I know as a first-time mom of a toddler, I have struggled (and still do currently struggle) with dealing with my toddler’s tantrums.
When my daughter was 18 months old, she started resisting things she would normally like to do. It was very confusing to me at first. In fact, it was so illogical–why doesn’t she want to put her shoes on to go outside anymore? Last week it wasn’t a problem…
I really had to read about it and talk to other moms about it for it to start to make sense to me. After doing tons of research, and reading a few books on this topic, I thought I would share the knowledge I’ve gleaned and put it all together in a lovely little post for your reading pleasure!
In this post, I will explain how to help your toddler regulate their own emotions, how to emotionally regulate yourself during tantrums, how to avoid tantrum triggers, and what exactly to DO and what not to do, during toddler tantrums.
Let’s learn how to deal with toddler tantrums.
What to do during a toddler tantrum
This research is by Dr. Bruce Perry who developed the concept of the 3 R’s. This concept is the “sequence of engagement” where you can not access higher-level brain functioning until you are fully regulated.
That is to say…you can’t relate or reason before your body and mind are regulated. This is true for both kids and adults, and as your brain develops even into your mid-20’s you are still learning how to reason. (Your prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until about age 25). So keep that in mind when you are asking your toddler to reason. That’s a BIG ask.
Follow these 3 steps:
When your child is dysregulated, (think: crying, tantrums, being emotionally unsettled), you cannot relate with or reason with them until they are first regulated. How do we do this?
For babies it’s easy: when they’re crying, you pick them up. You sway, rock shush, hum, and hold them. This is called somatosensory movement, which is repetitive and rhythmic.
When your toddler is having a tantrum, they are not regulated. This is your chance to make them feel calm, and safe.
Ways to help your toddler regulate:
- Give them a soft blanket to hold, or a stuffed animal they like.
- Give them water to sip on (my daughter loves this).
- Be present and be patient.
- Get down on their level.
- Offer a hug with outstretched arms, but do not force it.
- Bring them to a quiet, calm space.
- Show them how to take deep breaths.
- If they need alone time to regulate, give it to them.
When your child starts to become calmer, then is when you want to relate to them and support their calm state.
- Use a soft tone of voice.
- Validate their feelings. Some things you can say are:
- I know you are upset.
- I can see that you are frustrated.
- It seems like you are sad.
- I know you are feeling disappointed.
- Reassure them you love and care about them.
- Use short sentences. Don’t overwhelm them.
- Make eye contact.
- Provide them with a hug or hold their hand if they’re ready.
- Focus on connecting with them.
Now is the time to talk about what happened and provide alternatives.
You could say:
I know you want to _____, but we have to _____ right now.
Stay calm (or pretend to)
The next section outlines how to do this in detail, but it is important to stay calm in order to de-escalate the situation.
How to develop skills to help YOURSELF deal with toddler tantrums
Let’s break it down, because to deal with your toddler’s feelings, you first have to deal with your OWN feelings. What could you be feeling when your toddler is having these strong emotions? What if you are feeling strong emotions too? Then what do you do?
I know I feel at least a few of these:
- Panic/Anxiety– Sometimes it feels like an emergency when your toddler is throwing a tantrum. When will it end? How will you get through this phase?
- Shame/Guilt– You might feel like you’re a bad parent.
- Embarrassment– You may also worry about what you will look like to others if your child is throwing a tantrum.
- Irritation/Annoyment– Yes, you may be just plain annoyed at your own child for acting this way.
- Anger/Frustration– You could perhaps feel like your blood is boiling, or you may feel rage.
It’s hard to be the adult. Sometimes, I want to be the kid. I want to curl up on the floor and cry too. And there is nothing wrong with you for having emotions, in fact, it is a good thing you have them because if you’re feeling these feelings you are also likely a compassionate person who has the power to connect deeply with your child.
I highly recommend therapy. It is not for everyone, and there’s definitely some stigma related to this, but once I became a parent, I wanted to make sure I was taking care of myself mentally because that’s what I want my kids to do too.
Therapy can help in so many ways, in fact, I could probably write a whole post on it, but I’ll stick to just the basics for now.
Therapy can help with:
- Identifying your feelings so you can learn coping skills.
- Letting you explore your thoughts.
- Recognizing bad patterns of behavior.
- Supporting you in a non-judgemental and unbiased way.
- Offering advice on other ways to be healthy.
I could go on. But, you probably get it.
If you don’t want therapy, there are some tools to help yourself without it:
When you feel out of control, there are some grounding techniques you can use to help yourself feel in control. They’re pretty simple. Here are a few examples:
- Deep breathing.
- The 5-4-3-2-1 method. List 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste.
- Drink a whole glass of water. Notice the sensations while you drink.
- Visualize someone you love giving you a hug.
There are many more examples, but find what works for you.
