Toddler Tantrums

Working with many youngsters under the age of three has given me plenty of time to evaluate and refine my approach to the toddler tantrum. First, let me say they are normal!! If your little one grows into an adult without ever having a tantrum I would suspect that either you don’t spend much time with them, or they are part alien. There is plenty of advice out there as to how to deal with them- here is my two cents on the topic. I’ll let you know what I do to prevent them (oh-so-important!), why they happen, and what you as a loving, caring adult can do to help them through this difficult phase.

Preventative Maintenance

Allow adequate food, water and rest. Duh. Many a time I’ve been known to throw an adult-sized tantrum when really hungry (it’s not pretty).  Try your best to to offer sleep when needed, and food and water throughout the day. In this crazy busy world it’s difficult to always remember to provide these basic necessities. I constantly carry cheese, crackers, or fruit in my purse…anything that can be quickly shoved into Darwin’s mouth, it has been a life-saver at times. He definitely can get as cranky as myself when hungry…what a mama’s boy. If you can’t be at home for a nap allow them to rest in a stroller, baby carrier, carseat…etc. Or just allow them time to cuddle and be mellow for a bit of the day.

Offer choices. Many tantrums result from a feeling of having no control over their life. Even though WE know that as TODDLERS they cannot possibly have complete autonomy in their life, they did not get that memo. Being constantly told what to do and rarely being able to make decisions for yourself, no matter how simple the choice is, would probably cause you to freak out now and again.

….but not too many choices. Ask them specific questions. Do they want yogurt or scrambled eggs for breakfast? Do they want to wear the red shoes or the black ones? Give two choices, that are both acceptable and reasonable. Try to avoid using open-ended questions, like “What do you want for breakfast?”…you might not like the answer you get! Possibly resulting in a tantrum!

Avoid over stimulation. If your precious little girl breaks down at the grocery store- every time- then maybe shopping is not her forte yet. Try to plan shopping when you can go alone, or perhaps wear her in a sling/baby carrier while shopping and the closeness to you will keep the over-whelming stimulation from getting the best of her.

My little devil.

In the moment

Ok, it’s happened, your darling little prince has turned into a frothing-at-the-mouth-red-faced-monster. What to do? First and foremost, STAY CALM! Your angel has an intense desire to do things, but his mental and motor skills have developed more quickly than his ability to communicate. Because he doesn’t yet have the verbal skills to express his frustration, he is now spinning circles on the carpet and sweating profusely, and not in a good way. Again, stay calm.

Second, put yourself in his shoes. There are are two types of tantrums: Frustration and Manipulative. You will need to determine which is going on in order to move forward in a meaningful manner that will result in less tantrums over time.

Frustration Tantrum

You are now breathing deeply, and you have concluded that this is a FRUSTRATION tantrum.  Imagine: he is constantly being told what to do and rarely being able to make decisions for himself, no matter how simple the choice is. This would probably cause you to freak out now and again as well. This type of tantrum requires empathy. Get down on his level, look him in the eye, touch him (if he will let you) and say “You wanted to put your shoes on by yourself” (or whatever it was that triggered the tantrum). Seriously, just by making a statement that shows that you actually know why they are freaking will sometimes end the tantrum. Start with this. Easy right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t ALWAYS work so here is a small toolbox of useful ideas:

  • Stay calm. I know, you’re already doing this but continue as it is a great way model as to how your toddler should react in a stressful situation. Additionally, a calm demeanor and soft voice will help your toddler quiet down sooner.
  • Don’t react with anger or violence. This should go without saying but sometimes we yell (we’re all human) which will only cause your toddler’s tantrum to worsen. Hitting your child will teach them that violence is an acceptable way of dealing with anger, and it will hurt them. Just don’t do it.
  • Soothe your toddler. If they will let you touch them, then rub their back or hold them close to you so they can feel comforted.
  • Empathize with them. Allow them to hear that you understand how they are feeling, again.
  • Ignore any stares. If your toddler is throwing a tantrum in public that does not make you a bad parent. If possible remove your child from the public location and take him to a safe place, like your car, bathroom or a bench outside. For example, Darwin calms down instantly if we go outside, especially if the wind is blowing…he loves the wind in his hair I guess :)
  • Don’t ignore your child. In general, don’t ignore a frustration tantrum. Turning away from his behavioral problems deprives him of a valuable support resource, while you lose the chance to improve your rapport with your little devil.

Once he is beginning to calm simply say “Tell mama/daddy what you want.” This will encourage him to use words or body language to communicate his feelings and needs so that IN THE FUTURE he doesn’t have to act them out in displays of anger. After a frustration tantrum have a discussion about what happened, try to offer SIMPLE suggestions as to how he could handle it next time. Even if they have limited verbal skills our kiddos understand WAY more than we think. Turn the tantrum into a learning opportunity.

Most importantly, don’t be angry with or punish them! If you need to take a minute to yourself, go to your happy place, repeat a mantra, or whatever works for you to be able to let it go.

Manipulative Tantrum

What? Your little angel is never going to engage in a power struggle with you! Hmmm, I hope for your sake she won’t, but likely she will. Be aware that toddlers know how to push their parents’ buttons. Let me say that as long as you handle these tantrums correctly they will not become a common fixture in your relationship…but on the other side of that coin, if you handle it incorrectly you will be in for a doozy of a time as they will increase in frequency…quickly. A toddler who is throwing a manipulating tantrum does so because she has learned from a previous meltdowns that this behavior will get her what she wants. This is why it is so important to make sure you identify the reasons behind your child’s emotional outbursts and deal with the situation calmly. If you are a volatile person, it’ll be easy for your child to trigger an explosion from you, ending in a screaming match with no winners.

Here is your toolbox for this type of tantrum:

  • Once again, remain calm :)
  • Don’t reward this behavior. Giving in to your toddler’s demand for a toy or a treat when she throws a fit will only result in MORE tantrums. It teaches her that this is an acceptable way to get what she wants. Rewarding a tantrum will help ensure many more in the years to come.
  • Don’t try to reason. The art of logic is lost on the child is lying on the floor, screaming.
  • Ignore, ignore, ignore. All the above being said, the STRONGEST message you can send during a tantrum of this type is by ignoring the behavior. This sends her a very clear message that you will not tolerate this behavior. If you cannot possibly ignore her- because of your personality- then walk away.

This is toddler discipline.

Last Thoughts

Don’t punish your toddler after his tantrum. A tantrum is normal part of development. Your toddler should be reassured after his fit, not lectured.

The good news is that once your toddler develops the language skills to express his needs in words, you’ll be able to close the book on the tantrum stage. This usually happens between two and two- and-a-half-years-of-age, depending on your child’s language development.

Teach your child sign language, even if it is only a few signs. I can’t tell you how many tantrums that we have probably avoided because Darwin can sign. The best ones to teach are about what he would desire. Darwin consistently uses, milk, drink, eat, more, all done, potty, book and outside. The basics. He knows many more but these ones have definitely reduced his frustration level many a time.

Choose your battle. Is is really that important for her to wear that darling dress? Probably not. Is it really that important for him to sit in his car seat while we are driving? Absolutely yes.

While researching for this post I read the following: “If your child’s tantrums seem to occur frequently during the toddler years (two or more a day), or regularly past the age of four, involve violent or other types of behavioral problems, or you are having a hard time dealing with the outbursts, make an appointment with your toddlers doctor to discuss what you can do.” I’m not a medical professional and the article in which I found it did not give a proper reference….so I’m not sure how accurate it is. But it does give you a quantifiable baseline to which you can compare to your toddlers behavior.


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