A Surprising Solution for Toddler Temper Tantrums

How to cope with the toddler years when they seem to be one long tantrum about "The Wrong Cup!" Parenting expert and author Emily Hourican has the surprising solution for minimizing your child's outbursts and regaining a sense of peace in your home.

QDT Editor
5-minute read

"Not. That. Cup!"

My 3-year-old’s lip is trembling, her voice rising to a pitch of hysteria. We are about 60 seconds away from a major tantrum, and all because I have given her a cup that, she thinks, is too big. And not pink.

See also: How to Handle a Temper Tantrum


It happens several times a day at this stage. Sometimes it’s the Wrong Plate, or the Wrong Spoon. Sometimes the Wrong Jacket. Often though, things that might be considered "major," such as food she doesn’t like or a refusal to let her have cereal before dinner, she will cope with quite well. These are the Big Disappointments of life and she seems to tackle and survive them well.

For her, it’s the little things – a hair grip that isn’t sufficiently sparkly, dirt on the handlebar of her bike – that send her over the edge.

And what an edge. She goes down to the floor, screaming at the top of her voice, flailing furiously, inconsolable, and impossible to divert. Sometimes this lasts for long minutes at a time, other times she mercifully distracts herself and moves on to something else. Either way, whoever coined the phrase "terrible twos" has done a serious injustice in giving them a time-limit.

After a full year of this – the 3-year-old has just turned a more reasonable 4 – I have learned what I believe is the key thing here:

Stop telling them it doesn’t matter.

Little Things Do Matter

At first, I made the mistake of allowing my honest bafflement – "How can you possibly care that much about a cup?" – to color my judgement. "Don’t be silly," I’d say, as she lay on the floor, kicking and screaming, "That fork is perfectly fine." Eventually, through repeated failures, I learned. It does matter, very much. Whether we get it or not, to them, the wrong plate, a fork they don’t like, the napkin without the bunnies, these are all disasters.

That is their world and the things in it are just as important to them as our bank accounts, jobs, cars, vintage Chanel sunglasses are to us. Saying "Oh, it's fine. It’s the same as the pink cup" is insensitive. Pretend that you've just been told that someone scratched your new Ferrari. I bet you’re not saying "Oh, it’s fine!" now.

I have found that by reacting in a way that shows the child that their response is perfectly appropriate, by entering into their disappointment and frustration, I can actually reduce the tantrums by, let’s call it, unscientifically, 50%. A lot, basically.

Once my daughter sees that I get why she is upset, she starts to calm down, much quicker than if I keep trying to persuade her that really, its fine and who cares if the meat is touching the mashed potato or the cup has the wrong handle. In fact, if I really go overboard and outdo her in horror – "Oh no, you’re right, that cup is an awful cup. Why do we even have that cup? I cannot believe I tried to give it to you. I’m so sorry…" she is then the one who tries to calm me down: ‘It’s OK, Mama. It’s only a cup."

How to Defuse the Tantrum Bomb

The funny thing is, I've started using the same technique with my mother, now in her 70s, and you know what? It works just as well. So when she pronounces another imaginary catastrophe – “I don’t know what I’m going to do! My new tablecloth won’t be ready until tomorrow and Jane is coming to dinner tonight. Really, it’s a disaster."

I don't sigh and say, "Of course it isn’t a disaster. Just use the old one. No one will notice…" Instead, I sympathise. "How annoying! How dreadful! What will you do?" Pretty soon, she's the one telling me, "I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I can use the old one and once the table is laid, no one will notice…"

This is a nice change after years of reacting with barely suppressed irritation, always with the subtext running through my mind: "How on earth can you think that matters? Is that really all you have to worry about? Here am I trying to finish a big project at work and get out in time to pick the kids up from school and my boss is annoyed because he thinks I’m slacking, even though I work at home in the evenings on it, and I’ve got parent-teacher meetings tomorrow so I’ll have to leave even earlier, and the middle child is falling behind in his reading and when am I going to find the time to help him catch up…"

Perhaps in comparison, the non-appearance of the new tablecloth does seem trivial. But then, who said it had to be a comparison? To a brain surgeon or Cheryl Sandberg, the concerns of my life probably seem pretty trivial too. But hey, they are mine, and I care about them. So you see, its all relative really, and telling other people that their Thing doesn’t matter, whether it’s The Wrong Cup, The Wrong Tablecloth, or a fed-up boss, is just rude and like I said before, insensitive.

Give in to the Tantrum (Yes, Really)

That's why my advice is to give in to the tantrum. Replace the cup, the fork, whatever it is that has caused such grief, and don’t worry about potential ruination of character and "spoiling" the child. Seriously, you won’t.

As you said yourself, it’s only a spoon. It’s also only a phase. Soon your toddler won’t care half so much about small things, but you will have shown her that you can be trusted to understand and empathise - and that's a lesson your child will carry far beyond the toddler years.

And once that phase is done, you can get ready to sympathise when she scratches your Ferrari. 

Check out other parenting articles by Emily Hourican:

Surviving the School Gates

The First 3 Months - Your Newborn Survival Guide

8 Pieces of Advice About Parenting Advice (Hint: Take it with a Grain of Salt)


Emily Hourican is a journalist and mother-of-three based in Dublin, Ireland and author of the recently-published book How to Really Be a Mother. Check out more from Emily at emilyhourican.com.