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6 Strategies for Dealing with Toddler Tantrums

toddler-tantrums behaviour guidance

Given my experience working with young children, I am no stranger to tantrums. I understand that tantrums are largely a result of a child’s developing sense of self as an individual, separate from others in the world world. Couple this with a desire for independence and difficulty expressing their intentions, feelings and emotions, and toddler tantrums emerge. Basically, toddler tantrums result from frustration at an inability to make themselves understood and getting their needs met… NOW!

As much as I know this stuff, as the parent of the toddler experimenting with this developing sense of self and independence, I find myself needing to step back and take a deep breath as I remind myself that there are a range of effective, (predominately) proactive strategies for dealing with toddler tantrums. Here’s some of the ones that work best for us…

Strategy #1. I believe the most effective strategy is actually making the effort to avoid the potential for tantrums in the first place.

Young children need routine, rest, food and your attention. If any of these four things is out of balance, you immediately increase the likelihood of a tantrum. It can be helpful to stick to routine sleep/nap times and meal and snack times. I know that I am an incredible grouch when I am over tired or when my blood sugar drops as I haven’t eaten.

Toddlers learn through their interactions with others. As their parent, they need you the most. Often, tantrums are a toddler’s way of seeking your attention. This doesn’t mean that you have to drop what you are doing and spend all day on the floor playing but you do need to think about how much of your time and attention they are actually getting on any given day. Make it easy on yourself by involving them in what you are doing. Toddlers love chores and can help to put away washing or groceries, help to prepare meals, or even wash a few (plastic!) dishes.

It can also help to be flexible with your daily routine wherever possible. If your child is having a bad morning as they are tired or unwell, try to avoid places and tasks that require a lot of them. For example, grocery shopping is not much fun with a grumpy toddler in tow.

Strategy #2. Giving warnings about upcoming transitions.

Whenever you need to move from one place to another or from one activity to another, give your toddler a warning that this ‘transition’ is approaching.

“Immy, in five minutes we need to leave the park and go home to make dinner. Let’s have one more go on the slide.”

“Mummy will play with you for two more minutes and then she needs to hang out the washing. Shall we build one more tower?”

“We need to get dressed so that we can go to the shops.”

Toddlers do not understand how long five minutes actually is but this time of warning (and/or explanation) gives them time to mentally (and physically) finish what they are doing and prepare for the next thing to come.

Strategy #3. Make a conscious effort to provide your toddler with meaningful, simple choices or alternatives.

I have talked about this strategy previously. Providing your toddler with a simple choice makes them feel empowered as a decision maker and can help to avoid a tantrum erupting.

Offering an alternative can also help when a mini tantrum or whine begins, “No, you cannot have a biscuit, would you like some grapes.” By saying this, you are not giving in to their whinging for a biscuit but you are providing them with the opportunity to exercise choice.

Also consider how often you are saying ‘no’ to your toddler. If you are constantly saying no, try using some of the other preventative strategies like choice and transition warnings to help you build more positive interactions and opportunities a sense of empowerment for your toddler.

Strategy #4. Diversion and Distraction

Toddlers have short attention spans and are often easy to distract. If you child is whinging at you to have or do something or is on the verge of a tantrum, try distracting them and diverting their attention away from the situation which is causing the problem. This can stop a minor incident from escalating into a major tantrum. For example, “Oh look, I think the mailman has been, shall we go and check the mail?” The few minutes it takes to go and check the mail breaks the tension of the situation and hopefully they will forget all about whatever it was they were complaining about.

Strategy #5. Stay strong.

To avoid reinforcing negative behaviour, try not to give in to your toddler’s demands, instead trying alternative strategies in the effort to find an acceptable (to you) solution that also provides room for your toddler’s developing sense of independence.

Strategy #6. Dealing with major tantrums.

Sometimes preventative strategies don’t work and a major yelling, stomping, hitting, thrashing tantrum takes place. Here are a few survival tips for making it out the other side when it seems like your child has been invaded by an alien body snatcher…

  • Don’t take it personally. Your young child is exhibiting an immature emotional response which is completely appropriate to their age and stage of development.
  • Don’t try and reason with your child when they are in the throes of a major tantrum. Wait for it to pass and for them to calm down. They cannot listen to reason when they are very upset.
  • Make sure they are safe. Stay close. Wait it out.
  • If you think you are going to lose your temper and act inappropriately, make sure they are safe and then step away for a moment or two to compose yourself. You getting angry is not going to help calm them down.
  • Once they have calmed down, help them to resettle. A hug works wonders. Or engage them in a quiet activity. Let them know that it is okay.

If parenting teaches us anything, it is that when it comes to children everything is constantly changing. Although it is hard to remember when you are dealing with frequent tantrums in the middle of this difficult developmental stage, try to tell yourself, “I know this too shall pass!

Do you have strategies that you use to help cope with toddler tantrums at your place?

