How to Stop the Tantrums

Tantrum Types, Decoded

Meltdowns are divided into three basic categories, behavior experts agree. Which is your child's tantrum of choice these days?

The Gimmes

boy having a tantrum

This insistent demand for something, often food and treats, usually occurs in the kitchen or at the grocery store. This makes sense to Dr. Gold, author of Keeping Your Child in Mind. Kids are bombarded with visual stimulation in a supermarket, she says, and Mom's attention is diverted by shopping (and, frequently, running into people she knows). "It actually can be sort of a stressful place for a kid, and if you think of a child having a tantrum as being?'stressed' rather than 'difficult,' that can help you to be more empathetic," Dr. Gold explains.

Tantrum-Stopper At home, place objects that bring on a beg-fest out of sight. Before embarking on shopping or other excursions, make sure your child is well rested and well fed; take an interactive toy or a book with you, and have him participate by helping to pick out a few things. Meltdowns often start when a child is denied a treat, so try this strategy from Alan Greene, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine (and father of four): Bring paper and a pen, and when your toddler asks for something, say "Let's write that down." Make a list, and at the end of the trip, read back some of the healthier choices and let your child pick one or two things. List-making will distract him, make him feel included, and promises a reward at the finish line.

The Attention-Getter

Mom's preoccupied -- time to unleash the beast! The best example: Your kid is doing fine by herself, but then you get on the phone and suddenly she has to have your attention.

Tantrum-Stopper Advance warning is key. Try, "Mommy has to talk on the phone now. Play quietly in your room, and then we'll color together." Try stashing away some toys that come out only during phone calls. And if it's a serious call that involves, say, banking information, you might park her in front of a video for a little while. In general, young kids are easily diverted. Tantrums can sometimes be cut short with early commands that are brief, easy to follow, and quickly grab a toddler?s interest. "The more specific, the better," says Dr. Potegal, "like 'Don't hit the dog.'" Or distract with short, specific invitations -- "Let's color" -- rather than a vague "Be good." A quick change of location can also be effective ("Time to water the flowers!").

The Power Struggle

Refusing to get into bed or to leave the playground is your child's way of asserting herself.

Tantrum-Stopper It's tempting to cave, especially at the end of the day. Don't. When you give in, this teaches your child that tantrums get results. In these instances, your child wants control, so give a little ground by offering choices within the limits you have set. For example, you can ask, "What would you like to do first, brush your hair or brush your teeth?"

And toddlers don't like surprises, so defuse a potential eruption by giving a child plenty of advance notice before you leave the park or a friend's house. Toddlers are comforted by knowing exactly what's going to come next, so saying "You can ride your scooter two more times around the park, and then we have to go home" gives them a sense of control. Avoid promises such as "You can ride your scooter for five minutes." Since most toddlers can't tell time, they'll feel ambushed when their time is up.

Dr. Potegal has also devised a simple solution that he says works after only two or three tries. Explain to your child ahead of time that if she doesn't do what you ask -- say, put on her pajamas -- you're going to count to three, and if she still doesn't comply, you'll put your hands on her hands and guide her through the task. Then do it. "She'll hate this approach, because it's a challenge to her autonomy," he says. "But then she'll comply."

How Other Moms Handle Freakouts

  • "My boy likes to help, so if I see a meltdown coming, I quickly grab one of his stuffed animals and the toy starts throwing a 'tantrum.' My son knows it needs help calming down, so he will count to 11 with the toy and take deep breaths until the animal feels better. Engaging in his tantrum, instead of reacting after, works!"
    Megan Sears
    Beaverton, Oregon

  • "I record my kids during a tantrum and show them the video later so they see how they look. Now my kids talk about what's going on, without the crying and hitting."
    Shannon Stewart
    Thornton, Colorado

  • "Whenever my daughters and I were out and another kid had a tantrum, I'd pull my girls aside and whisper, 'That child is not behaving. I'm glad you don't do that.' They loved feeling superior and I think it cut down on the tantrums."
    Dinah Williams
    Cranford, New Jersey

  • "We made what we call a 'calming jar' -- a plastic bottle with a lid, filled with 1 tablespoon of clear glue to each cup of hot water in the jar, as well as glitter and food coloring. When my daughter's really worked up, she gets to shake the jar to mix up the glitter, then sets it down and watches until all the glitter settles to the bottom and she has found her happy self."
    Robyn Oakenfold
    Calgary, Alberta

  • "Earplugs!"
    Anita Crady
    Chillicothe, Illinois

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

Parents Are Talking

Add a Comment