Tame Toddler Tantrums!
Trying to tame those toddler tantrums? These tips just might help manage those inevitable meltdowns.
It’s OK to Be Mad
First of all, give your child permission to be angry. Nobody likes to feel rejected, denied, or cut off—toddlers, included. Like love, disappointment, and fear, anger is just an emotion, and a healthy one to work through. It’s the negative accompanying behaviors (e.g., the biting or kicking) that parents hope to eliminate. When your toddler is having an angry outburst, say something to him like, “I know you’re angry. It’s OK to feel angry, but we don’t hit.” Validating his feelings will go a long way when trying to diffuse a tantrum.
Talking it Through
Putting your child’s anger into words can help alleviate some of his heightened feelings. Communicate that you understand what he is thinking and feeling by putting words to his emotions. For instance, if your child gets upset because you won’t allow him to play with the toilet paper, close the bathroom door and say, “I know you want to play with the toilet paper. I see that you’re mad because I won’t allow you to play with it.” By saying this, your child will feel like he’s being heard and understood. Eventually he’ll learn how to verbally communicate his feelings on his own.
When Things Get Physical
When your toddler feels frustrated, she may express it by hitting or throwing things. (Kicking, biting, and hitting are developmentally appropriate behaviors at this age.) Calmly stop your toddler and say, firmly, “No. In our family, we don’t hit people,” or “It’s not OK to break things.” If you must, gently pick up your child (a difficult task when she’s swinging those arms, we know!) and move her somewhere she can’t break anything. If you’re at home, create a safe space where your child can let out some steam in these moments. Most likely this will be her room—and be sure to have some soft pillows in there for substitute hitting targets! Wait until after she cools down before you continue addressing her behavior.
Stay With Your Child
It’s scary for young kids to become out of control due to their anger or frustration—these are new and overwhelming feelings. Staying near your child while she’s screaming, beating her fists on a pillow, or crying will provide her with emotional protection, helping to absorb and dissolve those super-angry feelings.
Keep Routines Consistent
Since children rely on routines to keep their lives predictable, do your absolute best to carry them out. If reading a book before bed is a consistent part of your child’s bedtime routine and you’re exhausted, read a short book instead of a long one. Remember, whatever noticeable shortcuts you take will likely encourage your toddler to protest more. Any surprise change can cause them to feel unbalanced. They feel safer and secure when they know what to expect in their day-to-day.
Stay On Top of Hunger and Fatigue
Basic, yes, but these steps are perhaps the most effective for reducing the number and quality of tantrums. Take nutritious snacks with you wherever you go and try to plan your life around consistent bedtime and nap schedules (where your child can sleep in his own bed).
Respect Your Child’s Time
Be sensitive to transitions. For instance, when it’s time to leave the playground, begin a bedtime routine, or sit down to dinner, give her a five-minute warning (“In five minutes, we’ll be leaving,” or “In five minutes, we’ll begin bath time.”) Even though your child may not understand exactly how long five minutes is, she’ll begin to understand what that means in general. In the meantime, you can try saying, “When the big hand is on the 3, we need to go,” or better yet, set a timer.
Rather than stopping your child from learning how to do something on his own or taking on a task that you feel is dangerous (climbing on a stool, for example), let the same instincts kick in that guided you as your baby took his first steps: Provide just enough assistance so that your child can complete the task for himself and stay safe. And when your child is reaching out to explore something that may be dangerous or breakable, avoid restraining your child’s arms. It’s best to simply remove the object rather that restrain the child’s arms (“Mommy’s moving this vase because it isn’t safe for you to play with. Let’s find something else to explore.”) If the object can’t be removed (a hot stove, for example), gently pick your child up, or safely surround her with your arms, while explaining, “Hot! We could burn ourselves. Ouch!”
Use Distraction Techniques
If you can sense the storm brewing and see emotions beginning to heighten, distract your toddler: Offer an activity (play dough, blocks) or something interesting to look at (a passing truck, a dog walking by… you get the picture). Distraction gives your child’s mind a chance to refocus on something pleasant or at least different, and helps both of you (hopefully) move on with your day.
Take It With You
Baby is fully engaged with a new favorite toy, but you’re in a hurry to leave the house? If you can, take the toy with you and nip any outburst in the bud. If for some reason you’re not able to do that (it’s not safe for the car or it doesn’t belong to her), redirect your child to another toy that’s easy to transport. Or consider keeping an extra special stash of toys in the car that can only be played with while driving. Might make for easier transitions to the backseat.
If you’re leaving Baby with a caretaker, greet the caregivers with an approving smile. If you must leave your child with someone new, hold your child while saying with a confident, approving smile, “This is Sally, she’ll be looking after you today. Mommy will be back soon.” Pass your child off to Sally, offer a kiss and one last hug, then leave. Don’t look back. Call in five minutes, if you must, to see how your child is getting along.
Watch Out for Unmet Expectations
If you’re planning on taking your child to the playground but are worried about the weather, it’s best not to mention the excursion until you’re sure the weather will allow it. Tap into your omniscience, mom: Try not to dangle anything fun or covetable unless you know you’ll be able to make it happen.
Returning to Their Emotional Equilibrium
Tantrums are often a child’s first time she experiences the tumultuous fight or flight response: Her heart beats faster and the adrenalin in her body starts pumping; she’s teeming with energy (and not the positive kind). As you well know, it takes time for a nervous system to calm down—imagine how tough that is for such a little person who doesn’t fully understand why she feels the way she does. So don’t expect your child to instantly put on a happy face. Toddler tantrums usually last only between 30 seconds and three minutes. Once she is calm, having returned to her emotional equilibrium, recap the situation using the logic and reason your child will come to internalize and understand over time.
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