Top 10 toddler tantrum triggers

How to spot the signs and nip those meltdowns in the bud before they get out of hand

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  • 1) Tiredness

    Spot the signs

    “You can only expect toddlers to do so much before getting sleepy,” says children’s life coach Naomi Richards (www.thekidscoach.org.uk). “So, if you’ve been out and had a busy day with lots of activities, your little one can become irritable as energy levels are low.” Look for clingy behaviour or swinging from one extreme to another, such as wanting a cuddle and then asking you to go away. Tiredness can easily turn into distress, so you need to nip it in the bud, as soon as you see the signs.

    Stop the tantrum

    “Sit down together on the sofa for a cuddle to keep the atmosphere calm and relaxed,” suggests Naomi. “Listen to your little one if she’s upset, so she feels you’re there to help.” Relaxing music or her favourite TV show are good for helping your toddler relax, and chances are, she’ll fall asleep half way through and wake up in a better mood!

     Try this

    Watch your tot’s facial expressions, so you learn when a tiredness tantrum is coming on. “I know one’s on its way when Charlie’s face screws up into a scowl,” says Zoe Ellis-Martin, 27, from Plymouth, mum to Charlie, 3. “It goes from a scowl, to whining then tears if we don’t settle him down.”

  • 2) Hunger

    Spot the signs

    “Your toddler might be irrational and grumpy when he’s hungry, as his blood sugar levels will have dropped,” explains Naomi. “He’s likely to have difficultly making a decision and won’t be able to see reason, as he can’t focus his attention for very long.” Look for him getting upset over choices or feeling uncomfortable and holding his tummy.

    Stop the tantrum

    “Think about when he last had food, and offer him something to eat to perk him up,” suggests Naomi. “Bring him one option and make it a small snack, so he doesn’t have to think about the situation.” Give your toddler the food calmly, so he’s encouraged to sit down and eat without a fuss.

  • 3) Sibling rivalry

    Spot the signs

    Does your younger child having a tantrum because her older sister has a better toy sound familiar? “It’s all down to frustration and confusion,” explains parent coach Judy Reith (www.parentingpeople.co.uk). “Your younger child might think her sister has something better than her, so throws a tantrum to show her anger.”

    Stop the tantrum

    “Ask your tot to come with you and look at something in another room, so she’s got your attention,” advises Judy. This way you calm the anger and she feels looked after. “If sharing is causing problems, try a stop watch so each child gets equal time, and both can see and understand how fair it is,” suggests Naomi.

  • 4) Long waits

    Spot the signs

    Toddlers find waiting difficult, as they don’t have a great sense of time, so if you’re standing at the bus stop or sitting in the doctor’s surgery for 10 minutes, it can seem like a lifetime to your tot. “You might start to see your toddler getting fidgety, frustrated and moving around a lot,” says Judy. He could also start to act up, saying ‘No’ to whatever you offer him, as he doesn’t understand why he’s having to wait to go home and play with his toys.

    Stop the tantrum

    “Whenever you’re leaving the house with your little one, take an army of things to keep him occupied in case you do have to wait around,” says Judy. Keep a bag of toys and pens and paper in your car, so you’re never caught without anything to do. “If a tantrum happens when you’re waiting inside for something, take your toddler outside for fresh air and to calm him down,” suggests Judy. People waiting with you ,for example in a doctor’s surgery, are less likely to comment if they can see you handling the situation.

    Try this 

    Observe your toddler’s body language to see if a wobbly’s brewing when you’re standing around biding your time. “Waiting is the biggest trigger for Barny’s tantrums,” says Linzi Hanscomb, 27, from Surrey, mum to Barny, 14 months. “I can see it coming on as soon as he starts getting restless and fidgety. Eventually it results in a horrible full-blown shouting episode.”

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  • 5) Boredom

    Spot the signs

    “Losing interest in activities and getting bored is common when your tot is stuck inside without much to do,” says Naomi. Your little one is likely to get fidgety with what she’s doing and get upset with her toys or games. It’s more common on rainy days, when she feels she’s in the same location surrounded by activities she’s seen before.

    Stop the tantrum

    If you know you’re going to be inside for the day, plan ahead. “Have different toys laid out, so your tot has lots of choice,” says Naomi. “If you can, invite other children around to keep her occupied.” Distraction is an ideal method for tantrums. “Go and ring the doorbell or call the landline, so your toddler stops and listens,” suggests Judy. “It creates a fresh energy in the room and distracts your toddler a treat.”

  • 6) Disputes over food

    Spot the signs

    At a young age, your toddler can decide he doesn’t like a certain food, but his communication skills might not be able to tell you why. “Tantrums and strops are more likely at teatime when your tot is presented with food, especially if it’s something he doesn’t like or wasn’t expecting,” says Naomi. Watch out for a look of distaste or tears when he’s first shown his meal, playing with his food and getting restless in his seat.

