Saturday, September 1

What Causes Temper Tantrum in Toddlers?

Temper tantrum in toddlers is a much dreaded aspect of childrearing; also one of the least understood. What prompts children to throw a fit, kick, scream, roll on the floor, hit their soft heads against hard objects, hurt themselves and others, and transform into unmanageable bundles of fury that leave parents helpless, highly provoked, and often clueless? Why are some kids particularly prone to throwing a tantrum when others are more placid?

The whole point of this post and the following series is to explore the causes of temper tantrums especially in toddlers and young children. Understanding the causes is the first step in handling it and preventing it from tormenting both the child and the caregivers.

Some Usual Causes of Temper Tantrums

  • Young children feel

Hunger, Thirst

  • Discomfort from 
       Wet nappiesPinching shoe, Stuffy clothing, Loud noises
  • Some object to the sensation of being pushed around atop a rickety trolley.
  • The sudden change in temperature from outdoors to indoors or from the warmer aisles to the frozen food aisle of a supermarket.

  • Besides these annoyances kids also feel
    causes of temper tantrums in toddlers
    Courtesy Nasir Khan-morguefile,com



    Loss of control



    Overstimulation of the senses



  • They can also keenly sense the parent's anger and other negative emotions directed towards them or elsewhere.
  • They could be having an aching belly or head or foot but be unable to articulate exactly what's happening with them.
  • Something they ate or drank could be making them feel sick or nauseous and again, they are not going to be able to identify their problem as such and inform the parent.
  • Over and above all, toddlers become confused and agitated when their daily routines are disrupted.

Any of these might prove the last straw to a shopping trip that seems to go on forever. When they feel horrible they act horrible.

Major Emotions in a Temper Tantrum

causes of temper tantrums in toddlers
Photograph Courtesy Anita

What you need to keep in mind is that the major emotions involved in a tantrum episode are frustration and sadness

A toddler throwing a tantrum is first and foremost a very sad child even though it is the fury that grabs attention.

There is an element of helplessness in combination with the other elements discussed above that makes the child feel incredibly alone, abandoned, and vulnerable.

Lack of Language Abilities Can Cause Tantrums 

The toddler's greatest vulnerability is the lack of language. He does not have the ability to tell you exactly how he is feeling or where it hurts. This leads to a great deal of frustration, especially when the caregiver is unable to understand his repeated attempts at communicating.

Of course, this leads to an emotional acting out of that frustration that is overwhelming him. As the tantrum moves into first gear, he becomes even more incoherent as the little logic that his baby brain is capable of abandons him altogether.

Warning Signals of a Temper Tantrum

temper tantrums in toddlers
Temper tantrums in children do not occur without warning. There will be signals such as whimpers, whines, sniffles, change in tone and facial expressions, and sobs that should signal to the caregiver well in advance what is brewing.  When these warning signals are ignored, the tantrum escalates into a gale force performance.

Temper Tantrums Caused by Adult Routines

Adult routines and errands often disrupt a toddler's routine. Young kids benefit from steady routines and predictability. This gives them a sense of security that is essential to forming healthy personalities and attitudes. Trying to fit your child into your routines upsets the stability and predictability that a child depends on to make sense of this world.

If you have a toddler or very young child, plan your routine around her needs and not the other way around. Trying to fit childrearing to suit shopping, grocery, movies, eating out, parties, and other adult activities is actually asking too much of a toddler.

Trying to squeeze in one more errand when the child is ready for his nap is not a sensible thing to do. This will provoke a tantrum 9 times out of 10 and then it is quite absurd to label the child a monster for demanding that it needs to take a nap, groceries be damned.

Toddlers Cannot be Expected to Understand Adult Concepts of Time, Distance, and Numbers

Young children are not capable of understanding the concept of postponing or the significance of time. When you tell your child, "Five minutes, sweetie, let mommy quickly rush in and do this one thing," the toddler does not understand the concept of the number 5, the meaning of minutes or how long or short that is, or the all-fired importance of whatever it is that mommy is hurrying to accomplish. He only knows he is sleepy but unable to do so and it is driving him nuts with frustration.

Instead of seeing the child's point of view, mommy might insist on completing her errand. She might even accuse the child of controlling her with his unrelenting needs and refuse to be thus controlled by a pipsqueak. After all it's just a matter of a few minutes; the kid should be fine to wait. 

But in a toddler's world 5 minutes might just as well be 5 hours. The only way he can communicate his discomfort and frustration at the disruption of his routine is to bawl at the top of his lungs and use his body as a punching bag in a bid to work it out.

Toddlers do not Get Adult Logic

And once the meltdown has begun, you can offer him the finest bed in the world to take his nap, but he just won't see it. The outburst of powerful emotions has to work its way out of his system. Right now the prime issue is how horribly upset she is feeling and not what caused it. You can only wait till it has run its course and comes to an end on its own.

Single parents, especially, are often at a loss when it comes to balancing day to day routines and childrearing. But if your intention is harmonious childrearing, the priority has to be the child. Following a stable routine actually helps you schedule and make plans around the peaks and lulls that define a day with your child. As a matter of fact you get more work accomplished this way.

Temper Tantrum-An Inside View

Have you ever wondered how it must feel to be restricted by language, completely powerless and strapped to a pram or trolley, highly uncomfortable in wet pants or worse, longing for a cool drink or a warm snack and none are forthcoming, unable to snooze when your eyelids are heavy with sleep, and no one appears to care a damn? 

Something similar would be you having to sit through a parliament session when you don't have the slightest interest in politics. You are surrounded by strangers talking gibberish that you are not in the least bit interested. You would of course get up and leave. 

But what if you are strapped to a chair and are at the mercy of a caregiver if you need to get out of that chair, have a drink or snack, or just take a stroll and explore surroundings? 

Wouldn't it be infinitely worse if you get the feeling that your caregiver does not appear to be paying much attention to you, but is rather more interested in picking things off shelves, trying on shoes or clothes, or talking endlessly on the phone?

Understanding the causes of toddler tantrums
You begin to whimper, whine a little louder, and then when that fails, get more vocal in your efforts to communicate your uneasiness. Nope, nothing works. You are told to behave or you won't be given this treat or that trip to the park later on. Later on does not really make much sense to you; in your world it might as well be a month away; the only concept of time you understand is right now.

You feel a bit let down and unhappy that your needs are not being met. Simultaneously waves of frustration rise up inside of you prompted by an utter lack of control and powerlessness. You go red in the face and let out shrieks and screams. You are no longer aware of your surroundings or the good manners that you have been taught.

You reach a stage where you don't even know why you feel the way you do. You are unable to think straight and are at the mercy of your emotions

You kick and scream, hold your breath, choke, sob, streams of tears flow down your face, your nose is stuffed up, and you're hurting all over from banging and crashing around. 

You can sense the displeasure of your caregiver and that makes you feel infinitely worse. The only reality for you at this stage is the fact that you are terribly upset and have neither the ability nor the wherewithal to manage it. If this scenario were real, you are right in the middle of a temper tantrum at this stage. How would you like to be treated?

Do share your ideas in the comments below. Later on I shall be exploring the more scientific causes of tantrums and ways on how to handle temper tantrums in children. You might also like the ultimate guide to temper tantrums. This post is just an exploration of the usual causes. Thank you for reading this far. 


  1. Hi,
    I've just been going through your posts. You have some really useful information here. I've never really thought how a kid thinks. This has been most helpful.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Joey. I really do appreciate your support.


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