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How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums: Tips From The Experts

How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums: Tips From The Experts

Posted in #toddlers

Screaming because you won’t give them popcorn RIGHT NOW. Trying to strap their rigid body into their stroller. Apocalypse Now in the store. Meltdowns at daycare. 

Even on a good day, spending time with a toddler can feel like being around a hand grenade. One minute, they’re all sweetness and light. The next they’re on the floor, kicking and screaming because you didn’t let them put their crayons up the dog’s nose. It’s a trying time.

But there are ways to make tantrums more bearable and *whispers* even prevent meltdowns. It starts with understanding the science behind why tantrums happen and getting a handle on your own emotions before you successfully navigate your toddler through their meltdown. 

Here’s how to deal with toddler tantrums using gentle parenting and positive reinforcement tips from the experts.

child crying


What Is A Temper Tantrum?

A tantrum is when your child erupts, usually because of something seemingly insignificant, irrational and illogical, and all their ‘big feelings’ come spilling out. 

This looks like screaming, shouting, inconsolable crying, hitting, kicking, biting and rolling around on the floor (usually somewhere public 🙄), and can be soul-destroying for parents.


When Do Tantrums Start?

Although temper tantrums can be alarming, they are completely normal and very common with toddlers. They usually start between the ages of 18 months and three years. 

Your child will usually save up a tantrum just for you! This may not seem very complimentary, but roll with it. It shows that your little one feels safe and confident with you to be able to behave in this way.


The Science Behind Why Temper Tantrums Happen

To understand why tantrums happen, figure out what’s going on in your child’s brain. At around 18 months to two years old, your toddler’s intellectual and cognitive abilities are firing on all cylinders. They’re beginning to recognise themselves as a separate being, becoming increasingly independent and asserting themselves. 

However, they haven’t yet understood that their parents also have minds and emotions separate from their own. So, when what they want doesn’t match up to what we want, it’s armageddon.

There are lots of common triggers for tantrums: for example, not being able to get their boots on, wanting something immediately or being hungry, thirsty, bored and tired. 

Your toddler can’t contain the big feelings of frustration about not being able to do or communicate with you about something. They may be angry with you, for example, for not letting them have a snack before their lunch. Or they may be feeling worried and anxious.



First, Manage Your Own Emotions

Don’t panic. Your child is not horrible or abnormal. Remember, tantrums are normal.

Second, ‘regulate your own stress response’, says Lisa Dion, a play therapist and founder of the Synergetic Play Therapy Institute. Being with someone who is screaming and shouting is stressful and may trigger your own big feelings. You may feel flooded with rage and frustration and want to have a tantrum yourself. To calm the storm, remove yourself physically for a few minutes. 

If that’s impossible, take a few deep breaths. Katie Rosanbalm, a senior research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, says that being calm yourself will help you to support your child. They feel your feelings. If you exude an unruffled, controlled and compassionate exterior, they’ll respond in kind (eventually). 


Next, Manage Your Child’s Reaction


Try to distract your toddler out of their meltdown. This doesn’t always work and don’t expect an instant response, but you may be able to catch their attention with a book, toy, cuddle or a funny face. 

Try ‘Toddler-ese’

Before your toddler really kicks off, try mirroring their emotions and language, says Dr Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. 

Talking ‘toddler-ese’ can help find common ground. Rather than trying to reason with your little one, speak in short sentences like they do and repeat how they feel back at them: ‘I want, I want, I want sweetie now.’ 

This effective technique communicates your understanding of your toddler's mental state, without giving in to their demands. They’ll feel calmer knowing that you understand where they’re coming from.


If there’s no going back, re-enter the fray but ignore your child’s behavior until their anger subsides (we know this is WAY easier said than done). 

Make sure they’re safe and let them get on with it. They’ll tire themselves out before long and will soon realize it won’t get them anywhere.

Don't Reason

Once they’re in the full throes of their tantrum, the ancient part of their brain, the amygdala, will have kicked in. 

Any attempts to intervene, placate or reassure will be pointless, like trying to reason with an angry animal (or neanderthal).

Don't Give In 

Your little one is having a meltdown because they haven’t got their way. Giving in teaches them that if they throw their toys out of the stroller, they get what they want. 

Set a sustainable precedent by sticking to your guns.

Don’t Laugh

Most tantrums are triggered over the most ridiculous reasons and can even seem comical. But the feelings behind the outburst are real, so don’t laugh – it’ll make your child feel unheard.  



What If We’re Out And About?

If your kid decides to have a full-blown meltdown in the middle of the street, sometimes it might feel better to take them somewhere more private. 

Remember, it’s totally normal for toddlers to tantrum and nothing to be ashamed of, but you’ll then be away from the inevitable audience and your child will be able to calm down in peace.

However, you’re perfectly within your rights to let your child tantrum away in public. Don’t feel pressured to make the noise stop from disapproving passersby. After all, it’s not them who need your guidance, it’s your toddler. 


Finally, Validate Your Toddler’s Feelings

When the storm has passed, don’t punish or lecture your child. Instead, cuddle them to reassure them that you’re there for them, no matter what. Using gentle parenting techniques when dealing with tantrums means children who are forgiven swiftly will grow out of their tantrums more quickly. 

When your toddler’s amygdala is no longer in control and their partially developed prefrontal cortex is back online, chat about how hard the experience was for them. Help them articulate what happened, says child and family therapist Shanna Donhauser. This will validate your child’s feelings about why the tantrum happened and let them know you understand.



How To Prevent Tantrums

Knowing your child is key to pre-empting and even preventing tantrums. These tactics are worth a try:


Make sure your little one has plenty of opportunity to let off steam and release pent-up energy.


Regular naps alongside a solid day and bedtime routine will prevent your toddler from becoming anxious, overtired or overstimulated. 


Taking healthy protein-based shacks for everyone, including parents, out and about will stop tantrums in their tracks. 

Keep things simple

Don’t give your child too many choices – they can’t handle it. Offer simple choices, such as whether to have a banana or apple for their snack. This will help them feel in control and lessen the chance of a meltdown.


Toddler Tantrums – When To Worry

If your toddler is losing it more than twice a day or tantrums are happening regularly after they turn four, it may be worth talking to your pediatrician for extra support.

Knowing tantrums are normal doesn’t make them less awful when you’re in the eye of the storm. But taking the time to figure out your little one’s triggers will help you understand each other better and grow closer. 

Have you tried toddler-ese to cope with tantrums? Let us know on social, and sign up to our emails for more parenting tips, hacks and tricks.

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