7 Tips for Tackling Toddler Tantrums

Before I had kids of my own, I worked with the toddler age group for many years as a teacher in several daycare centers. During those years, I learned a lot about what seems to work and what definitely doesn’t when it comes to preventing and de-escalating tantrums. When it came time to field my own child’s tantrums, I drew on some of the lessons I’d learned as a teacher to help me figure out how to keep my otherwise sweet kid from turning into a full-blown toddler monster when the word “no” was dare spoken. I really swear by these tips and I put them into practice with my toddler every single day. It takes a lot of deliberate thought and carefully-chosen words, but I find that, in general, his tantrums are the exception, not the rule.  I’m only a mother to one toddler and what works for him might not work for your child, but hopefully you’ll find a tip or two here that works for tackling toddler tantrums at your house:

  1. Show respect

While small and often irrational, toddlers are people too and, as such, they’re deserving of our respect. I think we adults forget that a lot. We tend to talk down to them, minimize their feelings and brush aside their requests in favor of our own agendas—“I don’t care that you don’t want to go to swim class today. We’re going whether you want to or not, so get your bathing suit on.”

 A little respect can go a long way. Give them the benefit of the doubt and talk to them like they’re rational adults that can handle being treated that way. “I know you don’t want to go to the pool. Are you tired from being at school all day? Let’s get your bathing suit on and see how you feel once we get to the pool, OK?” It’s interesting how it works: once we start treating our kids with respect, they often rise to the occasion and show us that they’re deserving of that treatment. In my humble opinion, controlling tantrums begins and ends with respect, so if you remember nothing else from these tips, remember this one.   

  1. Foster independence

My two-year-old son, Chase, is a fiercely independent little boy. I’d estimate that 98% of his tantrums stem from the fact that he wants to do something himself but can’t. After many months of fielding his four-alarm freak-outs, I started to notice a trend: he would get upset when I needed to change his diaper or put his clothes on, during mealtimes while I was preparing his food and at naptime or bedtime when we put him in his crib. Slowly, I started to realize that the majority of his tantrums were actually his way of expressing the desire for independence. I began to adjust my behavior accordingly.

We successfully potty trained him and the fight over diapers disappeared in the rearview in favor of going potty by himself. We switched his crib to a toddler bed and let him choose a book to read to himself before falling asleep; nap/bedtime battles flew out the window. I began asking him more often what he wanted at mealtimes, giving him a list from which to choose and involving him in the process of preparing it ie; giving him a plastic butter knife to slice his own bananas or letting him help make the muffins he’d eat for breakfast. These small adjustments lessened mealtime mayhem considerably. One of our last big daily battles is over getting dressed, so I’m working on teaching him how to dress himself and letting him pick out the clothes he’d like to wear for the day. My suspicion is that particular battle will also disappear once he’s mastered the ability to get dressed without my help. It’s amazing what our kids are capable of when we give them the opportunity to try.

  1. Consider their feelings

To an adult, the fact that your favorite shirt is in the washing machine when it comes time to get dressed doesn’t seem worthy of a fist-pounding, top-of-the-lungs screaming meltdown. But to your toddler, it’s a much bigger deal. Think about it from their perspective: they don’t know that there are world wars or electric bills that need to be paid on time or people that live on park benches. All they know is that they really love the shirt with the ladybugs on it and they can’t wear it like they want to today.  Try to put yourself in their shoes and avoid dismissing their feelings as unimportant, just because they might be a little bit irrational. “I can see you’re sad that there are no more granola bars left. I know you really wanted one. Next time we go to the store we’ll buy some more. Let’s see what else you could have for a snack instead.” This goes hand in hand with showing respect: their feelings are worthy of our notice and we’d do well to realize that children are allowed to have hard moments or bad days just like we do.

  1. Keep your promises

Last summer, I was at the playground with my kids when I overheard a dad tell his two young daughters that they could have candy if they got out of the slide to go home. They’d been holing themselves up in there for quite awhile and both parents’ attempts to get them out hadn’t worked thus far. The mom was pretty mad. “Why would you say that?” she asked her husband. “Do you actually have candy for them?” “Well, no,” he said a little sheepishly, “but how else were we gonna get them out of the slide?” Though I got a good laugh out of it at the time, I realized later that the father’s mistake was kind of a big one. When we tell our kids something, they take it as gospel; at that age, they’re too young to realize that sometimes people don’t keep their promises. If you’re not sure that something will pan out or you don’t have any intention of following through on the promise, don’t make it. It’s much better to surprise your toddler with a trip to the park after running errands than tell her you can go after the grocery store when you know it’ll be too dark by then. If you set them up for disappointment, they will act disappointed in the only way they know how: throwing a huge tantrum. Avoid a meltdown by being straight with them: “We have to go to the bank and the post office before they close. If we can get through those quickly, we can stop at the park on the way home. You can help by being a big girl and staying right with me in line.”  

