If you’re stuck in the stage of terrible twos, threenagers, or the effing fours, you’re probably desperate for some advice on how to handle toddler tantrums.
These are the years where your child is constantly learning and changing. They’re testing their limits, their bodily functions, and their behaviors to understand and make sense of the world around them.
You may experience tantrums differently between toddlers because all children have differences in personality and their ability to maintain self-control.
Although parents would love to avoid these toddler tantrums entirely (especially when you’re in the check-out line of the supermarket), we’ll have more luck minimizing how often they happen and how fast they escalate.
Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums?
A toddler’s tantrum can vary from whining and crying to kicking, screaming, and throwing. They can happen without any warning for an unknown reason that a parent has a hard time understanding.
Some will have tantrums more often and with more intensity than others, but anytime you see or feel your toddler getting ready to have a tantrum, it can make a parent very anxious.
The good news is that toddler tantrums are absolutely a normal part of child development. You will see these behaviors as they find their place in the world and learn to express their emotions or feelings appropriately.
Although every toddler is capable of their fair share of tantrums, your child’s personality will also dictate how well they control their behaviors.
There are a few justifiable reasons that your toddler is probably having a tantrum:
1. Their basic needs aren’t being met: They are hungry, thirsty, tired, uncomfortable, or have to use the bathroom.
Even if your toddler is fully expressive and has a great vocabulary, they may not understand what they feel to tell you. They might start to get irritable because they’re hungry, but not feel a rumbling in their tummy, so they don’t know that they are.
They don’t have the vocabulary: Typically at a younger age (1 or 2), your toddler may not have the vocabulary to tell you how they feel or what they want resulting in screaming, crying, or hitting to get their way.
3. They want something that you won’t let them have: This is a common reason for toddler tantrums. They don’t want to hear the word no because they are very ego-centric at this age (only caring about themselves).
They don’t understand boundaries or rules and can lash out because they aren’t getting what they want. Not having ice cream before dinner or getting the $50 toy on a grocery trip doesn’t make sense in their minds.
4. They’re lacking control and independence: Ok playing devil’s advocate and siding with a toddler now, I admit it must be a little tough.
They’re expected to do and listen to everything an adult tells them ALL the time. Brush your teeth, eat your dinner, don’t touch that, put your shoes on, put that down, go to school…it’s never-ending.
Imagine having someone constantly standing over and making you stop everything you want to do or not letting you do anything for yourself? Toddlers desperately want control and independence and can often lead to power struggles.
5. Disruption in their routine: To you, a small schedule change is no big deal, but for a toddler, any disruption in their typical routine may set them off. Since a toddler can’t tell time, they rely on us and their routines to make daily life a little more predictable for themselves.
They may not feel tired, but they know once they have lunch they usually take a nap. They may be so hungry when they wake up, but they know mom always feeds them shortly after they awake.
If you throw off one of these routines and they are confused by the inconsistency, they may have a big tantrum but not know why.
6. They’re overstimulated: If your child is consumed by more sensations, noise, activity, and experiences than their body can handle, they may feel overwhelmed and act out.
For example, your toddler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party because of the loud music, bright lights, screaming children, colorful decorations, balloons, clowns, etc.
Tantrums are most common in the younger years because their language skills are not fully developed.
Typically they start to tone down around age 4 once your child realizes how to handle their emotions in an appropriate way or verbalizing the way they are feeling.
Preventing Toddler Tantrums
While I’m sure you need to learn how to handle toddler tantrums once they are happening, wouldn’t it be best to avoid them altogether?
If we can stop them before they start, that would make our lives even easier! Here are some ways to keep your toddler calm and collected and stop those tantrums right in their tracks:
1. Stick to a daily routine
The consistency of a schedule or routine gives toddlers an advantage of always knowing what to expect and what is expected of them. They can’t tell time so try to keep their schedules as predictable as possible.
When they are familiar with a routine and it gets altered, it can throw them completely out of whack.
A predictable schedule will let them know when they will eat, sleep, and play and what activities will be coming up so they can prepare to relax or get excited.
If you are going to change their daily routine, give them a fair warning. Let them know what the changes will be and how it will affect them.
If you’re going to a birthday party so they’ll have a later nap, tell them. If you have a doctor’s appointment so you’ll be late picking them up from the babysitter, let them know.
They are aware of much more than we think, so give them the knowledge and certainty that they need to feel comfortable.
A visual schedule can work wonders with your child. This way they can see their schedule of the day and you can change it up as you wish.
Then they can take off each task or routine that they have completed for the day. It gives them a nice timeline to see how the day will progress.
