Taming Temper Tantrums: Behavior Management for Toddlers

Temper tantrumsAll parents have been there: whining, screaming, crying, throwing things, lying down on the floor, and refusing to get up.

Hopefully, it’s the children doing these things, not the parents, but if the problem behavior goes on long enough, you never know where things might end up.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are a range of evidence-based strategies that parents can learn to use that will lower the temperature in the home and restore a modicum of respect, affection, and harmony to parent–child relationships.

All that’s needed to manage temper tantrums is a little bit of planning, followed by a lot of consistency and, of course, plenty of love. Read on to learn what works and how to do it.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Parenting Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients identify opportunities to implement positive parenting practices and support healthy child development.

Understanding Temper Tantrums and Other Behavior Problems

Children are always changing, as are their more difficult behaviors. And so, it’s helpful to distinguish the temper tantrums of toddlers from the problem behavior of older children.

Toddler tantrums

Temper tantrums are explosive expressions of anger or frustration in children, especially toddlers. They tend to begin at around 18 months, continuing until around the age of 4 (Chamberlin, 1974).

They can be more or less dramatic, ranging from whining and crying to screaming, throwing, and breaking things (Potegal & Davidson, 2003).

Temper tantrums are extremely common, occurring at a point in their social-emotional development when toddlers are becoming increasingly aware of their growing autonomy but have limited language with which to express their wishes and emotions (Potegal & Davidson, 2003).

They can be caused by any combination of tiredness, hunger, frustration, or a need for attention, combined with a limited ability to communicate and regulate emotions (Kyle, 2008).

Tantrums may also have an instrumental dimension. In throwing a tantrum, a toddler may be trying to get their caregiver to do something, for example, give them a favored treat. This aspect of tantrums will only become more prominent if the caregiver gives in.

If throwing a tantrum gets a child their way, then that behavior will be reinforced, meaning that it will be more likely to happen again the next time the child wants something.

While temper tantrums are normal, if they are unusually severe and/or frequent, they might signal a neurodevelopmental condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, problems with anxiety or depression, or a more general pattern of defiance toward adults, which could lead to a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder (Belden et al., 2003).

A parent might want to consult a professional if their child’s tantrums happen nearly every day, involve violence toward others or self-harm, happen with adults other than the child’s primary caregivers, and/or don’t have any obvious trigger (Belden et al., 2003).

Problem behavior in older children

As children get older, new problem behaviors arise, but the same underlying causes continue to operate: tiredness, hunger, strong emotions that they struggle to contain, a need for attention, and a desire to get their caregivers to do something. In addition, as older children become more able to understand and stay within limits, they are also motivated to test them and find out just how far they can go.

To manage the behavior of children from around age 3, probably the most important principle to understand is this: they will work to get attention of any kind (Iwata et al., 1994).

Much of their bad behavior is an effort to get attention, even if it is negative, which means that much of what parents reflexively do in response to bad behaviors — criticizing, admonishing, yelling — actually serves to reinforce it. We will return to this below.

Teaching Emotion Regulation and Coping Skills

Behavior management for toddlersChildren do, of course, get better at regulating emotion as they mature, but this process can be helped along with the right methods.

Parents can start to introduce these to their toddlers and will find that their effectiveness increases over time.

Security and connection

The foundation for emotional regulation is a predictable home environment with consistent rules and routines, managed by caregivers with whom the child has a secure, loving connection (Kochanska, 2001).

The sense of stability that comes from consistency at home helps the child cope with the less predictable world outside, and it is through their secure connection with caregivers that they learn to understand and respond appropriately to their own feelings.

Talk about feelings

From the earliest ages, children learn about their feelings through how their parents talk about them. If parents are ready to name their child’s emotions with compassion, then the child can learn to recognize their own feelings and accept them without necessarily acting them out (Denham, 2019). This can and should be done at any time, and certainly when the child is upset.

A toddler’s tantrum is unlikely to be cut short by naming the emotion that is being expressed, but doing so lays the groundwork for the child to self-regulate in the future. With an older child, such an intervention may be effective in heading off an emotional outburst if it is delivered before the stage of total meltdown (Webster-Stratton, 1992).

More generally, discussion of feelings should be a normal part of home life. Children need to hear their parents discussing their own feelings, as well as routinely allowing space for the child to talk about their feelings without fear of having them judged or dismissed.

