All toddler parents know the roller coaster of watching your kid do something completely adorable, followed by a flow of tears because you offered them breakfast on the orange plate, instead of the blue plate. What just happened? How do we, as parents, navigate this minefield of toddler tantrums??

Here are some of my favorite tips for handling tantrums:

1. Adjust your expectations – try to understand where tantrums are coming from

It may seem like toddler behavior is completely irrational (and often it is), but when it comes to tantrums there is usually something driving them over the edge. Kids are highly sensitive when they are hungry, overtired, overstimulated, or sick. They may also use tantrums to get attention if that has worked for them in the past. It is helpful to distinguish the cause of their outburst to know the best way to handle it. If your child is cranky because they are exhausted, disciplining them is unlikely to be successful.

Toddlers have not yet developed their sense of self-regulation, the ability to be faced with a frustrating situation and deal with it calmly. However, they are rapidly developing their sense of independence and may want to take on tasks that are too difficult for them. So when they can’t accomplish something it is likely to result in an outburst.

If we try to empathize with our children and understand where these big feelings are coming from, it is a lot easier to handle the tantrum calmly.

2. Try to avoid tantrums before they start

Remember – avoiding a tantrum does not mean giving your child what they want! Try to identify your child’s triggers so that you can head off a tantrum before it even starts. If your child didn’t have the best night’s sleep, try not to pack on extra errands that day. If hunger tends to turn your sweet toddler into a cranky mess, keep snacks on hand and stick to regular meal times. If there are certain household objects that are off-limits, but your child always wants to play with them, try to move them out of sight. If your child struggles with transitions from one activity to another, give them extra warnings in advance so they know what is coming.

Offering choices gives your child a sense of control that they desperately want. “Do you want to wear the blue sweatshirt or the red sweatshirt?” “Do you want to brush your teeth first or take a bath first?”. Try to keep it simple so they don’t feel overwhelmed.

Help your child learn how to self-regulate as this is the key to warding off tantrums all together. Any time your child is able to compose themselves or they carry out a request without a struggle – show them praise! This positive reinforcement teaches them the types of behaviors we want to see. Help your child learn ways to calm down such as deep breathing, giving themselves a hug, or dancing to a favorite song. Also, don’t forget to model good behavior for them! If we get frustrated by something and then take a moment to compose ourselves, our kids pick up on that and learn productive ways to handle their emotions.

3. Be consistent and keep your cool when facing tantrums

First things first – always try to keep your cool! If you want your kids to learn to calm down in the face of frustration, you need to be able to do the same.

Tantrums can be handled differently depending on why your child is upset, but it is important to be consistent with whichever approaches you take.

  • If your child is throwing a fit because they want attention or they want to play with something that you have taken away – the best method is often ignoring the tantrum so they realize they won’t get what they want by acting out
  • If your child is having a meltdown because they are overstimulated by their environment –bring them to a quiet place and offer them comfort

My favorite resource for dealing with tantrums is “1,2,3 Magic” by Thomas Phelan. The premise is that you count to 3 and if the behavior does not change, then they take a “time-out”. This method puts the onus of correcting the behavior on the child, rather than the parent. There is no bargaining (like “come on buddy, just put your shoes on, do you really want a time-out?”) and it makes it easier for parents to keep their cool because all they have to do is count. I highly recommend reading the book if you plan to implement this discipline method.

4. Some other helpful tips

When your child asks for something, think about it carefully before responding. Once you say no, you can’t go back on it, so be sure to choose your battles!

Validate your children’s feelings – let them know that you understand what they want, but that whining or screaming is not going to work.

This phase will not last forever! As kids develop their ability to self-regulate and also their ability to communicate their wants and needs, tantrums do get better, I promise!

Hope you found this information helpful.
Stay warm and stay safe everyone!

Dr. Hager

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