My 20-month-old daughter is having extreme tantrums

Categories: Behaviour | Girls | Toddler


In my family we have a 3 year old boy and a 20 month old girl. When things don’t go my daughter’s way she gets into a very bad temper. She will either lie on the floor banging her head against the floor, bang her head against the door or wall or she will bite her own hand or arm, all while screaming the house down. If my wife or I pick her up when she is in the tantrum she will scratch, scrape or hit us. Please help. We are at our wits end with this behaviour.

Toddlerhood is never an easy time for children to communicate their needs, their thoughts or their feelings. They are not developmentally mature enough to have the language or insight to be able to tell us what is wrong. Consequently, we often see them demonstrating their feelings, for example, in their behaviour. Tantrums can often fall into this category.

Particularly when it comes to children being frustrated when things don’t go their way, that frustration can spill out into quite severe tantrums. Being able to empathise with toddlers’ frustrations, disappointments or loss can sometimes help to offset the intensity of those feelings, such that they may not escalate into such dramatic head-banging or biting.

Managing your toddler’s environment is also an important consideration. Often, we might need to think ahead to be able to remove temptation, such that their expectations don’t get raised unnecessarily. Hiding sweet treats, or siblings’ treasured possessions may mean that out of sight is out of mind.

There are many things that toddlers want to do, that they are just not physically able for. So, there are many times that we need to be available to offer what is called “hurdle help”. In practice this means that we might reach for something they can’t reach, or we might help them manipulate something just enough that they can finish the job for themselves.

Finding opportunities, too, where we can catch our toddlers being good is a great antidote to those times when we have to stop them behaving in a more negative way, or if we have to interrupt them or frustrate them because we can’t let them do something.

Remember, too, that at her age, distraction is often a parent’s best friend and most effective tool. By distracting her to something else fun or novel, before things escalate to a full-blown tantrum, you may keep things light-hearted, upbeat and engaged in a positive way, rather than feeling like you have to keep saying “no” to her.

Naturally, when you have an older child, you may have used some or all of these techniques with much greater levels of success, and perhaps you find, now, that you have to adjust for your daughter. That too, can be a common experience for many parents, given that all of our children differ with regard to their temperament or their needs.

Where your son was easily distracted, for example, your daughter may need more time and parental involvement. Where your son was easily cajoled, your daughter may need something more directive, or less directive.

Since you will be aware of any difference, if your daughter’s behaviour doesn’t seem to change when you try to respond to her more empathetically, more consistently, or by changing the dynamic of her environment, then it may be that it is worth seeking a more complete assessment of her development, in case there are other communication or emotional regulation needs that require specific help.