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Comments

  1. Lucinda has been prone to tantrums for about 4 or 5 months now which I suppose is a fair bit early for her age (she is about to turn 18 months). For her its her temperament I think. Kez never really had a terrible twos or threes, sometimes fours though. Because of this tantrums were all new to me this time round. What I tend to do is ignore the tantrum for a while and then use the power of distraction. She is young enough to forget what she was upset about pretty fast. She's much more prone to these of course when she's very tired (like most kids). One other thing I've done is to simply pick her up and plop her in her cot and close the door. She is so surprised when this happens (because I don't do it every time, only when the tantrum goes on for too long) that she stops almost right away. As soon as she's quiet, even if its for 30 seconds I go in and pick her up. She is fine after that. Maybe she'll get it all out of her system early or maybe I'm in for a strong willed kid. Either way, at least I have a strategy.

  2. This is a great post. We are mid-way through this stage but having had my niece stay with us who is of a similar age I realise we have gotten off very lightly with Mr Small. The most effective strategy we use is the one you have already mentioned: distraction. We always work to focus on something else to draw him away from the cause of his stress or upset.
    Like you, I am a stickler for routine, I put him before anything else in terms of that.

  3. diversion and distraction – my fav
    I find 2 year old tantrums easy – it's the 3/4 year old ones that can become tiresome. Oh, boy.
    But we get through – consistancy and persistance

  4. SquiggleMum says:

    *sigh* I would love to write a comment about how much I agree with everything you've said above, especially your first point. However, since both of my sweet angels were seemingly snatched by aliens this afternoon and replaced with tantruming terrors… I fear I am not qualified to comment!! LOL

    Thanks for reminding me that tantrums come and tantrums go. They are just par for the course. Tomorrow is a fresh new day. xx

  5. Aspiring Mum says:

    Mine have all hit the terrible two's early. With tantrums, I have learnt to do a couple of things (depending on age): a)ignore, b)put them in a bath or c)hold them. Tantrums are fine if I am consistent and know that I am in control of the situation. Whining, on the other hand, gets under my skin…like running your nails down a chalkboard. I usually give a warning that "Mummy doesn't understand 'Whinese' – please speak in a nice voice." If they don't comply, I continue with what I'm doing. The toddler years are challenging in so many ways!

  6. A few years ago, on recommendation from 2 of my friends, I bought the "1-2-3 Magic" program developed by Dr Thomas Phelan (www.parentmagic.com).

    My friends had done the "1-2-3 Magic" course here in Perth and spoke often about how effective it was. I decided to buy the DVD's and book (from America) so both of us could watch the DVD's together and learn the technique together (so the kids get the same discipline from both Mum and Dad – united front!).

    I swear by it. We only have to say…"that's 1" and we get instant positive response. Rarely do we make it to "that's 2" now. Time out follows No. 3.

    Whining is possibly the worst part of parenting and I have the master of it living in my house in the disguise of a sweet little 3 year old boy. Fortunately for me the 1-2-3 Magic program also deals with that.

  7. Christie - Childhood 101 says:

    Amanda, I do believe temperament makes a difference both to the likelihood of a child having tantrums and to the severity of them.

    Seraphim – I am completely with you when it comes to the routine.

    Michelle – hear, hear.

    Squiggs – To you my only words are, always remember, 'This too shall pass.'

    Aspiring Mum – the whining gets to me the most too.

    Tanya – thank you for the recommendation.

  8. canuck_grad says:

    When Little Man has a tantrum I try to assess whether it's a "controllable" or "uncontrollable" tantrum. I mean, to some extent they are all uncontrollable, given their limited coping abilities, but I guess I mean whether he is capable of gaining control of himself or not. Usually he is, and in that case I use strategies more along the lines of reasoning, etc. – offering choices, sometimes a consequence (e.g., you need to calm down and tell mama what's wrong or I'll have to take you to your room to calm down), etc. – usually it works, so I can tell most of the time he's not *that* far gone. If he does seem to be uncontrollable (usually if he's overtired or not feeling well) I generally try to ignore him until he starts to calm down a little bit, and then hug him, etc. to help him calm down, but don't give in to what he wants.

    However, occasionally I was actually going to do what he wants anyway, he just didn't realize it, or it is an issue I'm willing to compromise about. In that case, I wait until he calms down to do anything, so he's not getting what he wants in the middle of the tantrum. For example, he is in a serious "I do it" stage (although he says "You do it" because he calls himself "You" lol). Sometimes I'll be planning to let him do something (e.g. help pour milk) but I just haven't gotten it ready yet (e.g. I'm still getting the cup out of the cupboard) and he thinks I'm actually doing it myself and will start freaking out. Sometimes it is more of a whine, other times closer to a tantrum. In this case (and with all whining) I usually tell him that I can't understand him when he behaves like that and he needs to calm down and ask me nicely. Usually he instantly stops and says "Mama?" very nicely lol.

