Dealing with tantrums

for parents and carers  

This webpage looks at the reasons behind why children have tantrums and gives practical advice about how to deal with them.



This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Tantrums are usually a short period of angry outburst or unreasonable behaviours like crying, screaming, shouting and throwing objects.

This is a normal part of growing up. Between the ages of one and four years, most children will have tantrums. As children grow they are learning to become more physically independent. For example, they may want to play, want to dress and feed themselves, or pour their own juice. Your child therefore can get very upset, if they are unable to do something or if they are stopped. A battle between freedom and frustration can lead to tantrums.

Tantrums can also occur when a child is:

  • tired
  • hungry
  • feeling ignored
  • worried or anxious - a younger child may be unable to tell you that they are anxious and they may cry, become clingy and have tantrums.

Your child's screams and yells can be alarming. You may feel angry, discouraged and hopeless.You will almost certainly be embarrassed if a tantrum occurs in a public place or in front of other people.

It is not easy being a parent or carer of a toddler. However it is important to set the rules, so your child learns to deal with their emotions.

Remember, it is only natural that children will try to push the limits. Here are some ideas which may work for you and your child:

Don't panic

The main thing to do is to stay calm and not to get upset. Just remind yourself that this is normal, that lots of parents do deal with it, be reassured that you will manage this too.

Ignore the tantrum

You should calmly continue with whatever you are doing - chatting to someone else, packing your shopping or whatever. Every so often check to make sure your child is safe. Ignoring your child is very hard, but if you answer back, or even smack them, you are giving them the attention they are demanding.

Be consistent with rules

You are trying to teach your child that rules are important and that you will stick to them.

Pay attention to any good behaviour

As soon as you see any signs of calming down, e.g. they stop screaming, praise them. Turn your full attention back to the child, talk to them with warmth and admiration. If you reward the new behaviour like this, your child is more likely to stay calm and carry on being good.

Planning ahead can help to avoid a tantrum, if you know when they are likely to occur or notice a pattern your child shows before having a tantrum. Here are some examples:

  • manage boredom when in a waiting room by taking their favourite books and toys to the doctor's surgery with you
  • storing their favourite biscuits out of sight, rather than where they can see them
  • managing a tired child by giving them an afternoon nap, instead of staying awake all day
  • managing hunger by offering a snack after nursery at 3.30 p.m., instead of having to wait until 5.00 p.m for tea
  • distraction can help. You may be able to avoid a tantrum by diverting your child’s attention.

Talking problems over with other parents, family or friends is often useful. Talk to your child’s teachers, as there may be a similar problem at nursery or school.

If this does not help and the tantrums are getting you down, ask your health visitor, school, practice nurse or general practitioner for advice. Many parents and carers find parenting programs like Triple P or Webster Stratton groups helpful. Sometimes more specialist help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) may be required especially when there are other worrying difficulties for the child or when tantrums occur too long and often with child hurting self or others.

My son, Dylan was about 22 months old when he started banging his head, screaming and crying when he really wanted something and I wasn’t able to give it to him straight away.

Some members of the family said that it was because Dylan was becoming more independent and that he was testing boundaries. Martin, my fiancé, used to give into Dylan really easily and we would often disagree with how to manage his behaviour in public and would argue about it.

It was really stressful and embarrassing when Dylan would take things off the shelves at the supermarket and start screaming when I took them away because they were not safe.

When he started banging his head against the floor, I was really surprised. He had never done anything like this before and I was really worried that he might harm himself badly. I soon realised that Dylan was okay and behaved better if I stayed calm when he threw a tantrum, and would settle down if I didn’t pay too much attention to his behaviour.=

I also noticed that Dylan would be well behaved for longer if I rewarded his good behaviour and said lots of nice positive things to him about how well he was doing. We started taking Dylan to the swimming pool which he really liked too and he soon grew out of the head banging.

Hands on Scotland - A toolkit of helpful responses to encourage children and young people's emotional wellbeing: a website with toolkit of helpful responses to encourage children and young people’s emotional wellbeing.

Young Minds Parents Helpline - For any adult concerned about the emotions and behaviour of a child or young person. Parents' helpline 0808 802 5544.


The Young Mind: an essential guide to mental health for young adults, parents and teachers. Edited by Bailey, S. and Shooter, M. (2009)

Rutter, M. & Taylor, E. (eds) (2008) 'Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry' (5th edn). London: Blackwell Publishing..


Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to Dr Martin Bennett, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy..

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

Published: Jul 2015

Review due: Jul 2018

© Royal College of Psychiatrists