Updated: Aug 16, 2020
10 practical tricks to manage toddler tantrums and encourage self-regulation.
Tantrums come in all different shapes and sizes. They can range from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, and hitting. They're equally common in boys and girls and usually happen between the ages of 1 to 3.
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"Although tantrums can surely be unpleasant, try to see them as opportunities for your child to learn—about rules and limits, about feelings, and about self-regulation—all critical skills for life." - Claire Lerner, zerotothree.org
Why do tantrums happen?
Sometimes tantrums happen, no matter what you do to avoid them. Your toddler isn't being manipulative but rather exerting their newfound sense of control. Toddlers are very clear in their likes and dislikes and they aren't afraid to communicating those impulses (although they might still lack the language to effectively communicate them, which also causes frustration). Your toddler also very much acts upon their impulses, their brain lacks the ability to stop from doing something they shouldn't until about 4 years old.
10 tricks to handle tantrums and teach self-regulation:
Stay calm- Our toddler's emotions can greatly effect how we feel ourselves. Try taking a few deep breaths before talking with your child. Your job as a parent is to support, guide, and stay calm (regardless of what the people staring at you in the grocery store might be thinking).
Label emotions- Label and describe emotions as often as possible. Respectfully discuss emotions when you observe them in public ("The boy is sad. He's crying."), when reading books, through direct instruction with the help of emotion cards, or even model them yourself ("I'm so frustrated I can't find a parking spot!") Remember your child admires you the most, it's so meaningful for them to see you feeling frustrated and modeling how to deal with those feelings.
Validate- "You are feeling mad. You wanted to stay and play." Remind your child that it's okay to feel the way they do. If your child will let you, holding or hugging can help him calm down. Remember to bend down to your child's level.
Provide ways to calm down- Narrate how you think your child is feeling and why then provide a method to deal with their emotion,"You threw that toy because you are feeling frustrated. Let's take a deep breath instead." Other good options to help your child calm down: a calming bottle, count to five, listen to music, draw a picture, hug or hold hands, read a book, do a calming sensory activity, rip paper, or stomp your feet.
Transitions- Tantrums and transitions go hand-in-hand. Toddlers often struggle with transitions, moving from one activity to the next. In our house, I try my hardest not to interrupt my daughter's play if I can avoid it. When possible, I wait until there's a pause in her playing before giving notice that their activity will end soon. Of course, this doesn't always work out and a tantrum might still occur when it's time to stop playing, but it definitely helps.
Provide choices- As we learned, toddlers love to be in control. Offering age-appropriate choices can help avoid a major meltdown. For example, instead of saying, "It's time to brush your teeth!" ask, "Do you want to brush your teeth before or after reading a book?" The end result is the same = your child's teeth get brushed but shifting the control to them is just the power they strive for.
Pick your battles- Your child has now realized they are a different person from you, likely with different preferences and desires. Before enforcing a limit, think whether or not the limit is really important (to avoid changing your mind mid-tantrum). If the limit isn't really that important, avoid the unnecessary tantrum from the start.
Timing- Tantrums are more likely to happen if your child is tired, hungry, in pain, impatient, or mastering a new skill. Know your child's limits and be empathetic of these sensitive periods in your toddler's day.
Stop and listen- The other day I was at the library and heard a little boy express to his mom several times that he was ready to go home. After more attempts to read a book together, the little boy fell to the floor in tears. As adults, we often need to be reminded to stop and listen to our children and what they're saying. If we expect them to communicate to us, we need to model positive listening back to them.
Have a plan- Tantrums are your child's way of showing they are out of control and need help calming down. The steps in the outline below is a great way to lovingly teach your child while providing them support.
Put into words how your child is feeling
Give a way to show that feeling
Suggest another activity
"Feeling safe and secure, loved and nurtured, is the biggest and most important ingredient for a child's healthy social-emotional development" - The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, Vanderbilt University