How to deal with toddler tantrums
Taming the terrible twos
We've all been there. The high pitched scream. The wailing. The kicking and screaming and total meltdown. If you're lucky it's in the privacy of your own home, over the fact that you peeled their banana wrong or perhaps, god forbid, you asked them to put pants on. But if you're unlucky it might have been in the middle of the supermarket aisle with a captive audience of strangers and judgy looks.
Toddlers and tantrums are a given, but in the heat of the moment, it's hard to actually know what to do. Do you ignore it? Do you use discipline? Do you try to hug them and risk a sucker punch to the throat?
Here's what the experts have to say...
Why Tantrums Happen
Tantrums are very common in children aged 1-3 years.
This is because children’s social and emotional skills are only just starting to develop at this age. Children often don’t have the words to express big emotions. They might be testing out their growing independence. And they’re discovering that the way they behave can influence the way other people behave.
So tantrums are one of the ways that young children express and manage feelings, and try to understand or change what’s going on around them.
Older children can have tantrums too. This can be because they haven’t yet learned more appropriate ways to express or manage feelings.
For both toddlers and older children, there are things that can make tantrums more likely to happen:
- Temperament – this influences how quickly and strongly children react to things like frustrating events. Children who get upset easily might be more likely to have tantrums.
- Stress, hunger, tiredness and overstimulation – these can make it harder for children to express and manage feelings and behaviour.
- Situations that children just can’t cope with – for example, a toddler might have trouble coping if an older child takes a toy away.
- Strong emotions – worry, fear, shame and anger can be overwhelming for children.
How to Handle Toddler Tantrums When They Happen
Sometimes tantrums happen, no matter what you do to avoid them. Here are some ideas for handling tantrums when they happen:
Stay calm (or pretend to!). Take a moment for yourself if you need to. If you get angry, it’ll make the situation harder for both you and your child. When you speak, keep your voice calm and level, and act deliberately and slowly.
Acknowledge your child’s strong feelings. For example, ‘It’s very upsetting when your ice-cream falls out of the cone, isn’t it?’ This can help prevent behaviour getting more out of control and gives your child a chance to reset emotions.
Wait out the tantrum. Stay close so your child knows you’re there. But don’t try to reason with your child or distract them. It’s too late once a tantrum has started.
Take charge when you need to. If the tantrum happens because your child wants something, don’t give your child what they want. If your child doesn’t want to do something, use your judgment. For example, if your child doesn’t want to get out of the bath, pulling out the plug might be safer than lifting out your child.
Be consistent and calm in your approach. If you sometimes give your child what they want when they have tantrums and you sometimes don’t, the problem could get worse.
Mid-tantrum is NOT the time forTeaching
What to do When They Meltdown in Public
This approach is fine when we are at home, but when you're in a public setting, somehow a tantrum is far more stressful and we often feel that our usual approach to handling a tantrum might not work when there's onlookers. Here's some practical tips to dealing with a public meltdown.
Prevention is key - nobody knows your toddler better than you, if you can prevent the tantrum from happening in the first place, then that's the best strategy. This might include bringing snacks, distractions, separating siblings and avoiding certain aisles like the lolly section (if going to the shops) Also consider is this an appropriate time in my child's schedule to take them on this outing? If they're past their nap time then it's probably not the ideal time to hit the shops.
Involve them in the experience - another strategy to (hopefully) prevent the tantrum in the first place is to involve them in the experience by giving them tasks. For example if you're going shopping, give them a shopping list to hold in the cart, pass them (unbreakable) items that they can toss into the trolley and play a version of 'eye spy' where they help you find items they can easily recognise.
Keep your cool - if you do find yourself in the unavoidable throws of a tantrum, try and remain calm. Don't ignore the fact that they are having a tantrum, but also accept that this is normal, healthy behaviour that you don't need to fuel further by losing your shit.
Distraction is a good technique that can often stop a meltdown in its tracks. Try using the different senses to help with the distraction - Would you like to smell these flowers? Oh wow look at how big that pumpkin is! Can you count how many blue things you can see? Would you like to eat some sultanas? Can you hear the music playing - let's dance!
Take a quick break - if you have a trolley full of groceries and your toddler is screaming bloody murder and you just can't cope with the stares from strangers, try taking them out of the store (outside if possible, the fresh air and drop in temperature will help distract them). Most sales assistants will be happy to put your trolley aside for you while you pop out to calm your little one whilst taking a few calming breaths yourself!
Check our this article by Big Little Feelings on How to Manage a Tantrum Already in Progress
Or you can take a look at their online course Winning the Toddler Stage which is like an instruction manual for toddlers!
Here's a great video by Dr Paul on How to Stop Tantrums Forever!
Sources: Big Little Feelings, Raising Children