Taming Toddler Tantrums

Picture this.

A mom and her 2-year-old son are at the park. They’ve spent two fun-filled hours at the swing, the slide and the climbing wall.

Dinnertime is nearing and the toddler is showing no signs of slowing down. Mom scoops her son up and gently says, “What a fun day! Let’s go home and have dinner now.”

Cue temper tantrum. Scratch that.

Cue complete nuclear meltdown — arms flailing, legs kicking and mouth completely agape with deafening screams.

The proverbial toddler tantrum is not only a developmental milestone but a rite of passage every parent must face. One parent jokingly provided this tip on our Facebook wall when dealing with tantrums: “Pretend they’re not yours!”

So, how do you deal with the full-blown and often public tantrum?

First, it’s OK to be mad.

Give your child permission to be angry. Nobody likes to feel rejected or denied. It’s normal to feel angry, but it’s the biting and kicking that needs to be eliminated. When your child is having an angry outburst, say something like, “I know your angry. It’s OK to be angry, but do not hit.”

Validating their feelings will go a long way to diffuse your little bomb. Communicate that you understand what they are thinking by putting into words what they’re feeling. If your little one is upset you have to leave the park, sit down on a nearby bench and say, “I know you want to play longer. I see that you’re sad and mad because I won’t let you play.” Just by saying this, your little one will feel like they are being heard. Eventually, they will learn to use their words to communicate their feelings instead of turning into a screaming rag doll.

Unfortunately, tantrums tend to escalate from crying to flailing fits rather quickly. If your little one begins to express frustration by hitting, throwing something, kicking or – gasp! – biting, calmly stop your toddler and say, “No. In our family, we do NOT hit people” or “It’s not OK to break things.” If push comes to shove (no pun intended), gently pick up your child and move somewhere they can’t break anything. Wait until they calm down to address the behavior.

Even though children are the ones throwing the tantrum, it’s scary for them to become out of control with feelings that are new and overwhelming to them. Stay near your child while they are … fill in the blank. This will help dissolve those super-angry feelings.

Keep routines consistent.

Children feel safe when they have a predictable schedule. If reading a book before bedtime is part of their nighttime ritual, try not to break it. Surprise changes can cause children to feel unbalanced.

Stay on top of snack time and nap time.

Knowing the signs when your little one is hungry and tired will help reduce the number and quality of tantrums. Take nutritious snacks with you wherever you go and try to plan your life around consistent sleeping schedules.

Have respect for your child’s time.

Back to the aforementioned playground scenario. When it’s time to leave the park, give your little one a five-minute warning. On the playground at Kids College, our teachers tell little students when they have 10 minutes left to play and, then, five minutes left to play. They may not understand how long five or 10 minutes are, but they understand what it means in general.

Once the tantrum is over, give your little one time to transition into calmness and serenity. It’s tough for these little people to understand why they feel the way they do. Don’t expect your child to instantly put on a happy face. Toddler tantrums usually last between 30 seconds and three minutes. It may take time for them to calm themselves.