Using empathy for the hard moments
To develop my compassion for my lovely little screaming toddler, one thing I have tried to do is visualize myself in similar situations. How would I feel if I went to go get a snack, or use an item, and someone told me “No”? I would feel pretty frustrated too.
I’ve lost my cool and had breakdowns, over seemingly small things. We’ve all been there! Practice using empathy, and you’ll develop a deeper, more compassionate understanding toward your toddler. (Especially during toddler tantrums.)
Laugh a little– sometimes, you just have to freaking laugh! Toddlers are goofy little creatures, and it’s actually kind of silly what they get mad about.
Of course, don’t laugh AT them, but you can let out a chuckle or two to yourself while dealing with the chaos and mess.
Read some funny tweets. You are not alone in this crazy world of toddler-raising! Toddler tantrums are a common occurrence, and so are their other silly habits.
How to avoid toddler tantrums
Identify their needs quickly:
Toddlers have many needs/wants. They don’t always know how to express themselves, and begin to lose it if they aren’t understood…. sometimes leading to full-on toddler tantrums. Pay attention to them and say things like:
- Are you feeling hungry? Would you like a snack? How about an orange?
- I see you are pointing up there. Do you want me to get that toy from the shelf?
- I see you want some attention. Would you like to cuddle on the couch while we read a book?
- Would you like me to help you open that?
If you can’t give your toddler what they want, redirect them to something that is available or allowed. Here are some examples:
- It looks like you want to climb on the table. Let’s climb up on the couch instead.
- I’m noticing you want to explore inside the cupboards. How about we explore outside?
- I see you want to pour that water out. Let’s play with that water in the sink. I’ll help you.
- I don’t want you to throw the ball in the house, but you can roll it to me instead. Or: Let’s go outside to throw the ball.
- I know you want to play with my sunglasses, but I don’t want them to get broken. Let’s go find a fun toy to play with instead.
- I know you want to have orange juice but we are all out. There is milk in the fridge, would you like that?
- I see you want to hit me, but I’m not going to let you do that. IF you want to touch me please pat me or use “soft hands”. (Correct the behavior, show them how to do it the right way, and be specific.) If you tell them to “be gentle”, show them what that is. Like: “see how I’m petting the kitty gently?”
Set boundaries early
If your child is getting into a bag or something you don’t want them to touch tell them right away. Don’t wait until they’ve already started to get into the bag, and now you have to put it all away. Sometimes just taking the bag away or moving into another room can help avoid a meltdown entirely.
Set the boundary and use direct, simple language: “I’m going to stop you from getting into that bag.” or, “I’m not going to let you play with the things in my bag”.
After you set the boundary, redirect them. Say something like: “Let’s go into your playroom and get a toy to play with.” Again, it is important to set the boundary right away and offer alternatives quickly. This can help prevent toddler tantrums.
You can explain why you’re setting the boundaries too. For example: “The bag has my computer in it and I use that for work”. (or whatever.)
If you don’t explain yourself, and instead say things like “because I say so”, or “do what mommy says”, it really detracts from their understanding of the situation and makes them more likely to resist or have a meltdown.
Be HONEST. (And ask nicely)
Toddlers can smell B.S. and it only breaks their trust and hurts your relationship if you don’t tell them what’s going on.
Say something like: “I’m feeling tired, and these toys are making me feel overwhelmed. Let’s put some away together so we can have a nice clean space.” Instead of: “Why do you always have your toys everywhere?! Clean them up right now!”
A little niceness and honesty goes a long way. In fact, if I”m not feeling well, my daughter asks if I’m okay and gives me a hug! Toddlers can have compassion, and they do want to help. But it’s sometimes HOW you ask that makes the difference between them helping you and having complete meltdowns and toddler tantrums.
Identify and avoid toddler Tantrum triggers:
Tantrum “triggers” are circumstances or events that make it much more likely for your toddler to have tantrums. You’ll want to help avoid them to make it easier for you and your toddler. Here are some common ones, and ways to circumvent them:
Make sure they have a calm, quiet space to nap and you put them there consistently around the same time every day. Don’t push their limits by doing “one extra errand”. Get them to bed on time. You know your toddler and you likely know when they’re sleepy.
This one is hard sometimes because toddlers don’t always want to eat their meal… instead, they want to play! Make sure you are offering them both meals and snacks throughout the day. You cannot control how much they eat, but you can control when they are offered food, and what kinds of foods they are offered.
Inattention/ being ignored
You don’t have to play with your toddler all day–independent play is healthy too. However, if your toddler is vying for your attention, try to give it to them! Even a few minutes of time spent together is very meaningful and can help prevent meltdowns when you’re busy.
Try to schedule out interactive playtime and make it a priority. Routines can help too so they can expect you to be busy during certain times and play with them other times. (Like, always play with them for 30 minutes after their naptime.)
