Why Tantrums Happen
Tantrums are part of toddlerhood, usually beginning any time after 12 months. As your toddler develops her inner life of thoughts, emotions, and desires, she'll often be faced with stronger feelings than she has skills to cope with—a.k.a. tantrums. These fits are no doubt a negative experience for you, but tantrums help children learn how to cope and self-soothe, and you needn't try to avoid them. Even if your words or actions seem to spark a tantrum, it's a child's inner struggle that causes a tantrum. Thus, well … there's not much you can do.
Feelings of frustration can be some of the most intense for a young child. "Toddlers are so overcome by everything working against them. They just fall apart," says Gretchen Kinnell, Education Director of Child Care Solutions in Syracuse, NY. This kind of tantrum lets you know that your kid is really upset or confused—a realization that can make it much less upsetting for you.
The other kind of tantrum, what Kinnell calls an "instrumental tantrum," conjures significantly less sympathy because it has a dubious purpose: to get your toddler what she wants. You've seen this one in the grocery store candy aisle. Give in to a tantrum once, and you'll be seeing them a lot. "They throw a tantrum because they learned it worked in the past," says Kinnell.
You might see more tantrums in the evenings when a too-tired toddler has even less coping resources. It might also feel like your child saves the majority of her tantrums for you. For example, it's common for kids that go to daycare all day to fall to pieces as soon as their parents return because they're waiting for the security of their parents to unleash their most intense feelings. (It may be a similar story with other bad behaviors like hitting, slapping, punching, or kicking; learn more about those behaviors here.)
What to Do
For frustration tantrums, "the main thing we have to do is realize we can't stop those. We just need to keep them safe," says Kinnell. "Try a two-sentence mantra, like, 'You're really upset. We're all going to be okay.'" Let her know that you wish you could help, but that you also know you can't. Check that she's safe, and then leave the room. Just giving a toddler space to work it out can bring the tantrum down a notch. Keeping your cool also models good coping behavior for your child, and usually, the more involved a parent gets, the longer a tantrum will last. When she calms down, comfort her with cuddles. Empathize with her and how overwhelmed she must have felt.
There's just one rule for instrumental tantrums: Do not give her what she wants. This can be tough, especially during public displays of temper. Other people look at you accusingly, and moreover, you really need to finish your shopping. Muster your courage, says Kinnell. "Go ahead and let them throw the tantrum. Don't try to interrupt."
In his book Touchpoints: Birth to Three, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, MD, suggests pretending the kid isn't yours (!) by ignoring her ("She'll stop very quickly," he advises), only then offering reassuring words. (And Brazelton's advice for those on-lookers? Ask if they'd like to try calming your child, which should scare them off.) If you can't stand to wait it out in the store, Brazelton says, abandon your cart and let your toddler finish her tantrum in the car, where you should still try to ignore her (while, obviously, staying with her). When the tantrum subsides, just proceed with what you were doing and continue to not give in to her demands. It will take great strength, but the less you show that her tantrums affect you, the better.
Keep in Mind
Even tantrums designed to manipulate don't mean your child is bad. She's learning how to negotiate to get what she wants and needs. Your job is to show that this is an ineffective method. "What toddlers need is support from the adult—knowing that they'll be alright and be protected, but that the adult is not going to give in to what they wanted," says Kinnell. As your child finds that you consistently stick to your word, she won't have to test that boundary any more, and she'll find security in learning the limits of her power.