Toddler tantrums can be stressful, frustrating, infectious and sometimes dangerous! It can be hard to know what to do when they’re happening and the pressure can sometimes get to you whether you’re a new or seasoned parent. So how can you handle the meltdowns from the ‘terrible twos’?
Raising a toddler takes a whole new set of parenting skills from those needed to nurture a baby. All of a sudden, they can do a number of new things like walk, run, ask questions, make friends, bite, kick and so on, and they’re also experiencing a number of new emotions such as jealousy and anger. Whilst many toddlers are learning to talk, it’s still hard for them to communicate effectively and tantrums can be a way of expressing these new emotions with actions when they just can’t put it all into words.
Things to Remember about Tantrums
The first thing to remember when your child starts having these meltdowns is that they can be as scary for them as they are distressing for you. They can be especially scary when they come out of their mini-explosion and see the damage they’ve caused – particularly if they’ve hurt themselves or others, broken their favourite toy or attacked the family cat!
Another thing to keep in mind is that whilst typically you don’t throw ‘paddies’, you still have the same emotions that your little one is feeling. We can all recall moments when we’ve felt so frustrated that we just want to break a plate or throw something through the TV – the difference is that you know how to calm yourself down (most of time!).
There are many reasons and many emotions which cause these ‘strops’ and it can be beneficial to know what can trigger them. The main causes are:
- If a child is hungry
- If a child is tired
- If a child is jealous
- If a child is feeling ignored
- If a child is feeling rushed
But it’s also important to recognise your child’s individual triggers.
How to Handle the Tantrum
- Ignore the Outburst - sometimes a child throws a tantrum for attention and the best way to handle this is to ignore them. This sounds counter-productive but by doing this, you let them know that a tantrum does not achieve anything. However, it is important that you keep an eye on them to make sure that they are safe and not a danger to themselves.
- Don’t Argue or Reason - a child in an emotional outburst can rarely be reasoned with. They won’t be able to see past not being allowed that packet of sweets, no matter what your justification may be.
- Distract - if you spot the tantrum in its very early stages, it can be easy to defuse with distraction. If there’s a bird in the garden or something fun on the television, you can distract them with these exciting new things. We all know how short a toddler’s attention span can be so they’ll soon forget about the sandpit if there’s a ladybird to look at.
- Don’t Join In - anger is infectious and when your child won’t calm down it can be easy to get angry yourself. Shouting back or screaming at your child isn’t going to help either of you. It’s easier said than done but if you feel yourself about to explode, take some deep breaths and remember that it won’t help.
- Keep It Safe - toddlers in a tantrum can sometimes hurt themselves and hurt others so it’s important to keep monitoring them and to also move any dangerous or breakable things out of their way, which can be easier than moving a distressed toddler away from dangerous items.
- Use humour - sometimes you can use fun and humour to make an outburst less intense. Using silly songs or fun activities can turn a negative situation into something positive. Take care in using laughter though – it’s important that your child understands you’re laughing with them at their overreaction, not at them, which can exacerbate their frustrations.
- Comfort - once the tantrum is over, let them know that they are supported and loved. Make it clear that you don’t love their behaviour but you do love them. Lots of cuddles!
How to Avoid Tantrums
- Don’t say ‘no’ as an automatic response. Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for why a toddler can’t have the toy they see in the shop and a ‘no’ is needed. But we’re all guilty, even with older children, of saying ‘no’ automatically. A toddler is simply going to feel ignored and this can lead to more tantrums. Other common phrases are ‘because I said so’ or ‘I’ll think about it’.
- Don’t say too many negative words and don’t say ‘no, no, no’ over and over again. It can be more helpful to say words like ‘later’ or highlighting things the child can do or have instead. However, you need to be clear and avoid vague phrases that suggest to your child that it’s up for negotiation.
- Give your toddler opportunities to ‘let off steam’ during the day by letting them run in the garden and play sports etc. This will help to ease their pent-up frustration.
- Let your toddlers make choices for random irrelevant things - this makes them feel that their voice is heard and that their opinion matters. Do they want the blue trainers or the green trainers? It doesn’t mean much to you as a parent so letting your child choose can be a good way of developing their independence.
- Be consistent. Toddlers are going to learn good behaviour more efficiently if you’re consistent. They will rarely do what you need them to do the first time and so repetition is the key. Be consistent with your handling of their tantrums and they will learn that tantrums aren’t the key to getting what they want – be patient, this will take time!
- Stick to your word! If you threaten something, follow through. If you promise something, follow through. This will teach them that a tantrum doesn’t change your mind at all. This also means that you need to be careful with the threats and promises that you make – ensure they are proportionate to the situation. There’s no use threatening ‘no television for a year’ unless you really mean it and are willing to stand by it.
- Don’t avoid public situations or change how you deal with a tantrum just because it’s in a supermarket or your toddler will easily learn that they can use public outbursts to their advantage. Anyone in the supermarket who’s ever had a toddler will understand and those that haven’t yet will understand later on down the line!
- Star charts are a great way of rewarding good behaviour and if you do this alongside ignoring their tantrums, your child is taught that good behaviour is beneficial and bad behaviour gets them nowhere. However, some parents prefer not to praise good behaviour too often as a way of teaching their little one that good behaviour does not always equal a prize – making the right choices is an expectation and can be rewarded with praise.
- Time outs - the timeless tantrum trick. These can be an effective way of both calming your child down and making them aware that their tantrum does not equal attention - it does the opposite. However, some parenting specialists recommend that time outs are used as a last resort as it acts a ‘punishment’ for a tantrum when instead you should get across that a tantrum changes nothing - good or bad!
Tantrums Should Change Nothing
It’s important to let your child know that tantrums don’t change anything. Don’t punish your child and don’t reward them because of the outburst. This way they will have learn other methods of expressing their emotions and they will slowly learn that the only way to get what they want is to be on their ‘best (or at the least, good!) behaviour’.