This has been a lifesaver for my toddler with her bedtime routine. She loves going back to her schedule to see what’s next from brushing her teeth, putting away her toys, going potty, etc.
She never fights me on any of those tasks anymore because she loves taking the pieces off as she completes her new schedule.
2. Incorporate physical & Sensory activities throughout the day
If you have a very overreactive or easily-upset toddler, you can form a routine around activities that may be calming for them.
If there are things that your child has to do that are overstimulating and you can not take them out of it (i.e. going to a birthday party), you can plan a calm down activity right before or after it.
Your child may need to release all that energy they have or get them ready for the next routine. Make sure you are adding in activities that will get them moving throughout the day.
Both calming and stimulating activities should be added when possible.
3. Anticipate tough situations
Once you understand what situations are overwhelming or upsetting for your child, you can attempt to prevent the tantrums by keeping them out of the situation that sets them off.
Once you know what a bad situation looks like for your toddler, you can be ready before the tantrum happens.
- Give them warnings when an activity is about to begin or end. Not just with verbal cues, but visual ones like: place the towel and robe next to the bathtub so they can see it’s almost time to go out or put their shoes and coat by the door once it’s getting time to leave the house.
- If you have to bring them into a situation that you can’t avoid, always have something with you that calms them, even if it just your cell phone to look at pictures or videos.
- Skip catastrophic situations altogether. If there is something you know will cause an outburst, just avoid it if possible.
- Keep cleaning supplies close by if they tend to make messes when they’re angry.
- Continue reminding them of the house rules so if they want to get mad at you for not reading 5 bedtime stories, you can repeat that you already told them they get 3 stories before bed.
4. LET THEM HAVE MORE CONTROL & Independence
Toddlers have power struggles and throw temper tantrums for one main reason: fighting for their independence. They’re just trying to get a sense of doing things for themselves.
They want to make their own decisions and be successful when they do. They want to try things by themselves and test out their new skills.
Toddlers feel so strongly about wanting to do everything for themselves that they’ll stop at nothing to accomplish that. They want to push their limits to see what they can get away with and test out how successful they can be at a new skill or task.
Doing things on their own is what is going to get them to learn new skills, accomplish tasks they didn’t think were possible, and create a vast understanding about the world around them.
There are so many learning opportunities available to our children when you grant them independence, but it can be hard when we also need to set rules and boundaries.
We need to make sure they’re safe and healthy by creating an environment of exploration and education, while also ensuring their safety and teaching them the household rules.
- Place items that they can use on lower shelves or drawers so they can reach
- Allow them to be independent with their hygiene and self-care (toothbrushing, bathing, feeding, dressing, etc.)
- Make them the house helper by having them clean up after themselves and follow a daily routine/schedule of chores
- Have them participate in all of their own transitions including getting in and out of the car on their own, going up and down the stairs, ending one activity and moving to the next
- Make sure everything has a clear place where it belongs. For example, toy boxes and shelves can be labeled with pictures so when it is clean up time, they have a full understanding of where to put the items back.
5. OFFER CHOICES
One of my favorite tactics that I use to reduce toddler temper tantrums and power struggles is to OFFER CHOICES.
The strategy of offering choices is one of the best tactics to give your child the independence that they are begging for, but you still have control over the end result.
Offering choices works like this: You pick 2 or 3 items or activities and ask them to pick one. Seems easy enough right?
Typically a tantrum will begin when your toddler wants something that you don’t want them to have or wants to do something that you don’t want them to do. Once you say no, a temper tantrum unfolds.
However, THE KEY STRATEGY is that you don’t JUST say no. You offer them 2 choices of other items and have them choose between both.
This way, you are still in control of either outcome, but they feel as they have ultimately won because they got to pick the one that they wanted.
- For dressing, if your child always wants to wear her favorite princess tee, instead of just telling her no, you have to wear this blue stripe shirt, say which one do you want to wear, the blue stripe shirt or the pink giraffe shirt? IT may not be her ultimate choice, but she will be happy to know she got to pick.
- For mealtime, give your toddler a choice of their 2 or 3 options for dinner. Even if they might want something that’s not on the menu, they will be excited to pick one of your choices on their own.
- For playtime, give them 2 or 3 good options of toys instead of their favorite movie they want to watch. Let them pick which one to play with.
6. Pick Your Battles
If you know there is something that is going to set them off and you’re just not in the mood or can’t handle the outcome, just let them have their way.
We can’t be super mom every day and instilling a strict discipline and behavior routine can be exhausting. So aim to control the things that you can, but it’s ok to just let them win sometimes.
