BETA: We would really appreciate your feedback to help us improve and grow the service. We're listening!

Toddler tantrums, tricky behaviour and pushing boundaries

Toddlers are full of fun and energy but they as they grow, develop and explore, they can really test your patience to the limit.

Find out where to get advice, guidance and support to help you respond to and deal with the challenges and demands of looking after a toddler.

Toddler tantrums, tricky behaviour and pushing boundaries

Read time: 3 minutes


Is your toddler having tantrums? You're not alone! Tantrums are common between 18 months and four years. But that doesn't make them any easier to deal with when you're in the middle of a supermarket!

Toddler tantrums can be dramatic. They often involve crying, screaming, hitting, kicking, throwing themselves to the ground. Sometimes all at the same time!

It is important to understand that your toddler's not trying to embarrass you, upset you or annoy you. They just need to express a very strong emotion and find it tricky. This is when they have a tantrum, when they are angry or frustrated and have no other way of letting you know.

The good news is that once your little one can talk, the tantrums will happen less often. But children do sometimes lose control when they are experiencing very strong emotions. Just like adults! It's also important to know that even when your toddler can talk, they won't be able to explain why they had a tantrum! The tantrum is the communication, so it's not helpful to ask your toddler why it happened. They won't be able to tell you and that will lead to more frustration for both you and your little one.

Tricky behaviour

Your toddler's behaviour can also become tricky if they start to bite, pull hair, push, snatch or kick. Sometimes this is just your toddler exploring. They're still learning about their world by putting things in their mouths and by touch. They may not understand that biting or pulling hair hurts.

Sometimes it's emotion that triggers more tricky behaviours – jealousy, frustration, fear or anger. Sometimes it's because their needs haven't been met - are they tired, hungry or in need of a cuddle? Remember, your toddler is struggling to make their feelings known. And because they don't know how to do this yet they can lash out in frustration.

This doesn't mean you can ignore this behaviour, but it does help to understand why it is happening! Try to recognise and meet your toddlers needs before they let you know with tricky behaviour. And by recognising and responding to their emotions early you may be able to stop it before it happens.

Pushing the boundaries

Toddlers are also starting to realise they have a voice. And they begin to seek some independence and control.

They might start pushing the boundaries you set by:

  • saying 'no!' to everything!
  • refusing to get dressed, or go to bed or have a bath
  • refusing to eat certain foods (see our page on fussy eaters)
  • running off
  • begging and pestering when they don't get their own way

Top tips from the NHS

Read time: 2 minutes

Dealing with tantrums

Why is the tantrum happening?

Your child may be tired or hungry, in which case the solution is simple. They could be feeling frustrated or jealous, maybe of another child. They may need time, attention and love, even though they're not being very loveable.

Understand and accept your child's anger

You probably feel the same way yourself at times, but you can express it in other ways.

Find a distraction

If you think your child is starting a tantrum, find something to distract them with straight away. This could be something you can see out of the window. For example, you could say, "Look! A cat". Make yourself sound as surprised and interested as you can.

Wait for it to stop

Losing your temper or shouting back won't end the tantrum. Ignore the looks you get from people around you and concentrate on staying calm.

Don't change your mind

Giving in won't help in the long term. If you've said no, don't change your mind and say yes just to end the tantrum. Otherwise, your child will start to think tantrums can get them what they want.

For the same reason, it doesn't help to bribe them with sweets or treats. If you're at home, try going into another room for a while. Make sure your child can't hurt themselves first.

Be prepared when you're out shopping

Tantrums often happen in shops. This can be embarrassing, and embarrassment makes it harder to stay calm. Keep shopping trips as short as possible. Involve your child in the shopping by talking about what you need and letting them help you.

Look after yourself

Whatever you do, your toddler won't behave perfectly all the time. If your toddler sometimes misbehaves it doesn't mean you're doing a bad job – it's just a part of growing up! Remember, parenting is a tough job so don't forget to be kind to yourself!

Difficult behaviour often leaves parents feeling rubbish and tired. If you are feeling helpless and unsure of the best approach to take, don't worry. There are many helpful websites and support services. Try to stay positive, and if you feel you need a helping hand, reach out. And remember to look after yourself.

Information from external websites

Action for Children have a short article on what to do if your toddler has a tantrum, including how you can stop tantrums from building up, and one on what to do if your toddler has a meltdown.

They also have a short article on how to stop your toddler biting or hitting, and another on what to do if your toddler says 'no' all the time.

Family Space Barnardo's have a really helpful page on managing tantrums and supporting toddler behaviour. It talks you through the Pause for Thought system, which you might find useful.

Family Lives have a number of useful articles, including understanding and dealing with tantrums, what to do when your toddler is always misbehaving, and dealing with aggressive behaviour in toddlers. They also have a helpful page on setting boundaries for toddlers.

The NCT have a great collection of 10 articles on toddler tantrums and tricky behaviour, including how to handle toddler tantrums in public.

The NHS have a handy page on tantrums, including a section on how to handle it when your toddler is hitting, biting, kicking and fighting.

The NSPCC have a helpful page with lots of tips to help you cope with the stress of your toddler's tantrums.

Struggling and need to talk?

Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.

Family Lives has a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).

NSPCC has a free, confidential helpline for parents looking for advice. Call 0808 800 5000 (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends).

The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922

Face-to-face support

You could also talk to your health visitor or your GP.

Useful videos for dealing with tantrums, tricky behaviour and pushing the boundaries

You might find this Family Lives video on tantrums useful.

EHCAP shares a fantastic video that uses the hand model to help you understand what is happening in the brain when we lose control of our emotions - as useful for understanding your own emotional responses as it is for understanding your toddlers!

Family Lives also have a video on toddler independence.

The NHS have a video on the best way to deal with tantrums – once you've clicked through to the NHS page you'll need to scroll down to find it.

The NHS also have a video on how much your toddler understands about being naughty – once you've clicked through to the NHS page you'll need to scroll down to find it.

In this NSPCC video 'Take 5 – advice from parents' parent's give their advice on how to cope with difficult behaviour.

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

Is your toddler's behaviour leaving you feeling stressed out or frazzled? Why don't you try downloading Thrive, a game based NHS assessed app designed to help you manage stress and anxiety.

You could have a look at the 'Being, Belonging, Becoming' leaflets on Surrey's Family Information Service (FIS). These information cards contain tips on how to help your child to become independent, sociable and happy.

The NSPCC has a great guide on positive parenting with a helpful section on setting boundaries.

Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

You might want to look at the book The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. It uses what is known about children's developing brains to suggest strategies to make parenting easier and your relationships with your children stronger.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to an online guide that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guide.

Access to the guide is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

BETA: We would really appreciate your feedback to help us improve and grow the service. We're listening!

Other people went on to view these pages

Date published: 22 Apr 2021