Toddler tantrums are not what you think they are. How parents see, interpret, and react to tantrums deeply influences our relationships with our kids, their relationship with themselves, and how they deal with others.
Tantrums are children reacting intense emotions. A child throwing a fit is a child at the end of their rope pleading for help and being ignored. And they are prime experiences to teach your kids important emotional coping skills.
As a parent, you must realize that you have absolutely no control over your child or their emotions. It is not for you to dictate their emotions or reactions. It is your job to teach them to recognize and control their reaction.
How on earth can you do that?
I use a 3 step process for dealing with toddler tantrums that will help you teach your kids how to experience emotion without letting it dictate their actions.
The 3 steps when dealing with toddler tantrums are:
Preventing Toddler Tantrums
Prevention is the most important tool for dealing with tantrums. Prevention is the easiest way to deal with tantrums. It’s not fool proof, but you can greatly reduce the number of incidents by cultivating a few habits for your and your child.
This involves doing some things differently than most parents do.
A well-rested child has the emotional reserves to conquer emotions easier than a tired one.
1.) Plan your days to get naps in, even if the sleep happens in a car seat, stroller, carrier, or pallet on the floor. Even a 30-minute nap works wonders. For instance, if we are going on a long drive, we leave after lunch so the kids can sleep in the car.
2.) Plan things that you know will be hard first thing in the morning. Our dentist’s and doctor’s appointments are at 8 o’clock. This way my kids have had breakfast, a short time to play, and are in the best mood they will be all day! They are cooperative.
A hangry toddler will break faster than wet tissue paper. So keep them fed.
1.) Bring snacks.
Granola bars are our personal favorite because they are mobile and aren’t messy.
2.) Keep water in the cup.
Juices aren’t much better than soda when it comes to blood sugar levels. And many kids will fill up on juice or flavored milks and skip eating. And that process will cause them to be suddenly starving leading to meltdowns.
Last in prevention is awareness.
Take notice of things or places that trigger a tantrum. Then warn your kids ahead of time so they are aware and know what is expected of them. For example, if a child is prone to throw a fit over candy, and you are going to the grocery store, start at home.
Begin with talking about going to the grocery store, about getting food, then say,
“We will bring home lots of delicious food, but all the candy will stay at the store. When you see candy, keep your hands away from it. Leave it on the shelf, and wait quietly and patiently while I pay for our food, then we will go home and eat something delicious.”
Then remind them in the car, saying something like,
“Today, we are going to the grocery store. There’s much delicious candy there, but we will not be getting any. We will get lots of delicious food and take it home. The candy will stay. I know you really want candy. It’s hard when we can’t have what we want. It’s upsetting. What should you do when you see candy?”
Shortly go over what is expected when you pass candy. Remind them in the store when you know you be passing candy and before checking out.
It’s completely natural, and inevitable, that your child will be tempted when they see it. They will probably ask for it. Whine about it.
1.) Instead of saying no, ask them SILLY QUESTIONS. Say things like,
“I know you want the chocolate bar. If you had a swimming pool full of chocolate, would you swim in it? Jump off the high dive?”
Even with the best prevention, tantrums will happen so let’s move on the the second part: Facilitation.
Let me reiterate: tantrums are not manipulation.
Tantrums are your child’s reaction to the strongest emotions they have ever felt. Tantrums are a starting point for learning emotional resilience.
So, during a tantrum, recognize what is happening, their feelings, assure them their feelings are normal and ride it out. So if your child is crying because you aren’t buying the candy during checkout, say something like,
“You really want the candy, and I am not buying it. That is making you upset. You seem mad, you seem sad, and it’s making it hard for you. I am sorry it’s hard. I wish I could make it easy. I can’t. It’s normal for you to be mad and sad. Everyone feels mad and sad sometimes, but it can be so hard. I know it’s hard.”
Now in the middle of a crowded grocery store with the weight of a thousand eyes on you, all you really want is your kid to be quiet. That’s normal, and it’s very hard to keep calm. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, makes you angry and anxious. (See what I did there?) It’s mortifying, but your loyalty is to your child.
Adults understand what’s going on, how kids act, and can adjust. Your child can’t. That’s why they are throwing a tantrum. Let’s shift the burden of action from kids to adults because adults are mature.
1.) Create a physical connection with your child. Look them in the eyes, touch them, hug them, anything they are comfortable with.
2.) If possible, remove them to a quiet, secluded place. This absolutely saves my shy kids.
3.) Take deep breaths and remember that the calm in this situation must come from you.
Last, I want to reiterate that tantrums are not manipulation. A toddler simply doesn’t have the ability to predict and strategize in order to manipulate. Kids are the sum of their impulses. Period.
Tantrums are our opportunity to teach.
Teach them what?
First, that big emotions are normal, inevitable, manageable, and that you are accepting of their feelings and reactions while waiting to guide them to more appropriate ways of dealing with undulating emotions.
How do we teach them this?
- Don’t criticize or belittle their emotions.
- Don’t compare their emotions or reactions to another.
- Don’t dictate their emotions.
- Provide names for their emotions
- Reassure it’s a normal emotion
- Stay calm
- Suggest healthy coping mechanisms
- Provide a good example in yourself and the books and TV your kids watch
In conclusion, a tantrum is a learning opportunity; don’t let it pass by in your pursuit of calm and control. Let yourself be well of calm your child can sink into. My own personal experiences show that this approach, while it doesn’t eliminate tantrums (that is an unreasonable expectation), it does lessen their intensity and shorten them immensely.