake your toddler as you could easily hurt them 

Children copy adults’ behaviour - good and bad - so it helps to think about the future.

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