Is it a tantrum?

Is it a tantrum?
When a toddler gets angry, cries, or screams, we often call it a tantrum. But is this always the case?

When a toddler gets angry, screams, and cries after being denied something, we often call it a tantrum. But is this always the case?

The need for reassurance

Before the age of 18 months, a child’s brain isn’t developed enough to imagine what they might want and find ways to get it. So, a baby isn’t throwing a tantrum when they cry because they want to be picked up. By crying, they are expressing their need to be reassured. When you take the time to respond to their needs, you help them calm down and feel reassured. It helps your baby understand that they can rely on you.

Autonomy and the need for limits

You’re not spoiling your child just because you’re meeting their needs. In fact, you’re teaching them that they can rely on you.

Between 18 months and 2 years of age, a toddler has a great desire to be autonomous. They also develop preferences for certain things, and when those things are denied, they react by screaming or crying. This is because they are not yet able to put their emotions into words.

After the age of 2, they may cry and scream to get what they want. This can create conflict with the adults around them. They need to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Gradually, they’ll understand that any limits you set are there to ensure their safety and well-being.

Understanding your child’s needs

Observe your child and ask questions to better understand what’s making them react. Are they tired? Do they seem worried or scared? For example, if your child refuses to enter a room full of strangers, they may simply be expressing a fear, and need to be reassured.

You can help them understand what they’re feeling by putting their emotions into words.

However, if your child cries because they want a cookie instead of a piece of fruit, they are expressing a want, not a need. Your child has a need to satisfy their hunger, but what they really want is a cookie.

In other situations, it might be more difficult to know if a child is really expressing a need. For example, if your child starts to act out while you’re getting them dressed, you might think they’re throwing a tantrum. However, they might be reacting because you didn’t dress them in the same order as usual, and that disrupted a routine that makes them feel safe, which meets a need.

Is it manipulation?

When you don’t give in to every request, your child will better understand what your limits are. On the other hand, if you give in to their tantrums often, they’ll learn that by acting this way, they can get what they want. However, that doesn’t mean they’re manipulating or provoking you. For example, your child isn’t crying to make you miss your bus on purpose. They’re not trying to “punish” you for not staying with them. They aren’t capable of such reasoning. If you think about the situation, you’ll find that there’s probably another reason (e.g., they’re tired, they want you to play with them, etc.).

How to respond to different situations that can lead to tantrums

There are many everyday situations that can cause your child to get angry or cry when you deny them something. Here are a few examples of such situations, along with some solutions to help you.

  • You just poured water into a blue glass for your child. They scream and and cry and point at the yellow glass.
  • How do you react? Tell them that they can have water in the yellow glass next time. To prevent this behaviour, you can also offer them a choice beforehand. For example, you can ask them: “Do you want your water in the blue glass or the yellow glass?” By inviting your child to make decisions, they’ll develop their sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
  • Your child often throws tantrums at the grocery store to get candy.
  • How do you react? Before going to the grocery store, let your child know that you won’t be buying candy, but that they can choose their cereal, for example. If they start acting out, remind them of your rule calmly and firmly.
  • Your child refuses to get dressed before leaving for daycare. They scream and cry as soon as you get them dressed.
  • How do you react? Tell them that you understand that they want to stay home today, but that they need to get dressed so you won’t be late. You can also offer to help them get dressed by putting on one sleeve and letting them put the other on by themself, for example.

Things to keep in mind

  • When a baby cries or screams, they are expressing a need, not throwing a tantrum.
  • Observe your child and ask questions to better understand what’s making them react.
  • By putting your child’s emotions into words, they’ll feel better understood.


Naître et grandir

Research and copywriting: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Updated: June 2019


Photo: GettyImages/emholk


Sources and references

Please note that hyperlinks to other websites are not updated regularly, and some may have changed since publication. It is therefore possible that a link may not be found. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.

For parents

  • Brunet, Christine and Nadia Benlakhel. C’est pas bientôt fini ce caprice? Les calmer sans s’énerver. Paris, Albin Michel, 2005, 140 pp.
  • Pleux, Didier and Jean-Baptiste Magne. Petits caprices et grosses colères. Gérer les crises de son enfant. Paris, Éditions Eyrolles, 2012, 178 pp.

For kids

  • Bingham, Jane. Everybody Feels… Angry. QED, 2014, 24 pp.
  • Lallemand, Orianne. P’tit Loup dit toujours non. Éditions Auzou, 2015, 24 pp.
  • Mathis. Boris, Je veux cette pomme! Paris, Éditions Thierry Magnier, 2011, 32 pp.