Health Library

Emotion Overload: Understanding Your Toddler's Moods

IMAGE Preschool children grow by leaps and bounds: physically, mentally, and socially. From tears and tantrums to affectionate kisses and uncontrolled exuberance, a preschooler's moods and feelings can be confusing. But there is information that can help parents understand, cope with, and nurture their child's emotional development.

It may help to understand that a temper tantrum is different than a child's overall temperament. Temperament defines their overall nature and can affect how they behave or approach a situation. Some factors to consider in temperament include their activity level, adaptablitily, attention span, or mood. You may label your child as shy, difficult, or easy-going to better understand them. Doing so can also help you put your child on a path that is more suited to their likes or needs.

Temper tantrums come and go. They generally occur in children between 1-3 years old. They are expressed through crying, kicking, screaming, and hitting. These outbursts will subside as your child's language skills develop. They live in a centric universe where everything revolves around them. They may also demand to do everything on their own without understanding their limits. Chaos can ensue if things don't go their way. It's part of the emotional development of a child. The tough part as a parent is learning how to navigate the storm.

Emotional Building Blocks

The emotional development of a child starts in infancy. Babies communicate by crying because they can't talk. You learn fast enough that certain cries or sounds may have different meanings like hunger, diaper changes, or discomfort. They will also learn to use facial expressions and body language to signal these cues. Emotions are like building blocks. As your baby grows, they will learn the ins and outs of communicating them. It takes years for emotional maturity to arrive, but it will eventually.

Each stage of a child's development will bring new challenges and rewards. It can be hard to determine if their behavior is related to the setting they are in or if there is an unmet emotional need. After 3 years, you'll see them enter a world of fantasy and make-believe. It will help them explore even more emotions during this time. By the age of 5 years, they will be able to experience most emotions adults do, but they will express them very differently.

How to Manage Challenging Emotions

Every child has different needs and ways of communicating, but there are general ways to handle situations as they arise. These include:

  • Praise good behavior.
  • Divert their attention from a troublesome situation to a positive one. Replace a good activity with a bad one or take them into another room.
  • Learn to give up complete control. Give them a choice of two toys, snacks, or games. Avoid yes or no questions.
  • Start with simple tasks and move into more difficult one as your child manages them. Again, praise good behavior and accomplishments.
  • Learn your child's moods, and when they get tired and hungry. Plan around these times so it is easier for them to manage tasks. It may not be convenient for you, but it will help them handle their moods more appropriately.
  • Choose your battles. Life is give and take. Your child's request may not be as big a deal as you think.
  • Don't give in. It reinforces their bad behavior. Children learn very quickly how to manipulate a situation in their favor.

Your child does have to learn that certain actions are off-limits all the time. It may not seem like it when it's happening, but your best friend is time. Take a moment to think about where your child is coming from. The solution to a temper tantrum may not be as complicated as it seems. Over time, you will learn what messages are hidden inside a temper tantrum. If you have difficulties beyond what you think is normal, talk to your child's pediatrician.


American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics

Canadian Resources

Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society

The Psychology Foundation of Canada


Emotional development in preschoolers. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2017.

How to understand your child's temperament. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2017.

Putnam SP, Gartstein MA, Rothbart MK. Measurement of fine-grained aspects of toddler temperament: The Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire. Infant Behavior and Development. 2006;29(3):386-401.

Social-emotional development domain. California Department of Education website. Available at: Accessed July 31, 2017.

Temper tantrums. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: Updated April 2015. Accessed July 31, 2017.

Understanding your child's behavior. Child Welfare Information Gateway website. Available at: Accessed July 31, 2017.