Are you in crisis and need help? FIND HELP »

Toddler Tantrums: Inside the Mind of a Child

April 14, 2020

What parents are thinking vs. what toddlers are thinking during a tantrum. Plus, tips to help you keep your cool while helping your child calm down!

Toddler tantrum

By Elissa Kraynik
Supervisor/Family Support Specialist
Parent Connection

If you have a toddler in your household, you know how important routine can be. But right now, try as you may, your usual routine might not be happening. Sleep schedules, daycare, play dates, and trips to the playground are all things that helped you and your child stay on a familiar and comforting rhythm. Without them, you may be feeling stressed and your toddler might be, too.

How does a toddler show their frustration or confusion? Tantrums. And a tantrum is almost guaranteed to make an already stressful parenting situation even more stressful. Before you react, it’s important to take a step back and think through what is REALLY going on. Both in your mind, and in your child’s mind.

Say you’ve just told your toddler that they can’t do or have something that they want. After some back-and-forth, your toddler hits the ground crying and screaming. They may even yell, “I hate you!” In YOUR mind, you are likely thinking or feeling the following:


Parent/Caregiver Brain:

“My kid hates me”

“I am a horrible parent”

“I just need five minutes of quiet to myself!”

“I can’t wait until they go to bed!”

“I am going to LOSE it!”

“I just want to scream!”


Your feelings in these moments are extremely valid. Remember, your toddler does not hate you. In fact, they are acting this way because they feel safest and most secure with you.  Way to go! So, what exactly is going through your child’s mind during this tantrum? If they could explain it to you, this is probably what they would say.


Toddler Brain:

“That cookie is RIGHT in front of me and I’m hungry NOW! You are telling me that dinner is in my future.”

“I’m trying to find the words, but I don’t know enough words to get my emotions out.”

“I missed my nap or went to bed late last night. I am overtired physically and lack the emotional control to handle this.”

“I need Mommy or Daddy to make me feel better, because I am still learning ways to make MYSELF feel better.”

“I can’t even remember why I am crying, because this is taking a lot of energy out of me. This lack of control makes me even MORE upset!”

“I need help!”


Your toddler’s emotions have gotten in the way of their brain understanding what you are saying. They haven’t learned yet how to handle big feelings. A lot of this has to do with knowing how they feel, but not knowing enough words to get those feelings out.

Remind yourself of this: the way YOU handle this situation is modeling how your toddler should respond to THEIR big feelings. They are learning from you. Take a deep breath and count to ten. Get down at your child’s level so you are eye to eye. Validate your child’s feelings before explaining why they can’t have their way. For example, you could say to your child, “I bet you are really hungry. I’m so sorry. I bet that is upsetting. I get upset when I’m hungry, too.”

After validating your toddler’s feelings, try distracting them with new tasks. For example, you could tell your toddler, “I could REALLY use a special helper! I bet we can have dinner ready faster if you are able to be my special helper. Thank you SO much! Can I please have a hug?” After the new task is done, be sure to praise your child for what they accomplished. “I had a great time cooking with you! I’m so glad you are feeling better! I am, too!”

Remember, if you ever feel yourself getting too overwhelmed, it’s okay to take a “Mommy Time Out” or “Daddy Time Out.” Even 5 minutes of self-care can help you calm down and release some of the stress you are feeling. Take a warm bath, read that magazine article, take a walk, or call a friend. Keep in mind that it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out. There are resources and support available to you, and Family Services is here to help!

Tagged ,