How to Deal With Toddler Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums can make you question your parenting skills, but they’re actually a normal part of toddlerhood. Here's why they happen and how to handle them—without losing your mind.

When your kid's in the middle of a tantrum, it can be tough to keep from having an outburst of your own. "Meltdowns are terrible, nasty things, but they're a fact of childhood," says Ray Levy, Ph.D., a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. "Young kids—namely those between the ages of 1 and 4—haven't developed good coping skills yet. They tend to just lose it instead."

If your toddler has been experiencing temper tantrums, it's important to get to the root of what's really happening—and as much as possible, to keep your own emotions in check. Keep reading to learn the best tips for dealing with toddler temper tantrums and why they happen.

Little Miss Temper Tantrum

What Causes Temper Tantrums?

According to Dr. Levy, at its core, every tantrum results from one simple thing: not getting what they want. "For children between 1 and 2, tantrums often stem from trying to communicate a need—more milk, a diaper change, that toy over there—but not having language skills to do it," says Dr. Levy. "They get frustrated when you don't respond to what they're 'saying' and throw a fit."

For older toddlers, temper tantrums are more of a power struggle. "By the time kids are 3 or 4, they have grown more autonomous," Dr. Levy continues. "They're keenly aware of their needs and desires—and want to assert them more. If you don't comply? Tantrum city."

By the time your child reaches preschool, they can use their words to tell you what they need, but that doesn't mean their tantrums are over. They are still learning how to handle their emotions, and a minor disagreement can turn into a full-on fit. Because your child values their growing independence, they may feel especially frustrated when they need help. Some lose it when they try to do something challenging, like tying their shoes, and realize they can't do it alone.

It helps to remember that tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting—they're an essential developmental stage. "Tantrums help kids learn to deal with their negative emotions," says clinical psychologist Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. "Sometimes children get so overwhelmed by their new independence that they get overstimulated and melt down." When they do, you're the one they're counting on to pick them up.

How to Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums

While there's no one right way to deal with a toddler's temper tantrum, most experts agree on what doesn't work. At the top of the "don't" list are yelling and spanking (or hitting of any kind), but tactics such as bribing, begging, and giving in aren't great either. "If you give in, you are rewarding the tantrum and ensuring that it will happen again and again," says Dr. Rubinowitz. Kids need to know that "no" means "no," even if they are upset about it.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents who react calmly and consistently to their toddler's outbursts help their child understand where the boundaries are, which perhaps surprisingly helps the child feel more protected and in control. The late sociologist Murray Straus, Ph.D., added one caution: "When disciplining, it's important to focus on behavior and not emotionally attack your child. People say, 'That's unrealistic.' But it's not unrealistic to refrain from yelling at co-workers. We have to treat our children at least as well as we treat our colleagues."

Need help dealing with your own kid's tantrums? Here are some tricks to try mid-meltdown.

1. Handle aggressive behavior immediately

Does your child become aggressive during a meltdown—hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things? Stop them immediately and remove them from the situation. Make it clear that while their feelings are OK, hurting others or themselves is not. Think: "It's OK to be angry at me, but it's not OK to hit. I will not let you hit me." Or: "Your block tower fell over and you're mad. That's OK. But it's not OK to throw your blocks."

Remain calm, but be firm. When it comes to aggressive behavior, it's best to have a zero-tolerance policy, says the AAP.

2. Refrain from yelling

Remember, your child will follow your lead when it comes to handling their anger. If you yell, they will end up matching your volume because, deep down, they want to engage and connect with you. Focusing on the fact that they're feeling frustrated or sad may help you remain calm in the midst of the chaos.

If you do raise your voice, which happens to the best of us, apologize and ask for a do-over: "I didn't mean to yell at you. I'm sorry. That is not how I want to talk to you. Can we start over?" In essence, model the behavior you want to see from your toddler—including making mistakes and taking responsibility for them. No one is perfect.

3. Let your child be angry

"Sometimes a kid just needs to get their anger out. So let them!" says Linda Pearson, RN, a Denver-based family nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle. (Just make sure there's nothing around that could hurt them or others.)

"I'm a big believer in this approach because it helps children learn how to vent in a non-destructive way. They're able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together, and regain self-control—without engaging in a yelling match or battle of wills with you."

Stay close: Be there for support and as a beacon of calm. The idea isn't to ignore your child but to let them feel their feelings in a safe, supported space.

4. Pick your battles

Sometimes, it can be a smart strategy to give in a little. Just be aware of the balance. Use this strategy too often, and you're setting yourself up for failure by potentially reinforcing the tantrum behavior, according to Dr. Rubinowitz.

But there are times when surrendering a little bit is OK. While bribery ("I'll give you ice cream if you stop crying!") is rarely helpful in the long run, you might honor your child's request to play the same song over and over in exchange for a peaceful car ride, for example.