    Stop the tantrum

    Preparation is key to avoiding a tantrum at the dinner table. Explain in advance what’s for tea, so your toddler can be ready for what’s being served. “If you know he doesn’t like a meal, do your best to jazz it up and make it fun, so he enjoys the experience,” says Judy. “Try sauces for dipping or hiding fruit and veggies in meals to get them down.” Always include one item on the plate that you know he likes, and don’t get into a battle at teatime. If he acts up, calmly explain that you’ve cooked dinner and this is what’s on offer, pointing out that something he likes to eat is included.

     Try this

    It’s best to have a few things to keep your tot occupied at teatime, says Symone Darvell, 28, from Hull, mum to Mia, 2, and Ava, 11 months. “Mia usually starts a mini tantrum near teatime when she’s hungry, but can’t have the food right away. I keep lots of carrot sticks at home, so she can eat some while I’m getting the meal ready. It keeps her occupied and means she doesn’t set Ava off either.”

  • 7) Fear

    Spot the signs

    “Being scared stems from insecurity, so tantrums are common when mums or dads leave children,” explains Naomi. “If you’re dropping your tot off at nursery or going out without your little one, she’s bound to try tactics to get you to stay.” Watch for her suddenly deciding she needs to tell you or show you something, or becoming distressed over simple things when you go to leave her.

    Stop the tantrum

    “You need to plan, plan and plan again in the build up to leaving your toddler somewhere new,” says Naomi. “This way the day will go smoothly and you won’t be stressed and rushed, which will rub off on your tot.” Always remind your little one that you’ll be coming back, and be clear about her plan for the day, so she has something to look forward to. When you go, leave calmly but quickly to minimise any distress to your tot.

  • 8) Birthday parties

    Spot the signs

    “Gatherings with children can be difficult to manage due to jealousy issues,” says Judy. “If he’s unhappy, your toddler could start to push in or take other children’s cake or presents.”

    Stop the tantrum

    Explain about the party in advance, telling your tot where you’re both going and that it’s for his friend and there’ll be children there for him to have fun and play with. “If your tot starts to get upset, try and get down to his level, and whisper in his ear, telling him he needs to calm down and enjoy his friend’s day,” advises Judy. “If the tantrum begins to get out of hand and other children are bothered, take him out of the situation to calm down in the fresh air.” A change of scene helps to divert attention.

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  • 9) Being ignored

    Spot the signs

    “The feeling of being alone without lots of attention is a really common trigger for a tot’s tantrum,” says Naomi. “Your toddler has grown up with all your attention on her, so when you’re busy talking to someone else or carrying out a chore, she doesn’t understand why you’re not with her.” Your tot is likely to try and get your attention by playing up, crying or coming to you upset, so your focus is switched completely back to her.

    Stop the tantrum

    “Explain that you’re busy right now, but will be with her in a minute,” says Naomi. “Your child needs to learn that you can’t always stop what you’re doing and go to her every time, so be clear when you’re going to be free and stick to it.” If you’re in the car, distract your toddler with games and conversation. “Ask her to point out any buses, or certain colours of cars to keep her occupied,” suggests Judy. 

  • 10) Changes to routine

    Spot the signs

    If your tot’s suddenly presented with something new or a different person taking care of him, it can result in lots of tears and anger, as he’s confused about the change. Common triggers around routine are sleeping in a new house, going on a long journey, or ending up somewhere they haven’t seen before. Your little one might get distressed as the journey progresses if he doesn’t recognise his surroundings. He could also become clingy and teary on arrival as he’s scared. Changes in routine can also lead to tiredness and boredom, too.

    Stop the tantrum

    Make sure you prepare your tot in advance for any changes on the horizon and give him a countdown, for example, three sleeps to go, to build the excitement rather than fear. “Change can be difficult for you, too, so try and keep yourself upbeat and happy,” says Judy. “Children are very good at reading emotions, so make sure you know what will be happening and plan for every eventuality.” 

  • Mummy‚Äôs tantrum mantra

    If you want to get through those meltdown moments do your best to avoid…

    • Mimicking your toddler by freaking out in public. Otherwise your tot will think it’s acceptable to do it whenever and wherever. 
    • Saying, ‘You’re as annoying as your father!’ Yes, tantrums are a nightmare, but you have to present a united front as a couple to succeed in beating them, and be consistent.
    • Taking it personally. Your toddler is not being difficult because she doesn’t like you, or your car, or your new hair cut.
    • Being irrational. The world isn’t going to cave in because your tot throws a strop and the lady on the till gave you a disapproving look, so keep it all in perspective until it passes.

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