Why Does My Toddler Get Angry?

Children younger than 4 regularly have up to 9 tantrums a week. While it can be shocking to see your child become so angry, it's developmentally appropriate in toddlers. Angry outbursts are how they express the frustration they are experiencing as a result of their rapid growth. 

Children between the ages of 18 months and 4 years are undergoing a lot of changes. They want to do things for themselves but don't have the skills and abilities to do so. Thankfully, your toddler's anger should start to fade as they develop the communication skills to express themselves better. 

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to help your toddler deal with their anger. 

Causes of Anger in Toddlers

A temper tantrum is your child's way of expressing their frustration with their limits or anger about not getting their way. Some typical triggers for tantrums include: 

  • Being unable to complete a task
  • Not having the words to express their feelings
  • Being tired
  • Being ill
  • Being hungry 
  • Transitions 

Preventing Anger in Toddlers

Stay positive. Children need positive relationships to feel connected and learn to control their behavior. When you're dealing with an angry toddler, it can be hard to stay calm. Kids with behavior challenges can get caught in a difficult cycle. Their behavior frustrates their caregiver, who gets angry with them, which causes more anger. It can feel like you're always punishing your child. 

As long as they aren't being destructive, try to focus on the positive — even if it means overlooking some tantrums. 

Make a plan. You can't prevent every tantrum, but if you plan ahead you can reduce their frequency. Here are some tips to help: 

  • Plan ahead. Don't run errands when your child is going to be hungry and tired. Pack snacks and toys to keep your toddler busy.
  • Be consistent. Stick to a routine that includes consistent times for meals, naps, and bedtimes. Your child will do better if they know what to expect. They will also handle frustration better if they are getting enough rest. 
  • Offer choices. Whenever possible, let your child make decisions. Children feel more in control if they can decide what toys to play with or what outfit to wear. 
  • Identify triggers. Avoid situations that are likely to cause your child to have a meltdown. Don't give your child toys that will frustrate them. Avoid sit-down restaurants if your child can't tolerate waiting. 

Reward good behavior . Catch your child being good. If your child behaves at dinner, point it out and compliment them. Help your child set an appropriate behavior goal and give them a reward for reaching it. Instead of a material reward, give your child special time with a parent or let them pick the movie for movie night. 

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How to Manage Anger in Toddlers

When your toddler does have a tantrum, they will need your help de-escalating and calming down. You can help your child calm down if you:  

  • Stay calm. Shouting or responding angrily to your child will just make the situation worse. 
  • Try distraction. Give your child a toy or book. Offer to help if the tantrum is about cleaning up or doing a chore. 
  • Gently restrain. If your child is hitting, kicking, or trying to run away, hold them until they calm down. 
  • Explain the rules. When your child calms down, talk about the rules with them. 

When to Seek Help

Aside from normal developmental stages, there are underlying medical issues that can cause anger in children. Some of these include: 

  • Frustration in children with cognitive or communication disorders such as Autism
  • Psychosis such as schizophrenia
  • Mood disorders such as bipolar disorder
  • Impulsivity, which often occurs with ADHD
  • Trauma caused by outside circumstances
  • Frontal lobe damage that can occur with injuries or epilepsy

If your child's anger doesn't seem to be related to a developmental stage and lasts longer than a few weeks, you should talk to your pediatrician about it. You should also talk to a doctor if you feel like you can't handle your child's anger on your own. Some other signs that your child may need help include: 

  • Causing injury to themselves or others, including bruises and bite marks
  • Attacking you or other adults
  • Being sent home from school or playing with friends
  • Concerns about the safety of people around your child

The biggest warning sign is the frequency of outbursts. It's possible for children with issues such as conduct disorder to go several days or a week without outbursts. However, they can rarely go a month without problems. Treatments are available that can help reward good behavior and discourage bad behavior in children with underlying issues.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 11, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Child Mind Institute: "What Are Some of the Causes of Aggression in Children?"

Cleveland Clinic: "6 Ways to Deal With Your Child's Aggressive Behavior," "7 Tips to Help You Survive Your Toddler's Terrible Twos."

Healthychildren.org: "10 Tips to Prevent Aggressive Toddler Behavior."

Mayo Clinic: "Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace."

Parenting Science: "Disruptive behavior problems: 12 evidence-based tips for handling aggression, defiance, and acting out."

Yale Medicine: "Anger, Irritability and Aggression in Kids."

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