Stay calm

Children don’t just learn from what parents say; they learn from what they do (Bandura et al., 1961). So, all efforts to teach emotional regulation will be undermined if parents explode with uncontrollable fury when they get a parking ticket.

It is especially unhelpful (though understandable) for parents to lose their cool while dealing with their children’s outbursts. Not only is it self-contradictory to yell “Calm down!” at an upset child, but it will in general upset the child further.

With a tantruming toddler, the most effective intervention is often simply to remain calm while the tantrum runs its course. With an older child, other methods might be employed, but they are not enhanced by expressions of anger.


Some children respond well to soothing, either verbal or physical, and may start to internalize the ability to show themselves compassion when upset. Others don’t, in which case it is best not to try.

Techniques that children can use

As children get older, they can be taught to use techniques for anger management and emotional regulation in general without an adult’s help. There are too many of these to list, but for a useful overview, parents can watch this video:

Coping skills for kids - Mental Health Center Kids

Implementing Boundaries and Positive Discipline

For toddlers, discipline is not appropriate. They are not able to learn from consequences yet. Whereas for older children, behavior therapy programs that are based on positive discipline are effective (Menting et al., 2013; Sanders et al., 2014).

This is to be contrasted with negative discipline: the traditional but ineffective and potentially damaging practices of criticizing, yelling at, or hitting misbehaving children.

The essential principle here is reinforcement. When a child misbehaves, the consequences should make them less inclined to do it again, not more. And as mentioned above, criticizing and yelling, paradoxically, make it more likely that the problem behavior will recur because children crave attention, even if it is negative.

In addition, children who are subject to harsh negative discipline are liable to develop a wide range of emotional and behavioral problems (Gershoff et al., 2018). Positive discipline, meanwhile, has been shown to be effective in avoiding these negative outcomes.

So, how is it done?

Positive attention

If children often act out in order to get attention, then it stands to reason that one way to head off bad behavior is to give them the right kind of attention at the right time (Webster-Stratton, 1992).

When parents put aside regular time to play with their children or give them undivided attention in some other way, those children are less likely to seek attention in problematic ways at other times.


Far from spoiling a child, praise provides the positive reinforcement that encourages a child to repeat desirable behaviors. Whenever a child does something that the parent would like to see more of, the parent should be sure to offer praise for it (Leijten et al., 2019).


When it comes to parenting, the opposite of praise isn’t criticism; it’s ignoring. When children are ignored, they are deprived of the attention that they crave, and so they are liable to stop doing whatever it is that causes the parent to ignore them (Webster-Stratton, 1992). The moment the child switches from the problem behavior to one that is desired, the caregiver should re-engage and offer praise.


Bad behavior that can be ignored should be ignored. Behavior that is destructive or violent, however, needs to be brought to a stop quickly, and so consequences are necessary. These are positive punishments.

Positive punishment should ideally have natural consequences (e.g., If you throw your toys out of the stroller, then you won’t have those toys) or at least be logical (e.g., If you draw on the table, I will take the crayons away; Leijten et al., 2019).

And whatever they may be, they should be implemented with due warning and calmly. Criticism and displays of anger do nothing to improve behavior and serve only to undermine the parent–child relationship and, potentially, the child’s wellbeing.

Communicate clearly

Boundaries cannot be implemented if children do not know what they are, so clear communication is an essential foundation for positive discipline. To give effective commands to a child (Roberts et al., 1978):

  • Don’t give too many.
  • Give one at a time.
  • Make them brief, clear, realistic, and specific. “Put down the crayons” rather than “Stop making a mess!”
  • Allow time for the child to comply.
  • Speak firmly but politely.

Download 3 Free Positive Parenting Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients with tools to improve parenting styles and support healthy child development.

Practicing Active Listening and Good Communication

The need for good communication between child and caregiver is, of course, not limited to the moments when boundaries need to be enforced. Rather, it is part of the wider backdrop to effective parenting.

Every parenting problem is more easily solved if parents and children can communicate effectively and children have the opportunity to learn social skills that will serve them well throughout life.

Active listening

The starting point for good communication is to listen. But not just any listening will do. The most effective listening — active listening — gives the child a sense of having been truly heard (Louw et al., 2011).

