The First Hints of Tantrums

Month 17
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Month 20

Last Month's Wow:

Playing Pretend + Solo Play

Baby is ready for a deeper level of play full of adventures that opens up a whole imagination landscape. 

The Wow of Now:

The First Hints of Tantrums

Baby has strong feelings and limited ways to express them. This discrepancy between what baby understands or experiences vs limited vocabulary to make their feelings known is a recipe for tantrums.

The Wow Ahead:

Memory and Storytelling

A growing vocabulary opens up opportunities to deepen understanding. The survival brain expands to include past and future events, while improving memory solidifies a sense of identity and promotes a sense of future possibilities and adventure.

The Wow

A tantrum is just a physical manifestation of frustration. This frustration is due to baby’s language development not being able to keep up with their more advanced thoughts. When they are in the middle of a tantrum, they are unable to process anything you’re saying. That’s because emergency survivor mode has been triggered. Rationalizing, explaining, threatening, shaming, blaming, or bribing won’t work. Our survivor brain is designed to get our needs and passions met now.  So words like “not now!’ or “no!” can be all it takes to trigger a tantrum in a toddler. This may seem utterly irrational…because it is: When the survivor brain (limbic system) is triggered, it temporarily hijacks higher rational thinking.  
As baby enters this new toddler-tantrum stage, it’s time to teach them what “recovery” feels like. That’s a big victory that strengthens communication between “survivor brain” and rational brain,” leading to better emotional regulation in later years.

The How

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    Co-regulation, Not Punishment

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    When baby is having a tantrum, make yourself available for a hug, cuddle, or any physical contact. If they don’t like to be touched, sit nearby and simply remain present. It may be tempting to run away, but baby is too young to work it out on their own…for now. Try to keep yourself calm to show baby that at least you can remain regulated (two dysregulated people will only work each other up).

    Honor the feelings baby is having, for example, “I know you’re frustrated because you can’t have that toy—it’s so hard to want something you can’t have.” Offer comfort and support without giving in to the demand or attempting to solve the issue.

    Once things are calm, praise their ability to recover. This sends a message that we can get through frustration. Suggest to them that maybe next time, they can get through a frustrating moment even faster.

    Stay away from suggesting that any emotion is “bad”, instead, focus on certain behaviors that are unacceptable. For example, “I know you feel angry sometimes. That is normal, we all feel angry. But it’s never OK to throw a dangerous toy when we are angry. If you need to, you can stomp your feet or yell in your room, but we cannot throw things at each other.”

    Try setting yourself up for fewer tantrums by thinking ahead to potential triggers. Do tantrums happen when baby is tired? Hungry? Over-scheduled? Should you bring an extra snack to pickup? Should you start bedtime 20 minutes earlier? Does riding the train overstimulate them or do they need extra winddown time after a playdate? Try and look for patterns that can help to reduce the likelihood of tantrums, but know that no matter what you do, you’ll never extinguish them completely.


    Tantrums are a necessary and expected part of baby’s language development. An adult who remains calm and present while a child is dysregulated becomes a role model for what grounding and centering look like. They can help baby manage their own emotions, behave with intention, and consider alternate outcomes.

    A note on using sensory experiences as a tool - a baby's brain (adults too) is affected by all sensory experience. Olfactory (smell) experiences are connected to the activation of the nervous system, and so smell can be used to help bring about calm in dysregulated moments. Encouraging baby to smell the honeysuckle in Our Shampoo and Body Wash or the chamomile of Our Moisturizing Cream is a simple way to introduce calming olfactory experiences in the midst of your day.

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    Labeling Feelings

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    By labeling baby’s feelings as they arise, you help them to learn how to tame them—a gift to your child for the rest of their life. Name the emotions baby is experiencing as well as those around them:

    Is baby frustrated? Scared? Excited? Surprised?

    Does the character in the book look mad? Happy? Silly? Embarrassed?

    Build baby’s emotion vocabulary by naming how they feel, how you feel, and the feelings of those around them:

    When they light up for grandma, notice and say, “You’re excited! Grandma just got here and you are excited to see her!”

    On a walk, point out a crying baby and say, “Oh, that baby looks sad because she is crying. Maybe she is tired.”

    When baby is frustrated waiting for food, say “I know it’s hard to wait. That is frustrating. I’m going as quickly as I can and it will be ready soon.”


    By talking about feelings—yours, theirs, and others’—you help baby begin to understand the connection between feelings and behaviors. While the bad news is that the gap between receptive and expressive language causes deep frustration, the good news is that this frustration drives development by making them eager to find language to express themselves. It’s also important to note that frustration isn’t all bad: It’s important for baby to learn to feel frustrated and recover, and that it’s OK to experience a few moments of struggle.

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    Story Find

    Routine: Play Time
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    Open a book with illustrations and rather than reading the story, ask your child to find certain objects on the page. Engage with your little one as you do this, repeating names of objects they say aloud. You may also ask your little one to find things they don’t yet know; use this as a moment to teach your child new information!


    This activity helps to strengthen many pre-academic such as working memory and attention, and also helps them connect words with pictures, thereby expanding their everyday knowledge.

Support for You

Your understanding around tantrums may have evolved since becoming a parent, but the feeling that others judge you while your kid is melting down at the grocery store is hard to shake. (You may feel that judgment even more acutely depending on where you live, your race, gender, or culture.) Handling tantrums in public is HARD. If you can, try and move baby to a private space to calm down, like your car or the parking lot. And whether you find a private space or not, keeping calm yourself is even more important. The pressure of onlookers can agitate all of us, but babies are likely to take even longer to calm down if your emotions are heightened as well. Take a breath, focus on getting through it, and know that you are supported.

Let's Check on the Basics

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Is baby eating?
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Is baby sleeping?
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Is baby pooping?

Yes on all three? Great! One or more No’s? Let’s talk about it.
Contact us for support resources!

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