5. Use brief commands

Tantrums can often be sidestepped with commands that are brief, simple, and to the point. The more specific they are, the better ("Don't hit the dog"). If your toddler is stuck in a mood, give them a clear idea of what you want them to do; "Let's color" gives them a task to complete, and is much less vague than commands like "Be good." A change of scenery can also be effective ("Time to water the flowers!").

6. Distract them

"Children have pretty short attention spans—which means they're usually easy to divert," says Dr. Levy. If your kid is about to go off the deep end at the supermarket because you won't buy the super-sugary cereal, try switching gears and enthusiastically saying something like, "Hey, we need some ice cream. Want to help me pick a flavor?" or "Ooh, check out the lobster tank over there!"

7. Give them a hug

"This may feel like the last thing you want to do when your kid is throwing a tantrum, but it really can help them settle down," affirms Dr. Levy. "I'm talking about a big, firm hug, not a super cuddly one. And don't say a word when you do it—again, you'd just be entering into a futile battle of wills. Hugs make kids feel secure and let them know that you care about them, even if you don't agree with their behavior."

8. Help undo frustration

Is your toddler screaming and crying because they can't put on their shoes? Help them master that task so that they can feel a sense of accomplishment instead. If they want to do something unsafe, like climb a ladder, acknowledge their desire to do it, but restate your rule: "I know you want to climb up high, but that's not allowed." Try an alternative, if possible: "You can climb the slide ladder at the park."

9. Switch locations

If your child is having a public tantrum, pick them up and carry them calmly to a safe place. Take them to your car or a public restroom, where they can blow off steam. Once you're there, gently explain your position, and remain calm. Sometimes just touching or stroking a child can soothe them.

10. Enlist their "help"

Before you take your child grocery shopping, make sure they have eaten and slept well. Bring an interactive toy or a book in the car, then ask them to pick out things to buy at the store. You might even keep a paper and pen on you to write down the items they suggest, says Alan Greene, M.D., a father of four and adjunct clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine.

At the end of the trip, read back some of their healthier food choices and let them get one or two things. Compiling a list will distract them and make them feel included, plus it promises a reward at the finish line.

11. Give advance warning

Toddlers don't like surprises. The next time you're about to leave the park or a friend's house, defuse a potential eruption by giving them plenty of advance notice. They will be comforted by knowing what's going to come next.

Tell them, "You can ride your scooter two more times around the park, then we have to go home." This gives them a sense of control, and works better than saying, "You can ride your scooter for five minutes." Since most toddlers can't tell time, they'll feel ambushed when it's time to go.

12. Laugh it off

Public tantrums can be so challenging that some parents give in simply to reduce embarrassment, but this response only ensures that children will repeat the tantrum another time. "Kids, even very young ones, are smart," says Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. "If you get angry or stressed, or cave in and let them get their way just to end the meltdown before more people start staring, they'll learn that—aha!—it works."

Your best bet, Dr. Kazdin explains, is to suck it up, plaster a Mona Lisa smile on your face, and pretend everything is just peachy. And what are others thinking? "We know from studies that the only thing people judge is your reaction to the meltdown," says Dr. Levy. "If you look calm like you've got it under control—even though you're not doing anything to stop the fit—they think, 'Now that's a good parent.'"

13. Stick to your demands

After a tantrum subsides, revisit the original request you made that got your child so upset. If they threw a tantrum because you told them to pick up a toy, they should still pick up that toy once they're calm. If they went off the rails because you said they couldn't have a cookie, then don't give them the cookie when the tears stop. But when your child follows through and does something you asked of them, offer praise. After all, it's the positive behavior you want them to remember and repeat.

14. Move on

Many children seem to snap out of a tantrum as quickly and inexplicably as they got into one in the first place. After it ends, go to your child, give them a hug and a kiss, tell them you love them, and move on. Dwelling on the outburst only makes them feel bad and may even cause the tantrum to start up again.

If you still want to discuss it with your 3- or 4-year-old, wait several hours before you do. Then, ask your child what set them off, and help them think about problem-solving approaches for the future.

15. Don't take a tantrum personally

Don't allow yourself to feel guilty or out of control because your child has a momentary breakdown. Though having a toddler shout "I hate you" can be hurtful, it's important to remember that your child's actions are not so much directed at you as they are simply a show of their own frustration. Tantrums pass and all of it will soon be a distant memory for your toddler. Make sure you don't hold onto it, either.

The Bottom Line

Coping with your toddler's tantrums can be difficult, to say the least. However, it can help to remember that they are challenging for your child, too. Often, your toddler is just working through their emotions and doesn't know what else to do to show they are upset. So, rather than viewing tantrums as a behavior problem, look at them as learning opportunities and times when your child needs extra support.

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