What your Tantruming Toddler Really Wants

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Toddlers can be very frustrating to parent. They want something, they scream, you give it to them, they still scream. They actually don’t know what they want, so what is it they need? Why the meltdowns? Here’s a hint, it’s something a lot more essential than a new toy or an ice cream.

Stop asking me questions, I’m a toddler! You’re supposed to be in charge!

Do you give your toddler commands by asking questions? This is usually done habitually for politeness but its a real no-no. Giving a command as a question makes you seem first of all as a subordinate, not a leader, and that you are lacking confidence. We give orders as a question to avoid offense and give the recipient the option to say no. Toddlers will almost always take the option of saying no. When you keep doing the thing which they said no to, its also making them feel violated.

Can I change your shirt?

No no no.

I need to change your shirt, come here


If this sounds familiar, don’t ask your toddler anything, just direct them. it may surprise you how well they respond to this small change.

If you’re not going to take no for an answer, then don’t ask.

If you do give them choices, make sure they are constrained to “this or that” (2 options). Do not ask open-ended questions like “what do you want to wear?” (they will always want the favorite shirt which is in the wash) or “what do you want for breakfast?” (ice cream!). They will not understand that their choices are limited by reality or practicality (or rules) so just avoid the whole situation by naming or showing them their options.

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I want to know that you’re strong enough to protect me

A toddler wants to push against a boundary, feel the boundary and then feel secure.

This is why once you say something, you should try not to slide on it. If you’re going to say “it’s naptime” it better really be naptime. Don’t change your mind just because they have a fit about it and do the “okay play a few more minutes”. After all, they are toddlers and they may not be aware that they are grumpy and hitting everyone because they’re actually tired. They probably just feel really angry with no idea why.

You need to show them that you’re competent and in charge, so they can feel like the person making decisions for them knows what they’re doing. After all, children don’t always want what is good for them. Sometimes they want to play with matches.

When a toddler thinks they are the one in control it’s like being just a cleaner in a hospital and then being forced to perform brain surgery on your first day. How would you feel? You’d be freaked out and want to scream this is a mistake you got the wrong guy, I’m not a surgeon. Yep, that’s how toddlers feel when you let them think they’re in charge. They don’t want to be in charge, it makes them really stressed out. They know they are little with a lot to learn.

When you say no, you’re not being mean. You’re helping your toddler feel safe and secure, you’re saying “I know better” and “I’m here to care for and protect you”. This is reassuring to your toddler, so don’t feel guilty.

I’m tired / hungry / thirsty

Nothing will prevent tantrums if your child’s base needs are not met, if your toddler is having problems with sleep or eating, I recommend seeking some assistance. Your family doctor can be a good place to start.

I want to feel useful and part of the family

Give your toddler some responsibilities. Some people will roll their eyes at this and say “they’re just kids why burden them with responsibilities”

And to those I say, if you see responsibility as a burden, why did you have a child? Did you not see it as something that would be rewarding and that would bring you joy, and give you a sense of purpose in life? The same kind of feelings you get from taking on other responsibilities like say, having a pet, taking a course, attending university, starting a project, etc?

Responsibility is rewarding. Toddlers are at a stage where they want to be more independent, better to foster that now or you’ll be arguing with your kids for years trying to get them to do anything at all around the house.

An adult’s work is a toddler’s play. I remember one afternoon I looked at our kitchen floor and said: “this really needs a clean” and rather than use my free time (after kids are in bed) to do it, I gave my toddler a scrubbing brush and we scrubbed all the tiles together (i decided to scrub rather than mop because it would be something easier for him to participate in). He had great fun even though he kept wanting to swap brushes. It was a game for him. Toddlers love imitating adults. Chores aren’t a punishment, it will give your toddler a sense of pride when they get to be like mum and dad. Your toddler admires you more than anyone else right now, so of course they love trying anything that you do.

People who don’t involve their children in their activities usually spend a lot of time resenting, ignoring or yelling at them. This can set a bad tone for the entire relationship, bring us to the next point

I want to feel connected to you

Your toddler may feel ignored or they may feel their relationship with you is damaged and trying to repair it. Observe them through the day and see how many times they request your attention positively (trying to show you something, bringing an object to you, hugging you, looking at you and smiling, trying to say something to you or engage you in other ways), and how many times you actually respond to these ques to connect. If you ignore or brush off too many of them, tantrums will potentially begin, or your child may just give up and take on a depressed demeanor, or try to get negative attention from you.

Negative attention is still very reinforcing. This is when you yell at or punish the child. Children will seek negative attention by either having tantrums or misbehaving (pulling things off shelves, doing dangerous activities, being destructive, hitting a sibling etc). When they do not get positive attention, the negative attention at least tells them “my parents care about what I am doing and are protecting me”. Many people assume toddlers misbehave because they want to make their parents upset, not so. Usually, they just feel ignored and want a reminder you still care.

This is a reason that neglect often results in worse psychological damage than active abuse because the fact that someone “cares” to control you or beat you down is still something to a child. A child who is totally unwanted with indifferent parent/s will feel much more insecure and unsafe in the world.

However your child behaves, it can help to remember that you are their world and they want to feel loved and close to you. They are not trying to make you angry or make your life hard. They are just testing boundaries and checking you still care.

Boundaries help your toddler feel safe

Toddlers need good leadership to feel safe. Their other primary need is to feel cared about and useful/involved in the family. For all the above, you need a balance to create a sense of security for the child.

Sure, you can order them around, but if you don’t connect with them at times, then you’ll have them destroying everything and misbehaving whenever you’re not looking. Other parents who find it difficult to say no, might have enough connection but lacking in the areas of being authoritative and respectable (ie they are bad at defending boundaries) resulting in a very selfish child who lacks empathy and is very materialistic.

An independent, emotionally secure child will be the easiest to raise and cause you the least headaches for you in their lifetime. So it is worth the effort establishing security now for the ease it will bring later.

Do you have any other tips for toddler tantrums? let me know in a comment.


  1. Agatha
    February 16, 2020

    So true. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Tammy
    July 2, 2020

    Thank you for this great article on managing tantrums with compassion.


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