If you have a toddler, tantrums are a part of life. Some kids throw them more often than others, but tantrums are toddler territory. It’s nothing personal. Your toddler having a tantrum doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom. It also doesn’t mean that they are spoiled or naughty.
Worried about your toddler’s tantrums? Read this article I wrote for The Thoughtful Parent about When to Worry About Toddler Tantrums.
If you’re feeling frustrated about your toddler’s tantrums, you’re not alone! If you’re wondering how to handle toddler tantrums, it helps first to understand why they occur. What is a temper tantrum (and how is it different from a toddler meltdown)? Here’s the why behind your young child’s emotional outbursts, and ten tips to help you deal with tantrums effectively.
What are tantrums?
Tantrums are expressions of frustration. They can happen at any age (and even adults have temper tantrums!), but they are quite common in toddlers. A study showed that 87% of kids who are 1 1/2 – 2 years old, and 91% of 2 1/2 – 3 year old children have tantrums!
Young kids are still learning how to understand their feelings and regulate emotions. They’re not always able to express how they feel in words, and tantrums are their way of expressing their frustration.
Why do tantrums happen?
So why do toddlers have tantrums? When adults want something, our brains process the situation and tell us if what we want is reasonable. This processing takes place in the part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex.
Let’s say we want a new phone. Our brains assess if we can afford the phone, and then we decide what phone to buy within our price range. If we determine that we can’t afford it right now, we may choose to wait and hatch a plan to save up. These skills are part of what we call “executive function,” which is the prefrontal cortex’s job.
However, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until—surprise—a person is in their early 20s! So toddlers are a VERY long way off from developing the decision-making skills of adults. They slowly build these decision-making skills as they grow older. But when a toddler wants something, there is no filter. She’ll scream and shout to try and get what she wants, and thus we get a temper tantrum.
Why is it important to learn how to deal with tantrums?
All kids throw tantrums, no matter how “nice” they are. Whether the tantrums escalate, whether they’re frequent, or diminish with time, depends on how we respond to them. If a young child learns a tantrum gives him what he wants, then the next time your child wants something, that’s what he’ll do.
Kids learn emotional regulation from the adults around them. We often expect them to know this on their own, but the truth is that we need to teach them consciously.
Kids also learn by modeling what we do. How do we react when we don’t get something that we want? This sets an example for them. Kids learn even more from what we do than from what we say.
The first three years of life are critical for building brain pathways that form habitual ways of responding to situations. How we react to toddler tantrums will help shape how these critical pathways form. So do we deal with tantrums? How do we avoid making the tantrums worse?
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10 Best Tips to Handle Toddler Tantrums Effectively
1. Don’t Take a Temper Tantrum Personally
When your toddler has a tantrum, he’s not out to “get” or “manipulate” you. Yes, he may have a tantrum because he wants to stay up an extra hour, and you’re enforcing his bedtime. But remember, this is the result of emotions he’s still learning to control.
Remember when your child was still learning how to walk? How many times did he fall before he got it right? Toddler tantrums are the emotional equivalent of falling while learning to walk.
Knowing this can help us stay calm even when our kids aren’t. Remembering that our young kids are still learning will help us know how to handle a toddler tantrum.
When people see a child having a tantrum, they may quickly label the child as “spoiled” or “naughty.” But that’s not true! Some kids experience tantrums more frequently than others because of temperament, which is inborn. Scientists discovered that even babies in the nursery already have differences in temperament.
Certain temperaments are more prone to tantrums. However, this does not mean that one temperament is better than the other. Kids with each temperament have their own unique strengths. That’s why we shouldn’t compare one child with another!
2. Remain Kind, Without Giving In
Many parents think their only choices while dealing with tantrums are: (1) give in, (2) punish, or (3) ignore the child. But that’s not the case. Remember, a tantrum is a response to wanting something, such as a toy in the store or watching more videos. If you DON’T give in to these particular wants, you’re NOT reinforcing the tantrum.
