Understanding your child’s tantrums and meltdowns

When was the last time you lost your temper? Can you remember what caused it? Often it’s from frustration or a miscommunication.  Now that you are in the zone, it is time to dig deeper into the issue of what to do about toddler tantrums.

Frustrations are part of everyday life. Both adults and children experience them at some point in their daily routine. However, there is a huge difference in their frequencies as you look across the age brackets. As children continue to grow, these meltdowns tend to appear less often as they learn more effective ways to manage their frustrations.

What are the main causes of temper tantrums in children?

There are many causes of temper tantrums, and they all depend on different factors. Here are a few of them:

You may have unrealistic expectations with regard to their ability.

Children may lash out if they feel that you are too demanding. They may have held on to their frustrations for so long, and finally, they boil over.  Learn about typical child development, and the wide range of normal, and adjust your expectations.  For example, taking a tired, hungry child on multiple errands is almost guaranteed to result in a tantrum.

Crying for attention

Not all tantrums are fits of rage. They are often expressions of frustration.  Your child may be feeling ignored.  Attention is a normal human need – Common advice of ignoring “attention-seeking” behaviour is just plain WRONG.  It ignores that fact that EVERYONE needs attention. In the moment, children often can’t problem-solve how to ask for the attention that they need in a positive way.


A child will mimic whatever happens in their surroundings. If you shout all the time in the house, they too will use the same way to communicate.

Missing Needs and Overwhelm

Toddlers quickly get hungry, tired, and overwhelmed.  Or sometimes they just don’t feel well. Toddlers don’t have the language skills to recognize and tell you what’s wrong, so they meltdown.  They are a common occurrence in children between the ages of 15 months and two years.

Inability to communicate

Sometimes a child may struggle to effectively say what they feel. It may be as a result of delayed speech or an inability to speak altogether. This is one of the most common causes of tantrums in toddlers.

Toddler tantrums are common with children between the age of one and three, and you should not be surprised when they occur. It is for the simple fact that your child’s language and speech skills are still in infancy. As they continue to grow, they become better at expressing themselves and the episodes become less frequent.

Speech delay and toddler tantrums – what does the science say?

The situation is different for toddlers who experience speech delays. Studies have shown that the frequency of toddler tantrums is much higher in them, as compared to their peers with regular speech skills. An ongoing study by Northwestern University has found that late talkers exhibit tantrum behavior at twice the rate of their peers. The degree of their tantrums is much higher so much so that it can affect how they interact with others around them. A late talker, as defined by the study, is mostly any child of two years and below that is unable to string simple words together. If your child exhibits any of these characteristics it is advisable to seek professional help.

Dealing with delayed speech toddler tantrums

Here are a few ways you can deal with your child’s tantrums:

Always keep your cool

Never let your emotions get in the way when dealing with your child’s tantrums. The situation may be embarrassing, even frustrating, but understand that this is the only way your child can communicate. Ask your child what the fuss is all about. Let them explain themselves at their pace. Then you can work together for a solution.

Multiple choice

Point out things that you may think your child wants. It is not the most efficient way but may help in dealing with the situation. If the tantrum is in their room, go through each toy that they own. You will eventually get it right.

Redirect their attention

If your child is crying out for a particular thing they cannot have, try and distract them with something else. For example, they may be wanting a cookie just before dinner. You can put on their favorite cartoon as a distraction.

Let them be

When emotions run high, parents need to keep their cool too.  As long as your toddler is safe, take a break and walk away if you need to

Show them some love

As earlier mentioned, a tantrum may be a result of your child wanting to get your attention. Focusing your attention on them may be all that is needed. If you were working on something, drop it and listen to them unconditionally.

Use a proxy

There are times where you are unable to deal with the situation. Seek help from another family member to help you solve the impasse. Look for people who your child is familiar with, as strangers will only exacerbate their frustrations.  Once everyone has calmed, then you can problem-solve together.

When is it time to seek professional help?

Older toddlers and pre-schoolers usually have the language skills to tell you what is wrong, and tantrums and meltdowns drop dramatically in the preschool years.  But, if your child is a late talker and doesn’t have those skills, the meltdowns will continue and it’s time to consult a Speech Language Pathologist. Another way to identify speech delay is if your child is unable to understand simple instruction.

Not sure if your child is a late talker? 

Do they have 50 words and/or gestures by age (bilingual? Count the word twice if they can say it in both languages)

Can they follow simple 1 step directions by age 1?

Here’s a screening checklist for more speech and language milestones.

If you have any concerns, or if your child’s tantrums and meltdowns continue, you should visit a speech and language specialist. Health Insurance will often cover speech therapy

Not every episode of a toddler tantrum indicates speech delay. However, it is good to consult a professional to get a clear understanding of what is happening.  Early intervention can reduce tantrums by quickly give your child easier ways to communicate, while working to catch up their language skills.


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