How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums Like a Boss
If you have a toddler, you’re probably following AssholeParents on Instagram, the parody account that highlights the sheer absurdity of what can set off a colossal, uncontrollable, Hulk-like meltdown in a young child. In the moment, a parent watching toddler tantrums vacillates wildly between anger, fits of giggles, and exhaustion – an emotional cocktail that doesn’t make it easy to know what to do (but makes it easy to call for a real cocktail, stat).
Fast Facts about Toddler Tantrums
- Your toddler Jeckyll-to-Hydes because she’s frustrated or overwhelmed by emotion that she doesn’t know how to regulate or communicate.
- Tantrums around ages 1.5 to 4 are completely normal. Learning to control emotions is an important part of growing up, but it’s not something that kids just suddenly ‘get;’ they have to learn.
- Their freak outs can be amplified by fatigue, hunger, or physical discomfort, so step one to avoiding tantrums is always to make sure you have a well-rested, well-fed kid by your side.
- Most of us handle tantrums the wrong way, how to deal with toddler tantrums is pretty easy to figure out with the help of these Do’s and Don’t’s.
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How to Handle Toddler Tantrums: DON’Ts
Don’t describe behavior as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
Phrases like “Why are you being naughty?” or “Please be a good boy for mommy,” or “You’re being a bad girl!” are like throwing petrol on a fire. Toddlers don’t have the cognitive ability to connect the vague concepts of good, bad, naughty, etc., to their actions, and they’ll only grow more confused (and upset) as they struggle to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad.’
Instead, identify specific actions that you do and don’t like. For example: “Please don’t throw your peas on the floor,” or “I like when you put your books back on the shelf!” clearly communicate what behavior is desirable (or undesirable).
“You will be punished if you keep acting like that,” or “You’re not going to like what happens,” are vague intimidation tactics, which might illicit a desirable short-term result based on fear, but won’t actually prevent more tantrums.
Even more specific threats won’t work. If you frame every “if, then” (e.g. “If you don’t finish your food, then you won’t get to play outside”) in a negative way, the effect is lost. Research shows that framing these “if, then” statements as a reward is more successful at curbing temper tantrums. (“If you finish all your peas quickly, then we can have more time at the playground,” or “If you tidy up all your toys, then we can read another book.”) Providing incentive works better than fear.
Don’t lose your cool.
Stay calm. Throwing your own tantrum (if only for a split second of shouting) only increases kids’ existing feeling of insecurity and frustration, and will likely prolong toddler tantrums.
Don’t give in.
When you give in after a prolonged howling session, your toddler learns that throwing a tantrum will get him the result he wants. Don’t let the takeaway from the tantrum be: “I screamed and wailed and eventually got my way.”
Stick to your course of action. This means being deliberate about when you want to stick to your guns (for example, teeth-brushing is not optional, but 5 minutes of cartoons before school might be). But once you stake a position, hold tight even in the face of tiny fists.
Don’t hold grudges.
When your toddler calms down, get over it. They have short memories, and if you are still sulking 10 minutes later, they will not understand why. (Also, it makes you a bigger child than they are.) Your emotional withdrawal may even trigger another bout of tantrums as the toddler struggles to understand why they can’t get your love and affection.
Any toddler who has successfully calmed down from a tantrum should be complimented, praised, and everyone should move on (though that doesn’t mean bending the rule that triggered the tantrum).
Don’t try to negotiate or reason.
In mid-tantrum, toddlers’ brains go on lockdown, like a jail during a breakout of stircrazy inmates. They are completely incapable of rational thought in those moments. Save the lesson for when they’re calm.
Don’t engage emotionally.
The best way to move everyone past the meltdown quickly is not to be moved by it. Show zero emotion, anger, frustration, disappointment. Be physically present to reassure the toddler that you love him and are there for him (because the whole tantrum is, after all, rooted in insecurity), but completely ignore the tantrum — or risk rewarding toddler tantrums with your attention.
Punishment has proven ineffective at influencing long term behavior; studies have shown sentences like “Go to your room,” “No TV for you,” or “You can’t go to your friend’s house,” just don’t work. They come in the same category as threats – possibly effective in the short term, but with no impact on curbing temper tantrums in the long term.
However, if you do choose to use a disciplinary method like time-out, it should be explained why you’re giving a time out clearly once the toddler has calmed down. The threat of time-out should be used only if you’re going to back it up with action, and you cannot use it too often, or it loses its effect.
How to Handle Toddler Tantrums: DO’s
Do identify triggers.
Watch for those moments when your child is more likely to have a meltdown – possibly at the beginning of the day, when you’re being separated, at the end of the day, when she’s tired. Try to avoid conversations that trigger toddler tantrums, where possible.
Do praise good behavior when you see it.
The only way to change behavioral patterns long term is to praise the behavior you want to see more of. Your toddler is craving attention, validation, and love from you, and will continue to do anything that gets her those results. If there is behavior you don’t like, be sure to heap extra praise on the exact opposite behavior to encourage more of that instead.
Do ignore behavior you don’t like.
It may go against the grain, but behavior – bad or good — that gets your attention will increase exponentially. If he is doing something harmful to himself or another, try either distraction, or calmly and quietly extract him from the situation. If toddler tantrums are completely ignored, they will eventually stop, because they’re not getting the attention she wants.
Do remember your child learns from your behavior, not your words.
Monkey see, monkey do. Your child learns what is appropriate or what get her results from what you do. If you’ve got a fiery temper that flares up in fits, you can’t teach her to stay calm and regulate her behavior.
In the same way, if you tell her that her behavior isn’t going to get her love and attention — but then you turn around and pay attention to her when she misbehaves — she learns that bad behavior really does get her your focus.
Do be consistent.
Your toddler has to know that she will get the exact same results, for the exact same behavior, every time. Once there is a rule or you have drawn a line in the sand, stick to it, no matter how bad a tantrum gets. This means getting your spouse on board, too. And maybe buying earplugs.