Toddler Tantrums: What they are and how to manage them.
We’ve all been there. We’ve fed, cuddled, and played with our toddler, but it’s not enough, your child responds to your best efforts with an epic toddler tantrum. Just picture the following scenario:
My two-year-old approaches me and asks for warm milk in his sippy cup. So I warm up a cup of milk and hand it to him. He refuses the cup, and then promptly throws himself on the ground screaming, “My Cup! My Cup!” So I reach down to pick him up, but he refuses to budge, repeating, “My cup! My cup!” He’s angry now. His face is turning red and I have no idea what to do. He asked for milk. I warmed it up. I gave it to him and now he’s screaming bloody murder.” What should I do? What would you do?
When a child is this emotionally dysregulated, there is very little you can do. And as parents, this can be incredibly difficult to manage. You’ve given the child what they’ve asked for, and in response the child becomes seemingly inconsolable. We often chuckle to ourselves when we encounter the kinds of things that can spark a toddler tantrum. In my scenario, I gave my son the milk he asked for, and this set him off. When I was a child, if I had behaved this way I would most likely be shushed or left to console myself. My caregivers had little no patience when it came to the emotions of children. They also didn’t have the time to sort things through.
But we’re different. Times have changed, and we know far more about child development than our parents ever did or ever cared to learn. They raised us the way they were raised and figured it was good enough. And although we perhaps know better than they did, it is natural to find yourself just as frustrated as they were when a child is having a tantrum, especially in a public setting. Here’s the good news: although we can’t do a whole lot when a child in the midst of a tantrum, there are tools we can employ to make the experience more manageable for parents.
8 Tips Guaranteed to help you Manage Toddler Tantrums
1. Expect them. Tantrums are developmentally appropriate and can happen quite frequently in children aged 1-3-years old. It’s important that you recognize that your child is not being a brat or disobedient. It’s equally important that you know that tantrums are completely normal, so you don’t overreact to them and make the situation worse. It’s not likely you can reason with a screaming child, so trying to punish the tantrum away is also an exercise in futility.
Toddler tantrums will occur less and less as your child’s brain continues to grow and they learn how to properly regulate their emotions. They are not having them on purpose, and they are not having them to manipulate you. Your toddler’s’ tantrums come in response to big feelings. They do not have the benefit of age and wisdom to know when something isn’t a “big deal.” Whatever they are feeling is is a big deal to them.
2. Show compassion. Empathy and compassion work to mitigate tantrums in real time. You must remain calm and empathetic throughout the tantrum. The calmer you are, the sooner it will end.
3. Remove the word “tantrum” from your vocabulary and replace it with the words, “Big Feelings.” I know for some this may sound like semantics, but referring to your child’s behavior as an expression of “Big Feelings” helps you to keep perspective. The word tantrum has become synonymous with a child being a spoiled brat. Changing the wording we use to describe our children allows us to put their behavior into perspective. Your child is not being difficult, your child is having a difficult time and needs your support. Children do not enjoy being upset.
4. Keep your child on a schedule. Keeping naps and meals on a set schedule helps to keep your child in good spirits and less irritable. Toddlers, especially the ones who do not yet have the ability to communicate hunger or fatigue, may display that they are hungry or tired by their behavior. There was a time when I thought my toddler had gone mad. He was screaming, throwing things, flailing his arms and head about when I tried to hold him. I looked over his shoulder and noticed that his lunch was still sitting on the table barely touched. So I grabbed it, spoon fed him, and voila, my sweet baby boy had returned. All that screaming and rage was tied to hunger. That’s why it’s important to remember that all behavior is communication.
5. Allow your child to have autonomy whenever possible. I’ve found that between the ages of 2-4 children really begin wanting to show that they are “big” people. So they’ll want to put in their own shoes, use a stool to grab things, brush their own teeth, etc. So when you do things for them, like put their shoes on for them, it can spark big feelings. So encourage them to try things on their own, and if they are struggling ask they if they want help. Of course, this may not be possible when we are rushing, but try to build in a few extra minutes into your schedule to allow your child to show off how much they are growing and learning.
6. Plan ahead. You’ve got to know your kid, and when you know your kid you become aware of what sets them off. Knowing what can set them off allows you to make decisions that will mitigate the possibility of a tantrum. And keep your children abreast of plans/activities. Communicating what’s happening and when it will be happening. Children like consistency, and some of them can become anxious when it comes time to transition from one activity to the next. I know this is the case with my neurodivergent son. i must tell him what is happening when. I am transparent about our daily plans and use an alexa timer to signify when we are going from one activity to the next.
7. Show them what to do when they are upset. It’s perfectly normal to become displeased with something. Displeasure and disappointment are natural human emotions. That being said, a small child doesn’t know what to do with these feelings. Older children can be shown how to take deep breathes to calm themselves down, however younger children may have a bit more difficulty. With my toddler, I like to tell him to act like he is blowing out a candle. In doing so, he is taking quick short breathes which will help to settle his nerves.
8. Hold space. This one may be tough for parents who feel that they they must do something, but sometimes the best thing you can do is to let your child feel what they feel. It’s not about you, even if the child kicks and screams at you, it’s not about you. Remain as level-headed as possible and allow the child to move through the emotion.
You want your child to get it all out. It may feel like an eternity, but toddler tantrums typically last only 10-15 minutes. So just sit nearby and offer support if and when the child needs it, but don’t try to make the tantrum stop if the child is in full meltdown mode. If you are in public, it’s probably best to leave wherever you are and go someplace quiet where the child can let it out. It’s not ideal, I know, and there will be stares, but you’re doing the right thing.
So how do we stop toddler tantrums?
What happened with My toddler and his milk?
I’m home with my kids so I am very connected to them. My little one has a speech delay, but I take extra pains to make him feel understood even when I don’t understand his words completely. He’s at that age where autonomy is important to him, so when he began shouting, “My Milk. My Milk.” I knew he felt that I had somehow taken something away from him.
So I asked him, “Did you want to get your own milk?” To which he tearfully nodded in response. So I poured his milk into another cup, and helped him to reach the cabinet where he chose his own sippy cup. With the cup in hand, I guided him to pour the milk into his cup. I then warmed it up in the microwave, and voila, toddler tantrum over. I’m not always this lucky, but even when I can’t figure out why he’s upset, I always know there is a reason and do my best to allow him to express himself.
I remind myself that behavior is communication and that this period of toddler tantrums won’t last forever. And frankly, from what I understand, toddler behavior is a walk in the park in comparison to teens and their moods, so I’ll take it!
Do you have any tips for managing toddler tantrums? If so, share them below! And be sure to check out more conscious parenting tips HERE.