Emotion Overload: Understanding Your Toddler's Moods

Preschool children grow fast: physically, mentally, and socially. Their moods can be confusing. They swing from tears and tantrums to kisses and excitement. Here are some tips to help you understand and cope.

It may help to understand the difference between a temper tantrum and the child's nature. A child's nature (temperament) is how they behave or approach a situation. It includes their:

  • Activity level
  • Way of adapting to situations
  • Attention span
  • Mood

You may label your child as shy, difficult, or easy-going to better understand them. Doing so can also help you meet their likes and needs better.

Temper tantrums come and go. They generally happen in children between 1 to 3 years old. They are expressed through crying, kicking, screaming, and hitting. These outbursts should calm down as your child's language develops.

At this stage everything revolves around the child. They may also demand to do everything on their own. They do not understand their limits. They may have a tantrum if things do not go their way. This is part of a child's emotional development. The tough part as a parent is learning how to cope.

Emotional Building Blocks

Emotional development starts when the child is a baby. Babies communicate by crying because they cannot talk. You learn fast enough that certain cries or sounds mean different things—hunger, diaper changes, or discomfort. As babies grow they learn to use their face and body to communicate. Emotions are like building blocks. As your baby grows, they will learn how to express them. The process of becoming emotionally mature will take years.

Each stage of a child's development brings new challenges and rewards. Sometimes it is hard to know what is causing their behavior—the setting they are in or an unmet need. After 3 years, children enter a world of fantasy and make-believe. This helps them explore even more emotions. By the age of 5 years, they experience most emotions adults do. However, they will express them very differently.

How to Manage Challenging Emotions

Every child has different needs and ways of communicating. Here are some general tips to handle situations that come up:

  • Praise good behavior.
  • Shift their attention from an upsetting situation to a positive one. Change activities 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. Move onto more difficult ones 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.
  • Choose your battles. Life is give and take. Your child's request may not be as big a deal as you think.
  • Do not give in. It reinforces their bad behavior. Children learn very quickly how to work a situation in their favor.

Your child needs time to learn. In toddlers, temper tantrums are part of this process. Over time, you will learn what the child is trying to express through a tantrum. Tantrums should go away as the child gets older. However, if your child's behavior seems beyond what is normal, talk to the child's doctor.


American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics


Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society

The Psychology Foundation of Canada


Emotional development in preschoolers. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Emotional-Development-in-Preschoolers.aspx. Accessed October 21, 2021.

Social-emotional development domain. California Department of Education website. Available at: https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/itf09socemodev.asp. Accessed October 21, 2021.

Temper tantrums. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/tantrums.html. Accessed October 21, 2021.

Understanding your child's behavior. Child Welfare Information Gateway website. Available at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/understanding.pdf. Accessed October 21, 2021.

Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board   Last Updated: 10/21/2021