How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums

How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums

No question that tantrums (especially the public ones) can be some of the most frustrating times we have as parents and grandparents. The easiest thing is to give in; to do anything that stops the insanity. Intellectually, we know that's not good because it reinforces bad behavior. Practically speaking, it's much harder to stand your ground. Harder, but not impossible. These six strategies should help:

1. Practice prevention. If you can learn to predict the times when your child may be more likely to lose his cool, you can either avoid public situations or perform a timely intervention. The truth is that tantrums are surprisingly predictable; they often happen when kids are overtired, overstimulated, or hungry. These explosive moments are typically preceded by a sullen or quiet period; the proverbial calm before the storm. Then, when he tries to do something he can't do or is denied something, it's not long before whining morphs into a category 5 hurricane.

Once he gets sucked into this storm, there's often little you can do except ride it out. But if you can learn to identify the signs of an impending meltdown, you can try to distract your child before he gets sucked into the black hole. First, feed him a healthy snack if there's a chance he's losing it because of low blood sugar. If that doesn't work, break into a silly song, start a game of chase, or try the tickle technique (below).

2. Laugh it away. Laughing with someone at a situation can be a powerful coping tool. Example: Junior is about to pitch his best tantrum, but instead you tickle him until he can't help but laugh. Or make your silliest face. Or try balancing a spoon on your nose. Wrapped in a hug, he receives the message, "I love you, and we laugh together." It doesn't always work, but it's worth a try from time to time.

3. Find different ways to say NO. You shouldn't let a child's habit of throwing tantrums deter you from saying no. Kids need boundaries for many reasons, and they need to know the word no. However, you may find that it's more effective to avoid directly using the word no. Changing the way you tell your child that you're denying him something can be a good way to diffuse a volatile situation. Maybe you explain briefly why today's not the day he gets to jump puddles. Or maybe you deflect the reason for saying no off of him and onto you.

4. Ignore it. If you're in a place where you can ignore a tantrum comfortably (say, your own home as opposed to church), then go ahead and ignore it. No response from you eventually means he won't lash out to get one. For a child, drama without an audience is like a glass without wine -- there's nothing to it. But beware: If you're going to ignore it, you have to stick to that. If he learns that your ignoring it for 30 minutes eventually leads to a great display from you, he will work even harder to overcome the ignoring phase to get that delayed reward.

5. Wrap him up. Boys and girls respond differently to anger, stress, and discipline. Girls, who tend to have more advanced language skills, will use their words, whereas boys may feel like hitting. One of the strategies that we have found effective is this: When a boy is reacting emotionally or physically, go ahead and wrestle a bit with him (playfully, not WWE-like). This gives him a chance to vent physically without actually hitting anything, and it also helps diffuse the situation. When kids don't have the language to vent frustration, roughhousing can help. Plus, think of all the subconscious cues going on: Yes, you may be restraining him, but the physicality also means that you're hugging and comforting him at the same time.

Note: If your daughter sounds more like the boy in the description above and needs a good wrestle rather than just a hug, this is not a cause for alarm. The above is a generalization, and individual temperaments vary tremendously.

6. Be understanding. Sometimes, kids kick and scream because they are overwhelmed or tired, need to release tension (often after being picked up from preschool or day care), or are having trouble dealing with something they can't articulate. They're not trying to outmuscle you or win a power game; a tantrum may simply be the only means available for expressing pent-up emotion. Sometimes, they just need to "talk" things out. A hug, with some close talking and reassurance, can help, too.

Whatever the cause of the tantrum, figure out what works to pull your child out of it, and stick with that. Often, kids just want to be heard. If a 2-year-old is saying, "I want my tricycle," it may be enough just to reinforce that you hear and understand him. "Yes, I understand, you want your tricycle." Speak back to him in his manner. And when a child eventually does pull himself out of a tantrum, it's a good time to use positive reinforcement. "You did a good job calming yourself down."

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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