Today’s parents face many tough challenges. On top of working full-time jobs outside the home (which over half of all moms with kids under the age of 3 do), they cook and clean and do housekeeping chores, and they may be responsible for the care and feeding of their parents and/or grandparents, too. These days, most parents shoulder these responsibilities without much assistance from neighbors, relatives, babysitters, or other hired help.

Whew! No wonder it feels like you’re giving 120 are.

You try so hard. You do so much. That’s why it can really push your buttons when your toddler turns into a screaming red-eyed bully. It can feel so unfair—even humiliating—especially if she pelts you with mean words, like “I hate you!” or “You’re stupid!” 

Toddler tantrums usually peak at 18 to 24 months, subside a little, and then peak again around 3 ½ years. At these ages your child’s brain is virtually bubbling over with an intense and explosive mix of primitive impulses: greed, stubbornness, aggression, and impatience. And when you combine the “nitro” of your tot’s passionate “mine!” with the “glycerin” of your adamant “no way!”’ve got some really, really powerful TNT. Kapow! 

The Little Adult Assumption

To soothe a toddler who is having a blowup, many parents are taught to calmly acknowledge their child’s unhappy feelings and then gently correct them. Sounds reasonable, but mature comments like those often backfire and can make livid toddlers shriek even louder! That’s because little children aren’t mini-adults. Their immature toddler brains struggle to understand long sentences and to control their bursts of powerful emotions.

Why Toddlers Have Tantrums

They don’t speak well. Wouldn’t you get frustrated if you lived somewhere you couldn't speak the language? Well, your toddler also gets irritated when she can’t communicate. No wonder little kids with limited language skills often resort to nontalking forms of communication like foot stomping, arm waving, eye bulging, and screaming! 

We set a bad example. Venting your anger in front of your child may train her to scream more. She’ll learn that unleashing her rage is totally fine. After all...Mommy does it.

They get stuck in an emotional corner. For many little Tarzans, forcing them to give in can make them feel humiliated. When their primitive sense of pride gets bruised, they go bonkers. The harder these kids struggle against us, the more they get painted into an emotional “corner,” unable to gracefully back down and recover from their upset. 

Here’s an example of what that might look like: Jeev, 18 months, was a gentle boy, but he could still act pretty uncivilized. He loved eating whole pears...but one day his mom, Suparna, cut his pear in pieces because it was extra juicy. His response? He grabbed the plate and hurled it at his mom’s head! Suparna realized her “mistake” and immediately offered Jeev a whole pear. And what did this little cave-kid do? He scowled, shook his head No! And refused to even look at it. 

Like Jeev, your toddler may get so upset she paints herself into a corner, unable to give in, even when you offer exactly what she’s asking for. That’s why respectful, diplomatic skills are so great. They help our tots escape from this predicament with their pride intact. 

They have “temper” temperaments. Intense and spirited toddlers have bigger meltdowns because, well, they do everything bigger. You can’t change your child’s temperament, but using my method of Feeding the Meter, the Fast Food Rule, and learning to speak your toddler’s language (aka Toddler-ese) you will help keep him from exploding into anger with every frustration and disappointment. 

Our world is simultaneously too exciting...and too boring. Your toddler’s immature brain may get overloaded by noisy videos. Yet at the same time, she may get bored spending a lot of time at home. Remember, up until 200 years ago, toddlers usually spent many, many hours a day playing outdoors. 

Tantrums work! When we give in to outbursts (or pay too much attention to them), our kids learn that screaming gets them what they want. Younger toddlers recognize this subconsciously, but older ones often learn to intentionally use fits to get their way.

Why Does My 3-Year-Old Toddler Still Have Tantrums?

As kids get older and more verbal, their tantrums occur less and less. Yet many 3-to 4-year-olds (and teens) have occasional meltdowns. That’s because:

  1. They still struggle with impulse control. Older toddlers are increasingly well behaved. But after a long day, your child may lose control and scream with the force of Old Faithful (especially if he has a spirited temperament).

  2. They are emotional yo-yos. Three-year-olds are no longer babies, but they’re not quite big kids. They sometimes yo-yo back and forth between these two developmental stages so much that they totally fall apart: “I’m a baby…I’m a big kid!” Yikes! Think of it as emotional whiplash (for him and you).

  3. They see outbursts at home. If there is lots of quarreling in your family (or violence displayed on TV), your child may defy you more because he’s learned that arguing is a normal way to express frustration. 

Our toddler’s rage can suddenly push us over the edge into our own impulsive, irrational rage.

We’ve all been there, but when it happens, we must try to remember to breathe and say to ourselves: My child is the caveman...I'm a civilized adult.

And as a civilized adult, you must try to stay calm and not return your child’s outbursts with sarcasm, humiliation, or removal of your love...and certainly not with violence. 

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.