Tantrums are no fun for anyone. As parents, we get stressed and react desperately, trying to make it stop, often throwing everything we know about positive parenting practices out the window.
When tantrums occur in front of friends and relatives, at the grocery store checkout line, or wherever we, too, are feeling overwhelmed, we get angry, frustrated, and become exhausted.
But we need strategies: tantrums are a normal part of life with toddlers and we have to be able to navigate them.
Read on for tips on how to deal with toddler tantrums.
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.
Let’s put ourselves in a toddler’s shoes: Imagine that you have no sense of time and throughout the day, someone announces it’s time for you to change your clothes, eat, sleep, or leave whatever you’re doing. When you protest, they deny your wishes. That would be pretty disheartening.
In the next video, you’ll see how a parent can prepare a toddler for the next activity by offering warning and choices.
“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.
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 obstacle that creates frustration. Perhaps it’s a task that’s too difficult, such as coordinating two parts of a toy. Or maybe it’s a caregiver asking for a quick change of focus.
Without the maturity to regulate their emotions, a toddler becomes enraged. 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.
Offering a choice
Since what a child is seeking is control over their situation, often they are satisfied by the opportunity to make a choice or take action.
You might try asking for help, “I really need you to carry this book and open the door for us. I see you’re using your hands to pull on my arm. Do you think you can carry the book instead?”
Or, offer a choice (after validating their feelings!) like this: You don’t want to leave. This park is a lot of fun. We should tell Papa about this park so he can come here, too. When we get home, should we draw a picture of the park? Would you like to walk through the grass or use the path to get back to the car?
The following two videos show a short protest from a toddler who did not like being told what to do (surprise!) Upon hearing the choice to walk on their own, they were both cooperative. Watch the videos to hear how the parents offer the child empowering options.
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.
Something for parents to keep in mind is that a toddler’s frustration is developmentally appropriate. If it generates from a task they were unable to complete independently, remember that their fine motor skills are improving every day and they will soon be able to put on socks or operate that toy without frustration. They will be taller and stronger, too, and be able to reach and lift things that are impossible for them now.
Offer collaboration as a choice. “You can have some more time to keep working on getting your arm through the sleeve, or I can help you, or I can do it for you. Which would you prefer?”
Finally, if you wish you had made a different choice yourself, share that thought with your child!
“I wish I planned for more time at this park! I knew it would be hard to leave.”
“I got really frustrated when your car seat buckle didn’t work and we were in a hurry. I was using an angry voice and I’m sorry. I wasn’t angry at you.”
This reinforces that you are on the same team.
Tantrums are difficult to endure. Grant yourself grace when you come out on the other side of one. It can be helpful to vent to a partner, parent, or friend who will listen to your experience as you talk through it.