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Asian little boy cry and lying on floor

Toddlers and Hair-Trigger Tantrums

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

My son is 19 months and we are in the thick of early toddler tantrums. This kid has the shortest fuse. His reaction to just about any frustration is some level of screaming.

There may be a brief period (like, one second) of trying to use his words, but then – all out screaming. Sometimes it’s just one or two screams and we can re-direct, etc. Other times it’s a full on collapse on the floor tantrum. We are learning the fastest way to end these is to ignore him. He gets like this for pretty standard reasons: being told “no”, not being able or allowed to do something himself, inability to communicate his desires (his language is developing, but he’s 19 months. it’s like a daily game of charades using one word clues that I only sometimes understand the clue). I feel like this is a super common problem and I should be able to figure out WTF to do about it (especially as second-time parent), but it’s just SO frustrating for us. How can we reduce the screaming and shrieking and prevent escalation (if it’s possible – and if not possible – how long does this phase last)?

I feel like we’ve tried most of the standard advice, so maybe it’s just something we need to deal with. For what it’s worth, we try to encourage him to use his words (less helpful when he’s already upset), give him (limited) choices to let him feel “in control”, give him warning when we are about transition activities, let him try to do things himself if it’s safe and we have the time, try to limit how much we say “no” (redirect, safe spaces to play, etc.). We also deal with some aggressive behavior when frustrated (and sometimes just for fun) – throwing toys, hitting, biting, etc. We have some of the best behavior series, which he loves and seems to help (Hands are not for Hitting and Teeth are not for Biting).

Is there some piece to the puzzle we are missing or is this just a phase we need to work through? And how much longer will it last? My nerves are wearing thin from all the shrieking and starting to dread trips in public (much less the multiple plane rides we have in the next few weeks).

Ah yes, The Screams. I can still hear the screechy volume reverbing through my chest in sympathy.

I have two suggestions that aren’t mentioned in the list of things you’ve tried — actually three.

1. First up is to try dropping the “use your words” thing.

While that’s a thing that CAN work for SOME kids, I feel like it’s a big ol’ frustration trigger for others. He likely doesn’t even HAVE the words to describe what he’s feeling (which feels Very Big and Complicated to him, even if “I wanted milk and you gave me water” seems like a simple enough concept). But by using this particular prompt, you’re drawing his attention to that fact and basically asking him to attempt the impossible. Especially if he’s already losing his shit when you say it — even the most verbal toddler will find this to be a super difficult request when their emotions are short-circuiting everything else. Basically think of the last time you were super frustrated and/or losing your temper, and imagine someone saying the most patronizing, obvious thing to you in that moment.

(“Wow, calm down there, Tiger.” “Someone’s got a case of the Mondays!” “Have you tried unplugging it and plugging it back in?”)

2. Second suggestion is baby/toddler sign language.

My firstborn had a speech delay and sign language was a straight-up lifesaving game-changer at this exact age. And then it helped us survive two more toddlers (with typical language development), so I am a Huge Believer. It really can help. Hand gestures like pointing and waving are some of the very first forms of expressive communication babies and toddlers will master, and sign language is a great, natural-to-them extension of that. When the words aren’t there (or are there but momentarily trapped in a glass case of emotion), sometimes using their hands is just…easier. There are tons of awesome books and videos out there — my kids absolutely loved (and learned from) the Signing Time series, which is still available on DVD or as a digital subscription.

(Obviously, YOU need to learn and use the signs yourself, so it’s key that you find a series or tool that YOU can watch with him without wanting to stab your eyes and ears out. I found Signing Time to be the most tolerable, although I can still sing you most of the theme song today, a near-decade later, OH MY GOD.)

3. Keep a Tantrum Journal, or just a running list of situational observations in your phone’s Notes app.

Since it seems like “everything” sets your son off, trying making note about what, exactly, “everything” is. When he freaks out over being told no — when was his last snack or drink? How did he sleep the night before? When he can’t communicate his desires — what’s the environment like? Are there any common sensory triggers? Does he have more issues in noisy environments? What redirects were successful? You can then try to use these observations (and the sign language!) to prevent tantrums before they begin — extra snacks and/or drinks in your bag, earlier bedtime, noise-canceling earmuffs for overwhelming environments, etc.

Also see if you can “stack” tasks/steps/things that need to be done so there’s always two things he can do “himself” wrapped around something he can’t. (He puts on his socks, you zip his coat, he puts the granola bars/Goldfish in your diaper bag, you fasten the car seat, etc.) Praise him for the thing he did himself the whole time you’re doing “your” parts of the routine and thank him for being a great helper…basically heap the positive reinforcement on him ANY TIME he’s not actively tantrumming.

Then keep on with the ignoring him during the outbursts. (Unless it’s at like, a restaurant. That’s an immediate removal from the situation. Likewise, a big screaming tantrum at the playground or other “fun” outing means the fun is over and it’s time to go home.)

Final Thoughts

Good luck! I wish I could tell you that this is a super-short phase that will be over before you know it, but…well, you’ve still got Two and Three to get through, which unfortunately get the word “Terrible” tacked in front of them for a reason.

Photo source: Deposit Photos/leungchopan

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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