So, go ahead and hug her to help her calm down. Acknowledge that you understand she feels upset. Show that you love her unconditionally, tantrums and all. You won’t spoil her by doing this, but you also won’t reinforce the tantrum. By remaining kind during tantrums, you’re teaching emotional regulation, which is key to handling toddler tantrums.
3. Differentiate Tantrums from Meltdowns
Tantrums are different from toddler meltdowns. We usually use the term tantrum when a child uses an outburst of anger to get what she wants. She wants to watch a video on your tablet, but you take it away, so she screams to get it back.
A toddler meltdown, on the other hand, is the result of being overwhelmed. There is too much going on in the environment, like sights, sounds, smells, or textures that upset your child. Meltdowns also happen when your young child is very hungry or sleepy, or even when there are sudden changes in the routine.
At bedtime, my toddler sometimes goes through a stage when he’s fighting sleep. He’ll ask for all sorts of toys, another story—anything to delay bedtime. When I refuse and insist that he go to bed, he screams and shouts. It’s easy to conclude he’s having a tantrum over bedtime. However, I know he’s really very tired from his reactions, and it’s more accurate to say it’s a toddler meltdown.
Understanding your child’s feelings underscores why it’s important to remain kind when dealing with what we think is a tantrum. Instead, it may be a meltdown, and what your child needs most are comfort and reassurance.
4. Decide What You’ll Allow and Stick to It
Consistency is critical. Most of us are familiar with the research that when a pigeon is rewarded with a food pellet after pressing a lever, the pigeon keeps pushing it. But you know what makes a pigeon press the lever more often? It’s NOT rewarding each press with a pellet—it’s only rewarding SOME of the presses. When only some of the presses are rewarded, the pigeon intensifies its efforts.
Okay, so your child isn’t a pigeon. But similar principles apply to people. In fact, these are the same principles that game manufacturers use to make people – whether children or adults – play games more intensely.
So, what does it mean when you’re trying to handle a toddler tantrum? It means that when sometimes we give in, and other times we don’t, we’re INCREASING the chances of the tantrums becoming more intense.
To learn how to handle toddler tantrums better, you need to know yourself and your limits as a parent. You also need to discuss your boundaries with others who help you take care of your child. You’ll decide what’s okay with you and what’s non-negotiable. Maybe you’re willing to delay lunch 20 minutes and let your child play. If lunchtime is negotiable for you and she asks to play some more, give in right away. You don’t want to wait until she throws a tantrum before you give in.
5. Don’t Tease, Hurt, or Provoke Your Child
Why is this tip here? Isn’t this obvious? None of us would ever want to do anything to hurt our kids. We love them to bits, and we never imagine wanting to hurt them.
However, I see that teasing can happen even with the best intentions. Sometimes adults—whether a parent, relative, or another caregiver—can tease a child, thinking that there is no harm. Or they believe they’re “toughening” the child for the “real world,” or to equip him to face bullies in the future.
This idea couldn’t be further from the truth. When we tease our child, we’re MODELING the exact bullying behavior we want to prevent. Remember that kids learn more from what we DO than from what we SAY.
I’ve seen people tease or provoke kids, or call them names. We may think this doesn’t affect our kids, and we’re just having a bit of harmless fun. However, we shouldn’t assume that they don’t know and don’t care! Remember, our nonverbal reactions are just as important.
Sometimes the teasing extends even when the child is visibly upset. They may even laugh at the child’s reaction. Some insist that “it’s part of our culture, don’t take it too seriously.” This isn’t so. Kindness should be part of EVERY culture.
The way to prepare your child against bullying in the future isn’t to “practice bullying” him today, but to help build a strong sense of self-esteem that allows him to stand up against bullying.
Parents can end up encouraging temper tantrums through provocation. They may not realize their actions are tantrum triggers. For example, they’ll buy a toy or a favorite food for their child. Then they wave it in front of the child and say, “You can’t have this!” They wait until their child is shouting for it before they give it. Doing this teaches kids that they should complain first before getting something.
