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by Brittney Schrick - October 19, 2018
Toddlers are known for their ability to test patience and boundaries through almost
any means necessary. The lengths to which they will go can sometimes try even the
calmest adult's ability to cope with it. Although traditional tactics of physical
punishment and timeouts are often resorted to, their effectiveness is marginal at
best, and damaging at worst.
One of the easiest mistakes to make as a parent dealing with tantrums is assuming
the child is willfully trying to annoy you. While this can occasionally be the case,
it is far more likely that your child has lost control of big emotions. Because it
appears that they are just "throwing a fit," parents and other caregivers may get
angry or lose control themselves assuming that the child will, and can, stop. In reality,
young children often move into a territory of complete loss of control, and when adults
join them there, the situation is only made worse. Parents can wrongly assume that
their child is able but unwilling to "get it together," when the opposite is far more
likely: They want to get it together, but they can't.
So, when your child is in the throes of a tantrum, what should you do?
First, it is important to know what NOT to do. Don't threaten or punish a young child
for strong emotions. It won't help in the short run because they will become more
upset, and it won't help in the long run because it will not teach them to deal with
1. Make sure their basic needs are met: Sometimes, all a kid needs is a nap, or a snack, or a drink of water to become the
sweet, loving child you know they are. Even adults can reach a threshold of hunger
or fatigue that causes moodiness, so it only stands to reason that a young child would
also be sensitive to this struggle. Even if the hunger, thirst, or sleepiness isn't
the main cause of a tantrum, it may make it worse. Try meeting these needs first.
2. Stick to a gentle, stable routine and set predictable boundaries: Children do best when they know what to expect. This includes knowing what they
can and cannot do. Set routines and boundaries in place that allow for some flexibility
when necessary but are generally predictable. This allows a child to understand when
they violate the boundaries and also helps them understand what their role is in the
family and in the parent/child relationship.
3. Identify triggers: Especially if your child is having consistent difficulty controlling her/his emotions,
pay attention to what happens before the tantrum. Maybe they always breakdown around
the same time of day or around the same transition or person. Maybe certain foods
or activities send them reeling. Pay attention to these circumstances, and be proactive
in dealing with them. If you know that your child will break down around 5pm every
day (which is very common, even among older children), it may be best to give them
something low-key to do during that time and to make sure they have a snack or lovey.
4. Help the child feel in control: Younger children may have difficulty describing how they feel. One way you can help
is to give them words to tell you how they are feeling and what they need in order
to regain control. Sometimes, they are angry or disappointed, sometimes they are tired
or sad. It may be more helpful to describe how the emotion feels physically as a color
or a "hot" emotion. Giving them ways to describe it can help them work through it
and even feel it coming on. These skills can be helpful throughout life.
5. Be calm, kind, and sensitive: Meeting a tantrum with a tantrum may feel good in the moment, but it rarely helps
the situation. Remaining calm and kind in the face of a screaming toddler can help
them understand that they are safe and sound. Talk to them about what they are feeling
to give them names for their feelings. Tell them and show them how they can deal with
big feelings in a positive way. Telling them not to cry or not to feel how they feel
can have unintended consequences as they get older, so naming and dealing in the moment
teaches them that feelings are good and normal and can be handled.
BUT REMEMBER, there's nothing in your parenting contract that says you have to stand there and
take it. If you cannot meet your child with calmness while remaining in the same space,
leave them in (or move them to) a safe place and let them get it out of their system. Calmly, put them in their room or otherwise
away from you. In all likelihood, they will track you down soon. If you are in public
and have the option of leaving (even if only for a few minutes), it is probably worthwhile.
A stressful 10 minutes feels much longer in public, and it can get you to your breaking
point much more quickly. Sometimes just sitting in the car or lobby for a minute can
You're doing great, parents. Kiddos are learning to control their feelings and reactions,
and their big feelings can't always be contained. Meeting their tantrum with one of
your own or with physical punishment won't teach them how to respond to big feelings,
it only teaches them to what not to do. Calm, warm, controlled responses are key.