Tantrums happen, and they’re no fun for anyone. All too often they occur in front of friends and relatives, at the grocery store checkout line or wherever we, too, are feeling overwhelmed. While anything but pleasant, tantrums are a normal part of life with toddlers.
Why do tantrums happen?
At this stage of development (roughly about 18 months to 3 years of age), children want to be in control, and yet recognize how little they are. “The desire for independence comes out through power struggles that make no sense, and parents are simply riding this rollercoaster of toddler emotions,” says early childhood specialist, Katie Mertes, in this article.
Tantrums can happen for all kinds of reasons—because it’s time to leave the park, or because we aren’t serving dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets for dinner. Sometimes it’s simply because your child is overwhelmed, tired, hungry, or having a difficult time with change.
The emotional rollercoaster of a toddler tantrum
Tantrums are an emotional rollercoaster. At first, things are seemingly calm. Then there’s an incident that escalates to an outburst of rage at lightning speed. Following the rage is a lull towards sadness, the flipside of anger. Then before you know it, calm is once again restored. What’s most amazing is that when the tantrum is over, it’s over. Our heads may still be spinning, but our toddlers are already onto other things.
How to prevent tantrums
Simone Davis, author of The Montessori Notebook, offers some ideas to ward off tantrums. As soon as you notice the first signs of your child losing control, try one or more of the following:
- Be prepared: Bring along a toy or game, book, and snacks, especially if you’ll be in a place where long waiting is involved.
- Label their feelings: Put into words what your child is feeling, like, “You really want that bubble gum ice cream!”
- Redirect them: Rather than hitting a sibling, for example, let him hit a pillow or drum.
- Ask if you can help: If your child is struggling, give as much help is required, then take a step back.
- Give them a choice: Rather than asking or telling a child to do something, it’s more empowering for them to offer a choice, even as simple as, “Would you like to put your shoes or hat on first?”
- Establish routines: Knowing what to expect provides a sense of security. Help prepare your toddler for what comes next. For example, “We’re going to Grandma’s house, then the grocery store, then home for a rest.” More on this >
- Say yes as much as possible: She wants to wear her sparkly sandals with her PJs to school? Sure. He wants to bring his stuffed panda to the dentist? Why not. The more you say yes, the more the “Nos” will be easy to accept.
How to handle tantrums
Remember that during the height of a tantrum, your child is out of control and cannot hear you or reason with you. The key at this juncture is to help him calm down. If your child is receptive to a hug, that can work wonders. If not, make sure she is safe and out of harm’s way. For older children, you can set up a “calm place,” like an indoor play tent filled with a soft rug, blanket, and pillows.
While we can’t control or stop tantrums, we can control our reaction to them. After all, tantrums are a way of children processing information, specifically, something they don’t like and wish was different. It’s up to us to model when and where they can do that and show our children that we’re always ready for them to come for a hug and feel better.
Children want to know that your words matter, so say what you mean, and follow through with kind, consistent action—even if it’s not the outcome your toddler desires.
The first time a tantrum works, the longer and louder it will be the next time, so it’s important to stand your ground and not give in. You’ll likely notice—with great relief—that the next tantrum will be shorter and less intense.
Once your child is calm, it’s time to make amends and take responsibility. If your child drew on the wall, for example, she can help scrub it clean. If he ripped his sister’s book, he can help tape it back together.
Making amends after a tantrum
When the tantrum has passed, take time to acknowledge your child’s strong emotions, and then offer a hug or support. While tantrums are unnerving and exhausting, they are also a compliment of sorts. After all, our children are only going to behave this way because they’re so secure with you that they have no fear of you leaving them, no matter how they behave. And if you can wait for a moment or two, a loving hug—or at least a much-needed nap—is likely just around the corner. Making amends is an important part of rebounding from tantrums.