    In the rare occasion that he hasn't calmed down to ask me nicely, I will try to help him calm down. But if he still doesn't calm down, then I will usually do the thing myself, and deal with the uncontrollable tantrum that usually follows as per above. For example, the other day he wanted to put his toothbrush away himself, and when he dropped it I picked it up to pass it to him so he wouldn't have to get off of his stool. He thought I was putting it away and lost his mind lol. I tried to calm him down and make him realize I was just passing it to him… I tried to pass it to him telling him to put it away himself. At that point the grabbed the toothbrush and threw it at me! So in that case, I put it away myself and walked away. He threw himself on the floor and had a bit of a full-out tantrum. So I just ignored him until he calmed down some, and then distracted him and helped him calm down and acted like nothing had happened. I try to keep in mind that we want them to learn that tantrums don't accomplish anything, either positive or negative.

  9. oh so true, mr 16 months is just starting.

    I have always used 3 more turns method.

    Okay 3 more turns and we are going
    2 more turns
    last turn
    Bye bye __park/ blocks etc__ Child waves and we go. or puts away and we move on.

    For negative behaviour its the reverse, holding up one finger I say 1, then 2, usually behaviour is corrected sometimes we make it to 3 and then it is to the time out mat. This has worked wonderfully with miss 3.5 and I have only recently been using it with mr 16 months. He is getting the picture, dosnt like it, but getting it.

  10. Amanda, I really second what you said about responding positively to even a few seconds of good behavior. My (very strong willed) 4-year-old sometimes has terrible tantrums, and he will be put in time out in his room. When that happens, he's usually in the midst of a screaming and crying jag. So I park myself outside his bedroom door and, the second it ceases, I race in and exclaim that I'm so glad he's done with the tantrum, and now we can move on. If I wait and insist, for example, that he not yell for a full minute, we could be at this stalemate all day. But if I race in there the second he stops, even just to take a breath, I give us both the chance to celebrate a success.

    I think it's a variation on the "catch them being good" theme. Sometimes, when they're just learning to control their emotions, we can't wait for them to get all the way under control. But if we can leap in and praise them at the first opportunity, rather than waiting for 100% success, everyone is a lot happier.

  11. Teacher Tom says:

    Fantastic strategies and well written.

    My only caveat is that while the 5 minute warning seems to work well for parents, myself and other teacher friends have noticed that it doesn't always achieve the desired result in school. Instead of "mentally finishing," many of the kids just hear that they don't have a lot of time and a lot they want to do, so they get busy.

    One of my colleagues tested this theory by photographing her classroom just before her 5 minute warning, then again after 5 minutes. The difference was astounding. The block shelves had been totally emptied, costumes were all over the room, and the art table was a disaster. We've decided that a 5 minute warning pretty much doubles the clean-up time!

    Our theory is that school is different than "real life" in that our transitions tend to be consistent and predictable whereas day-to-day transitions (like your example of leaving the park) aren't as concrete.

    I'm enjoying your blog a lot!

  12. At 20 months, I've watched my girl start to assert her demands – this list will be very handy!

  13. Miss Julia J says:

    My son is 21 months and we're butting heads a lot more now. I've had much success with a visual countdown recently. I hold up 5 fingers and ask him to look at them. "5 more minutes and then we're going to put on our coats." Then 4 fingers, etc. I don't know how long it will last, but I'm actually caught off guard when it works! 8 minutes later he'll be in his snowsuit, hat, boots and mittens with not a wail or a tear. I honestly feel like I'm forgetting something when that happens. "My keys? My gloves? No, a tantrum!" I also had success with The Happiest Toddler on the Block for a while. When my son would start to flip out I would physically come down to his level (or bring him to mine if he would let me pick him up) and try to verbalize his feelings. "You want the car! You want the car!!!" He would stop freaking out and nod. I might say it a few times, really letting him BE in that moment of acknowledgment before offering an alternative or explanation. It was incredible to see the tantrum diffused so quickly. His focus would shift from his desire to his feelings and then I was able to communicate with him. Sadly, he's not having much of it at the moment, but we'll bring it back in a few weeks.

  14. This is a brilliant post Christie! And so well timed for me. Mr 2 has been on a pretty strict routine his whole life so has always been a very ‘easy’ child for us, but has just this last couple of months started with the whining and some mild tantrums. While I know there isn’t always a rock-solid ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to how you handle your kids … it is a great relief for me to see that we are already doing most of your suggestions!

    The biggest one we subscribe to is {if possible} not putting Jaden into a situation where it is going to be difficult for him to behave. For example going to a restaurant for dinner at 6.30pm and expecting him to sit quietly!! I know a lot of parents who take the attitude of not letting their kids disrupt the life they want to lead, but I think expecting your kids to behave in a situation where it will be difficult for them to is asking too much!

  15. Twinmum says:

    My twin boys are 2.5 and tantrums are a nightmare! They are both behind in speech so communication is difficult, leading to more frustration for them ( and me!) and more tantrums. They also continually fight over toys. Usually twin 2 trying to take a toy off of Twin 1. Twin 1 then screams ( he is very reactive and cries and screams a LOT) and Twin 2 cries and often has a tantrum when I say – gently – ‘we don’t take toys away from each other’ or ‘Twin 1 was playing with that’.. It is so hard trying to deal with so many meltdowns, and also with two of them at the same time. I would appreciate any tips! I am a single parent and get very few opportunities for 1:1 time with each of them, so they are often fighting over me as well :-(

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