If you’ve got toddlers, you know: Temper tantrums are a fact of life. But you can defuse them, or ward them off.
First, however, you must understand them. Most of the time, especially with children ages 1 to 4, tantrums arise from the frustration youngsters have in communicating a need you don’t understand — and that they don’t (yet) have the language skills to express. For older toddlers, tantrums can be tied to a power play component. Three- and 4-year-olds are keenly aware of their needs and desires and want to assert them. Don’t comply and you can expect an avalanche of screams and tears.
Your best defense? Planning ahead. Run errands when your child is less likely to be hungry or tired, for example, and pack snacks or a favorite toy as a distraction. Above all, watch for signs that a meltdown is on its way (i.e., a whimper, tension), then react accordingly.
Remember, too, that all tantrums are not created equal: Sometimes your child just needs comfort; other times they may need to be removed from a situation until their hysteria passes. Your job is to remain patient and calm — which is admittedly easier said than done — and turn to one or more of the following tips to get you through it:
- Distract and redirect. Sense a fit coming? Quickly divert your child’s attention by giving them something else to think about, such as “I bet you can’t jump up and touch the sky,” or “I spy something red.” Another tactic: Make silly faces or turn your hand into a puppet.
- Offer options. Tantrums erupt when kids feel overwhelmed. Tamp down this dynamic by narrowing their choices. So, instead of asking, “Which animal do you want to see at the zoo?” say, “Would you like to see the polar bears or the monkeys?”
- Acknowledge their feelings. This doesn’t mean giving in to their demands; it simply means letting them know you understand their frustration. Get eye-to-eye with your little one and say something along the lines of “I see you’re really upset. I wish I could help you calm down.” Another way to lessen their impending meltdown: Ask them to draw a picture of what they’re so upset about.
- Hug it out. Hugging releases happy hormones by getting oxytocin flowing in the body. This calms the nervous system and boosts positive emotions. You can also try rubbing your child’s back or humming a relaxing song.
- Communicate. Because meltdowns often happen when your child has to leave an activity they love, or conversely when they have to go somewhere they hate, a little prep time can go a long way. Announce you’re going home after one more trip down the slide or walk down the grocery aisle. When toddlers know ahead of time what’s expected, they tend to behave better. Be sure to prep them before the activity, too!
- Offer an incentive. Before heading to an activity that may be difficult for your child (such as dinner out or attending worship services), let them know they’ll get a treat upon your return, such as a special dessert, watching a favorite TV show or one-on-one time with you. Be specific in praising them for their good behavior throughout the time you’re out (“Thank you for doing such a good job of sitting quietly while we eat!”) and remind them of what’s waiting back home.
- Keep your cool. Should a tantrum erupt into a full-blown attack, fight your initial instinct to yell. In fact, the louder your toddler yells, the softer you should speak. It’s challenging, but trying to rationalize with a wailing, flailing child never works. Instead, stay calm and stand your ground. Acquiescing to a tantrum shows toddlers that acting irrationally works. Your goal here is to model good behavior.
- Ignore the outburst. Public tantrums are the bane of a parent’s existence. Your best course of action, as hard as it may be, is to ignore the behavior. If the outburst is particularly disruptive, remove the child to a private spot; changing the venue often changes the behavior. Offer them the option of sitting on a bench or in the car until they settle down. After a time-out they can return to the activity, provided you’ve calmly discussed ways to better handle their frustrations moving forward. If they’re able to stay in control after returning, remember to again praise them for their good behavior.