  1. Get into a routine

Generally speaking, toddlers aren’t big into surprises. They’re creatures of habit and they crave routine, expectation and normalcy. If you pay attention to your toddler’s tantrums, chances are, you’ll find that many of them happen during transition times like when it’s time to get ready to leave the house or get out of the bathtub or go upstairs to bed. By establishing a fairly set routine each day, toddlers can expect that certain things will always happen in a specific order: for instance, after breakfast they can watch one TV show, before going outside they have to clean up their toys, naptime always comes after lunch. This makes the transition times feel less sudden and thus, less disruptive to their world.

Still, even with things that happen routinely—like naptime—there can be a lot of resistance each and every time. I’ve found that it helps my son adapt to the change in circumstance when I give him a warning before a transition is coming. “Five more minutes until it’s time to leave the playground,” I tell him and then I check in with him to make sure he understands. “Got it?” I ask. “Got it,” he says back. I do this for nearly every transition, big or small. I also warn him when he’s coming up on the last of something. “This is the last muffin in the container, OK, Chase?” I hold up the Tupperware and show him that there’s none left after the one he’s eating. Now that I’ve been doing that for awhile, he often tells me on his own. When I let him have a cookie, he says, “Last one,” even before I can tell him that’s all he’s getting right now. He’s aware of the expectation and, most of the time, it heads off a tantrum over the possibility of having four more cookies.

  1. Establish firm boundaries (but be soft in the middle)

Children equate boundaries with safety and it’s comforting to them to know when they’ve hit the edge of one. That constant boundary-pushing is often confused with defiance, however. You know how it goes: he runs off in middle of a crowded store, you get angry and yell, he cries for the rest of the trip from the confines of the shopping cart. But imagine if you didn’t follow your toddler when he ran off. Chances are very good that, instead of running out the front door into the parking lot or scaling the side of the Diet Coke display, he’d eventually come wandering back. This is because you’re his safe place and he wants to know you care enough to make rules about things like running away from you. Though it seems like toddlers do it just to push our buttons, they’re often asking for the adults in their lives to push back and show them where that line in the sand is.

I am very firm with my toddler about certain things—staying with an adult in a parking lot or on the street, not going near the fireplace or stove when they’re hot, not hurting others when he’s upset—and I reserve the word “no” for instances of that magnitude. I try not to throw that word around carelessly; not because I’m afraid of saying no to my kids, but because I want them to take me seriously when I say it. Same goes for raising my voice; you’ll rarely find me yelling unless my kid is about to run into the street or he’s just smacked his little brother over the head with a toy. You better believe he pays attention when he hears my voice get to that level!

Inside his firm boundaries, however, he has a lot of leeway. I don’t care if he gets paint on the floor or decides he doesn’t want to wear shoes outside or if he makes a mess trying to pour his own ketchup on his plate; I believe pretty strongly in letting him learn from experience that shoes are preferable on wet grass or that if you squeeze too hard, a lot more ketchup than you bargained for comes out of the bottle. The interesting thing is that he’s constantly checking in with me to make sure something he’s about to do is OK; he wants to know that I care enough to not let him do something unsafe.

  1. Give choices

As we already discussed, toddlers crave autonomy. They don’t like being told that they have to eat this or they cannot do that; they want to make those choices for themselves. But, as we’ve also covered, toddlers aren’t the most rational people. If left to their own devices, they’d eat dessert for every meal and never sleep. Hence, limitless options aren’t exactly for them. The key is to give them a choice between options with outcomes you consider favorable. I’ve found this approach to be hugely successful at calming my son down when he’s mid-tantrum.

Here’s a sample scenario that comes up often in our house: Chase wants to eat a snack and he also wants to watch TV. He goes into the pantry, gets a granola bar, and tells me he wants to eat it on the couch. I tell him he has to sit at the table to eat it. (We have this rule because when he runs around with food, he often ends up choking, coughing, and puking everywhere. I don’t even want to think about how many times I had to clean up puke before I put two and two together.) He starts yelling that he wants TO WATCH A SHOW AND EAT A BAR.  I tell him very calmly that he has two choices: he can put the bar on the table and eat it when he’s done with his show OR he can eat the bar now at the table and finish his show after. Sometimes he yells a little longer, but he knows I won’t give in (which is also key to this approach) so eventually he calms down, tells me which option he’s chosen and then I always say something like, “That sounds like a really good choice.” Then we go about our day without him having a 20-minute freak-out and without me having to clean up puke off the floor because I caved and let him run around with food. He’s still gotten one of the things he wanted and so have I. Win-win.

What tips or tricks do you use with your toddler to prevent or de-escalate tantrums?

Toddler Tantrums

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Melissa Mowry

Melissa Mowry is a stay at home mom to 3 year old Chase and the slightly younger guy, Sam. She is the main voice behind One Mother to Another, which she started in July 2014 as a way to connect with other moms who felt just as lonely as she did some days. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Adam, and they live in their home state of Rhode Island. Melissa's work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Mamalode, Coffee + Crumbs and Mamapedia, among others. Her book, One Mother to Another: This Is Just Between Us is for sale on Amazon.
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