I want to mention one thing here: if you have to choose between A) yelling at your kid because you’re busy with something, or B) turning on the TV for a short 20-minute episode so you can finish what you’re doing, TURN ON THE TV!! I know so many moms are “anti-screen-time”, and I understand that it is not healthy to overdo it. But is it really better to yell at your kids when you’re frustrated and overwhelmed? Or for them to watch 20 minutes of television so you can have a minute to breathe?
Being uncomfortable or overstimulated
I know this happens in our household right around bedtime, or when we are out of the house for too long, or there’s a lot of action going on around us. For bedtime, I like to dim the lights and do some quiet play or book-reading. (This is important for me also because I have a 2-month old that gets overstimulated at night too). During the day, I try to keep outings and playdates short. Know your toddler’s limit!
Lack of control or choices
Give them options. If they need to get their socks on, let them choose which pair. This can help prevent a toddler tantrum.
Inability to express themselves
This is especially true for 18-month-olds, and toddlers who haven’t learned to speak very much yet. I know my daughter would whine and cry out of nowhere, and not explain why she was crying. When she did this, I would simply say “can you use your words to tell me what you want?” If she couldn’t, I would start naming things I thought she might want.
Other reasons they might have trouble expressing themselves: language or developmental delay, other health issues, learning disabilities, or behavioral problems.
**If you believe your child has trouble with any of these above issues, please talk to their pediatrician right away, so you can get help and support with this
It is almost inevitable, when we do a transition (going outside, inside, going to eat, going to bed, going to take a bath, etc.) there is at least some resistance to it, if not a full-on toddler tantrum.
Some tips to help with transitioning to another place or activity:
- Give a 5 minute warning (or whatever time frame you choose, just be consistent because toddlers don’t have much concept of time.)
- Help them visualize the new activity. Use detail and mention fun things you can do in the new place. (for example: I like to say, we are going home now. When we get there we are going to take off our boots and sit and have a snack and read a book!)
- Give two options: “We are going back to the house now, would you like me to carry you, or would you like to walk ?”
- Make it fun and use your imagination “Let’s hop like a bunny to the car!”
Have a “Yes” space
A “Yes” space is simply this: a space where they’re allowed to touch everything and is safe for them to play in. This can be their bedroom or a playroom, or even the backyard. It’s really any space where you don’t have to say “No” to them and you can let them explore, and imagine.
A yes space is important because saying “no” all day can be frustrating for both you and your toddler. Give yourself a break and create a safe place for them to play where you aren’t constantly inhibiting their play.
This may help prevent a toddler tantrum!
Have a routine
Routines cultivate a sense of predictability and security.
Yes, I know every day is different and you definitely don’t have to do the same thing every day for this to work, but having a bedtime routine, a breakfast routine, or an after-nap routine can really help!
Don’t set them up for failure
Supervise them where needed. For example, my child has a whiteboard that she loves to draw on. But I made a HUGE mistake when we first got it… I gave her the markers, showed her how to draw on the board, and then walked away to clean up the kitchen…
What was I thinking?!
She’s only two, and has a wild imagination, just like other 2-year-olds. She definitely drew all over her body before I was done cleaning the kitchen… oops.
There’s been a few times where I’ve gotten pretty angry with her for drawing on items that were not the whiteboard. It just showed me she was not ready yet to play with that unsupervised!
What NOT to do during a toddler tantrum
DO NOT ignore them:
I strongly recommend keeping an open line of communication with them, being present, showing them you care, and helping them learn how to regulate themselves first.
If they do not want you around or are not listening, simply say something like: “I am right here and want to help you when you’re ready.”
Then you can stand back, or give them space.
Do not shame them
It’s important for you to support them, especially through tough times! Don’t belittle them. They are still learning how to work through their emotions.
Do not yell at them
Have you ever been crying and had someone yell or shout at you to stop? Does it help? Probably not. In fact it likely made the situation worse.
When your toddler is having a tantrum, use a soft voice and calm demeanor. Help them regulate (back to the first of the 3 R’s).
Do not let them hurt themselves
If your toddler is hitting themselves, banging their head on the wall, etc, keep them safe. If necessary, move them to a safe environment. You may need to block their arms from hitting themselves. Speak calmly.
When in doubt, talk to your child’s pediatrician to see what is normal behavior or what may be concerning.
You are a container. You are there to hold your child and their emotions. If they are throwing a tantrum they likely feel safe enough with you to show their emotions. That is a big thing.
Toddlers are small humans learning all about the world, learning about themselves, and learning about emotions. You are their leader and guide. You are their whole world! Learn to lead with compassion and teach your children how to navigate difficult emotions.
Resources and recommended reading:
Beeghly, M., Perry, B. D., & Tronick, E. (2016). Self-regulatory processes in early development. In S. Maltzman (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of treatment processes and outcomes in psychology: A multidisciplinary, biopsychosocial approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.