How to Deal with Toddler Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums can make you question your parenting technique, but they’re actually a normal part of toddlerhood. Read about the causes of toddler tantrums, and learn how to deal with the most common types of misbehavior.
When your kid’s in the middle of a tantrum, it can be tough to keep yourself from having your own outburst too. "Meltdowns are terrible, nasty things, but they're a fact of childhood," says Ray Levy, PhD, 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." Keep reading to learn more about the causes of toddler tantrums, with tips for dealing with particularly nasty ones.
What Causes Temper Tantrums?
Every single tantrum, Dr. Levy says, 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 the 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 adds. "They're keenly aware of their needs and desires—and want to assert them more. If you don't comply? Tantrum city."
- RELATED: How to Prevent Temper Tantrums
Once your child reaches preschool, they can finally use words to tell you what they need or want, but that doesn’t mean their tantrums are over. Your kid is still learning how to handle their emotions, so a minor disagreement can quickly turn into a full-on fit. Because your child also values their growing independence, needing your help can be frustrating. They may lose it when they try a challenging task, like tying their shoes, and realize they can’t do it alone. What might result is a raging, screaming child.
It may help 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 Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the master's program in marital and family therapy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinoiss. "Sometimes children get so overwhelmed with their new independence that they get overstimulated and melt down."
How to Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums
While there's no one right way to deal with a toddler temper tantrum, most experts agree on what doesn't work. At the top of the "don't" list are yelling and hitting, but short-term solutions such as bribing, begging, and giving in are also poor strategies. "If you give in, you are rewarding the tantrum and ensuring that it will happen again and again," says Dr. Rubinowitz.
On the other hand, when kids know that "no" means "no" and when parents react calmly and consistently when their kids begin to act out, everyone feels happier and more in control. "When disciplining, it's important to focus on behavior and not emotionally attack your child," says Murray Strauss, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and co-director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory in Durham. "People say, 'That's unrealistic.' But it's not unrealistic to refrain from yelling at coworkers. We have to treat our children at least as well as we treat our colleagues.
Whether you’re dealing with 2-year-old tantrums, 3-year-old tantrums, or 4-year-old tantrums, check out these tips for calming your child down.
1. Try ignoring the situation.
If your kid is throwing a tantrum, try ignoring them unless they’re physically endangering themselves or others. By taking away your attention completely, you won’t reinforce their undesirable behavior. Walk out of the room and set a timer for a few minutes to check on them.
2. Handle aggressive behavior immediately.
Is your kid raging, hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things during a meltdown? Stop them immediately and remove them from the situation. Make it clear that hurting others is not acceptable. Take away a privilege and put them in a time-out if necessary. But save time-outs for harmful behavior; the more you use them, the less effective they become.
3. Refrain from yelling.
Remember, you are your child's role model for handling anger. If you yell, your child will end up matching your volume because, ultimately, they want to engage with you. Remembering that they’re feeling frustrated or sad may help you stay calm.
4. Let your child be angry.
“Sometimes a kid just needs to get his anger out. So let him!" says Linda Pearson, a nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle. (Just make sure there's nothing in tantrum's way that could hurt them.) "I'm a big believer in this approach because it helps children learn how to vent in a nondestructive 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."
5. In some cases, give in to the tantrum (within reason).
Sometimes this is a smart strategy. While bribery ("I'll give you some ice cream if you stop crying") should never be an option, if you want to have a peaceful car ride, you might give in to your child's request to hear the same tape over and over again.
6. Rely on brief, easy commands.
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, 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!").
7. Create a distraction.
"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-frosted sugar-bomb cereal, try quickly 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!"
8. 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 her settle down," Dr. Levy says. "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."
9. Help undo frustration.
Is your toddler screaming and crying because they can't put on their shoes? Help them master that art so that they can feel a sense of accomplishment instead. In cases of safety, acknowledge your child's desire to, for example, climb a ladder, but restate your rule firmly: "I know you want to climb up high, but that's not allowed." Offer an alternative, if possible: "Later we can go to the park and you can climb the slide ladder."
10. Move locations during public tantrums.
When 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 bathroom, where they can blow off steam. Once you're in a quieter place, calmly explain your position, and try to ignore the tantrum until it stops. Sometimes just touching or stroking a child will soothe them. If your child continues to scream, place them securely in their car seat and head for home.
11. Prepare for potential temper tantrums.
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 them participate by helping to pick out a few things. You can also 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 them and make them feel included, and it promises a reward at the finish line.
12. Give advance warning.
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.
13. Laugh it off.
Public tantrums cause some parents to give in simply to reduce embarrassment, but this response will only serve to ensure that your child will repeat the tantrum the next time you're out. "Kids, even very young ones, are smart," says Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. "If you get angry or stressed or cave in and let him get his way just to end the meltdown before more people start staring, he'll learn that—aha!—it works." Your best bet, Kazdin says, is to suck it up, plaster a little 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 and like you've got it under control—yes, even though you're not doing anything to stop the fit—they think, 'Now that's a good mom.'”
14. Stick with your demands.
Post-tantrum, follow through with the original demand that started the fit in the first place. If your child got upset 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 after the tears stop. Once your child follows through and picks up the toy, praise them. After all, that’s the positive behavior you want them to remember and repeat.
15. Move on right away.
Many children just seem to snap out of a tantrum as quickly and inexplicably as they got into it in the first place. Once the tantrum is over, 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 want to have a discussion about a 3-year-old tantrum or 4-year-old tantrum, talk about it several hours after it's over. Ask your child to tell you what set off their outburst, and help them think about problem-solving strategies for the future.
16. Don't take your toddler's tantrum personally.
Don't allow yourself to feel guilty or out of control because your child has a momentary breakdown. Though having your child shout "I hate you" can be hurtful, it's important to keep in mind that your child's actions are not so much directed at you as they are simply a show of their own frustrations.