HOW TO HANDLE TODDLER TANTRUMS
Now that we went over how to prevent toddler temper tantrums, hopefully you won’t even need further advice because you will have a perfectly behaved child who hardly screams and cries – wishful thinking?
Well, if those don’t work and you do encounter the dreaded meltdown, here are some on ways on how to handle toddler tantrums:
1. Distractions. Take advantage of your toddler’s short attention span by offering something else in place of what they can’t have. Start a new activity to replace the frustrating or forbidden one or simply change the environment. Take your toddler outside or inside or move to a different room.
2. Keep dangerous objects out of sight or reach. If you see your child starting to lose control, make sure you remove any objects or things that he could potentially use to hurt himself or someone else.
3. Remain calm: If you get angry and tempered, it will just escalate the situation further. Talk to them in your calmest voice and display non-threatening body language until they calm down.
4. Get down on their level: Kids don’t like being yelled at or talked down to any more than adults do. So as you talk quietly and remain calm, squat down so you’re eye-to-eye with them. They will respond much better when you are on their level.
5. Give positive attention. Although there is nothing positive about a tantrum, try to get them to notice positive things about the situation or themselves. This is another form of distraction, but talk about something positive that they did or said or anything positive about their day.
6. Give a choice: Although this is best done BEFORE a tantrum occurs, you can try it. If they didn’t get something they want, try offering them 2 other choices of your choosing to see if they are ok picking something else.
7. Make a joke: You may be able to distract them by just telling a joke, breaking a smile, or making a silly game out of it. Soon they will completely forget what they were even upset about in the first place.
8. Provide comfort: Sometimes they may just need a hug and cuddle from you to feel better.
9. Take them out of the situation: If your child is overstimulated by the bright lights at target or all the toys leave the store. If they are fighting you on taking a bath, say ok, we don’t have to take a bath now, let’s try later. Revisit the situation at a later time after they have calmed down.
10. Walk away and ignore it. Sometimes they may just need a moment to cool down on their own. Walk away from the situation yourself and see if they do better by themselves.
11. Offer them what you think the problem is: Your little one may not be able to tell you or even know that they are hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain. So you may need to offer those options for them. If they are in full meltdown mode, asking them if they want a cracker is probably not going to work. So just put a cracker and water in front of them or lay them in their bed. Mom knows best what their baby needs sometimes more than they know themselves.
12. Talk about the future: Another form of distraction: Talk to them about something exciting coming up for them like what they’re going to eat for dinner, going to the park later, or visiting grandma tomorrow.
13. Give them a safe space: Whether it’s their bedroom or a corner, tell them that when they’re going through a tantrum they have to go in their safe space until they have calmed down. They will then learn that they can control the outcome with their own actions.
14. Do NOT give in: If you know that the tantrum is being caused by something silly like not getting what that they want, don’t reward this behavior by giving in to them. You will just be adding to the problem and make the behaviors harder to avoid in the future.
15. Make your rules clear: State your rules again and again so they know that what you said previously still stands. “You will not get what you want by crying and kicking. When you calm down, we can talk about it.”
What Should You Do After a Tantrum?
1. Positive praise: Give them praise after they have calmed down and regained control. Say I like how you calmed down by yourself.
2. Be compassionate: Understand that it is not their fault that they don’t completely know how to control their emotions and behaviors at this age. They’re still trying to figure it all out.
So give them a break and get back in there and give them lots of hugs and kisses. They need the reassurance that you’re not still angry at them for causing a scene.
3. Discuss the tantrum. After your child has calmed down, talk about what made him so upset. Don’t dwell on the outburst, however. Instead, try to get to the root of why it happened. This will help you learn in the future what can set them off so you can prevent it.
It will also help them learn to talk about their feelings and emotions. Ask them how they were feeling (mad, sad) and what would have been a better way to manage those emotions (tell you calmly what it is that you wanted).
4. Restate your rules and expectations: Once they are calm, they have more of an ability to retain the information you will tell them. Tell them again what the house rules are (remember for next time, you can’t have cookies before dinner or my bed is not a trampoline).
Hopefully, the consistent reminders and you giving in will result in avoidable tantrums next time.
5. Model your expectation: Just telling a toddler, “next time, stay calm,” may not get you anywhere if they don’t know what you mean. Actually show them how to behave next time instead of lashing out.
“This is how you act calm, this is how you stay quiet, this is how you keep your hands to yourself, this is how you tell mommy that you’re angry. “
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I hope you’re learned a few new ways of how to handle toddler tantrums for the next time they occur. Hopefully, with this bit of guidance, you can even prevent them in the future!