So if it’s for your child, say from the beginning, it’s for her. Make a big show of giving it to her. Maintain a positive approach.
6. Help Your Child Develop Communication Skills
It’s easier to deal with toddler tantrums if you know what’s causing them. Small children’s vocabularies are limited, so frustration is natural when they try to communicate with words. Other common tantrum triggers include hunger or exhaustion, wanting things they can’t have, or over-excitement.
You can accelerate your child’s verbal progress to minimize communication breakdowns. Invite your child to ask for what they want instead of anticipating their needs. Talk with your child, respond to them, and interact. Young children need a lot of attention from their parents, and if they don’t feel they’re connecting, they may start to have a tantrum.
7. Establish Consistent Routines
Another tip to handle toddler tantrums is to keep a routine. Schedules can be challenging, especially when life changes, but do your best to keep most activities at set times.
Having a consistent routine helps you minimize toddler tantrums. Sticking to bedtimes and other routines helps your child to know what to expect. You’ll avoid most struggles when your child knows the limits and develops good habits.
If you’re hoping to prevent bedtime tantrums, a regular expectation can really help. Toddlers are developing a sense of independence that they’ll need later in life. Work together to give them a sense of control.
8. Use Distractions to Stop a Tantrum
If you sense a tantrum approaching, it can help to provide a distraction like making a silly face or doing something fun. Distractions can stop a tantrum before it escalates.
In my own experience at home, I’ve found that things like making a funny sound, singing a favorite nursery rhyme, or blowing a kiss to the tummy have successfully stopped a few tantrums. Sometimes a change of scenery like going to the next room can help.
This may not work for meltdowns though. If you’ve tried distracting your child and it’s not working, consider whether your child may be actually having a meltdown and is actually tired, hungry, or overstimulated.
9. Take Mutual Time Outs
Tantrums are frustrating for both you and your young child. It can even feel embarrassing and stressful, especially if you’re trying to handle a tantrum in public. Have a game plan so you can head off tantrum stress for both of you. Take some deep breaths before you help your child deal with their tantrum calmly.
Beforehand, prepare a safe space where your child can have a time out. Make it clear that this space isn’t for punishment but to help your child calm down and get a “reset.”
At home, I use my child’s playpen as a time-out space. I even put some toys there, and I tell him that I’ll put him in the playpen when he needs to calm down. If you’re on the go, you may need to improvise to find a quiet, calm area for your child to reset.
Some parents don’t want to take this kind of “positive” time out because they are afraid that it reinforces the tantrum. However, remember that you reinforce the tantrum only if you give in to what the child asks. If your child has a tantrum because she wants more candy, you’ll reinforce it if you give her the candy.
But if you hug her, or you give her a chance and the space to calm down, you won’t reinforce the tantrum. You’ll equip her with the skills she needs to learn to manage her emotions through the principle of co-regulation.
10. Focus on the Positive
Sometimes, we only pay attention to our kids if they’re already having a tantrum. What we do when there is no tantrum is just as important as what we do during the middle of a toddler tantrum.
Here are some ways to focus on the positive and help prevent tantrums.
- Listen patiently and praise them when they try to speak clearly.
- Give them positive attention.
- Show your approval when they do things such as share their toys.
- Avoid labeling your child as “spoiled” or “naughty.”
Remember that your child wants to please you. They want praise and acknowledgment for what they’re doing right. If you want to know how to stop a tantrum, prevention will go a long way. Yes, tantrums will still happen. But now you have a set of tools to help you handle them.
The Last Thing You Need to Know about How to Handle Toddler Tantrums
The toddler years are a wonderful time when your child makes many developmental leaps. Dealing with and expressing emotions are part of that natural development and growth. Learn to prevent tantrums and manage them, so you and your child can delight in their progress through life.