This can be accomplished by (McNaughton & Vostal, 2010):

  • Not interrupting
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Attending to the emotional tone of what is being said
  • Asking follow-up questions
  • Summarizing and paraphrasing what has been said
  • Validating what has been said and
  • Encouraging the child to continue speaking

Other elements of good communication

There is more to communicating with a child than just listening to them, however well you do it. So, once they have gotten the hang of active listening, parents will also find it useful to: (Webster-Stratton, 1992)

  • Raise concerns promptly, before resentment builds.
  • Say “I” instead of “you” to communicate the parent’s feelings and/or wishes without passing judgment on the child. It is better to say, “I feel annoyed when you take ages to get ready for school,” rather than, “You’re never ready on time. Why can’t you get ready on time?”
  • Be polite, brief, clear, and positive. A lengthy discussion on the child’s bad behavior will not get the best results. A brief statement of what behavior is desired will work better.
  • Don’t wait. It is better to address concerns promptly before they get any worse.
  • Seek feedback. The parent should ask about the child’s thoughts and feelings and whether they understand what has been said.
  • Avoid oversharing. While it is good for parents to talk about their feelings, it is possible to overdo it. Parents should consider what they hope to achieve by sharing a particular concern or negative feeling. Is it an important issue that is likely to be resolved, or is this just venting or grumbling?

10 Positive Reinforcement Techniques for Toddlers and Older Children

Discipline StrategiesGood behavior can be reinforced with rewards that are:

  • Spontaneous (i.e., granted as and when a child engages in positive behavior)
  • Planned (i.e., the child knows ahead of time that a particular behavior will result in a reward)

Here are some suggested rewards:

  1. Toys
  2. Stationery
  3. Something nice to eat
  4. Watching a favorite show
  5. Playing a favorite game
  6. Having a friend over to play
  7. An extra story at bedtime
  8. Going out for a favorite activity
  9. A favorite activity with a parent
  10. Stickers that can be put on a chart and traded in for other rewards

Read this related article for more examples and ideas on positive reinforcement for kids.

You can find an extensive list of recommended positive parenting books in the linked article; however, for books specifically related to behavior management for toddlers, these two are ideal.

1. The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 3–8 Years – Carolyn Webster-Stratton

The Incredible Years

The Incredible Years is an evidence-based parenting program based upon the work of Carolyn Webster-Stratton, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. It has been the subject of numerous randomized controlled trials showing its effectiveness (Menting et al., 2013).

This book presents the principles and techniques of the Incredible Years program in a format that any parent can use. It offers a “pyramid” approach, building a strong foundation of skills such as playing effectively with children and then layering behavior management techniques on top.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. Positive Discipline: The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills – Jane Nelsen

Positive Discipline

This is the book that coined the phrase “positive discipline,” and as such, it is a classic of behavior therapy approaches to parenting.

Author Jane Nelsen emphasizes both kindness and firmness to create cooperative relationships between parents and children that contribute to healthy emotional development as well as good behavior.

With seven children of her own, you might think that she knows what she’s doing.

Find the book on Amazon.

PositivePsychology.com Resources

If you need resources to draw on when supporting parents and other caregivers with managing the behavior of children, PositivePsychology.com has plenty to offer.

Relevant reading

Here are some other articles that might be useful:


Here are worksheets that can be used to implement the techniques discussed in this article:

If you want to shape the wellbeing and future of children’s lives, consider this collection of 17 validated positive parenting tools designed for parents, caretakers and guardians. Use them to lay the groundwork for children’s lifelong success and happiness.

A Take-Home Message

All parents will have to reckon with problematic behavior by their children, from temper tantrums as toddlers to more complex issues with older children. Using evidence-based methods to deal with such behavior can lead to a quick resolution and longer-term harmony instead of persistence and escalation.

These methods are grounded in behavior therapy and emphasize the role of reinforcement in promoting either positive or problematic behaviors in children.

The foundation of good behavior and good relationships is positive reinforcement, taking time to give focused attention to children and taking care to praise them for good behavior.

With that foundation, it becomes far easier to reduce and eliminate bad behavior by ignoring or, when necessary, sanctioning it. And all of this becomes far easier in the context of clear, positive, open communication between parents and children.

With these methods in hand, parents can look forward to more harmonious relationships in the home and to seeing their children thrive.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Parenting Exercises for free.

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