How to Manage Your Toddler's Tantrums

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Mother hugging her toddler

It’s not easy being a toddler. The transition from helpless newborn to a walking, talking one, two or three-year-old person is a long and challenging one. In fact, it probably represents the steepest learning and developmental curve ever experienced in life. It’s no wonder there are some emotional and behavioral hurdles along the way.

As toddlers learn to walk and talk, they are also becoming more self-aware. They begin to understand that they are a separate person and, as such, they want to exert more control over their environment and the people around them. Their unique personality begins to emerge, including their food preferences, favorite activities, likes, dislikes and how they respond when things don’t go quite the way they want. For most toddlers, tantrums or meltdowns will occur as they test their limits and explore their boundaries.

A Normal Stage of Development

Tantrums tend to occur most frequently between one and three years of age and may include behaviors such as screaming, crying, pounding of fists and feet, and flailing on the floor.

Although it can be frustrating (even frightening) to witness your toddler in the throes of a tantrum, parents can be assured it is a normal part of growing up. Unable to adequately express themselves with language, tantrums are usually a simple reflection of your child’s frustration with their own limitations. They want to be independent but their still developing minds and bodies get in the way.

Sometimes there’s a clear cause – for many toddlers, hearing the word “no” is enough to send them into a meltdown. Other times tantrums can erupt out of the blue – your child can be laughing and smiling one minute, flailing on the ground and screaming the next.

So what should a parent do? “The first step is to recognize that your child is not trying to manipulate you,” says Lauren Beene, MD, pediatrician at UH Rainbow Suburban Pediatrics. “They are not spoiled or bad. Also, their brains aren’t developed enough to understand their own behavior, especially when they are raging, so asking them ‘why’ or ‘what do you want’ is pointless. They feel out of control and don’t yet have the skills to manage their frustration and anger,” adds Dr. Beene.

How to Prevent a Tantrum

Whenever possible, try to prevent the tantrum before it can get into full swing. When you sense that a mood change is coming, one of the most effective tactics is distraction or redirection. Suggest a fun activity you know your child likes, relocate to a different room, or go outside and get fresh air. Offer them a favorite toy or start singing a song they know and clap along. Try to make them laugh. Sometimes, just getting their attention briefly is enough to help them get through the moment.

Although their attention spans are quite short, toddlers can become very involved in what they are doing in the moment. Sudden unexpected changes can be disconcerting to them. For example, if they are building a block tower and are suddenly swooped up and told that it’s naptime, this could easily trigger a tantrum. Instead, help them to anticipate their day by calmly explaining in simple language what’s coming up. For example, you might say, “In ten minutes we’re going to take a nap so let’s finish up this tower,” or “We’re going to have lunch now and then we can play outside.” “Having a visual schedule of your routine posted on the wall that includes words and pictures to help them anticipate what’s next can be a helpful tool in avoiding meltdowns,” suggests Dr. Beene.

Dealing With a Storm of Emotions

There will certainly be times when, despite your best efforts, your toddler loses control and has a full-blown tantrum. The best strategy for surviving the whirlwind is to validate their emotions and help them feel seen. Get down on their level and tell them “I see you,” “I hear you,” “You’re upset, and it’s okay to cry.” Make contact with them so that they feel less out of control.

Try to remain calm yourself. Do not lecture or scold them. When a tantrum is in full force, their brains cannot take in and process information.

If your child is adding aggressive behaviors such as hitting, biting, or kicking to the mix, remember that these behaviors stem from the same overwhelming feelings that send them into tantrums.

When your child hits, it is important to resist a dramatic response and maintain a calm, patient demeanor. Respond as you would if this were an ordinary tantrum by validating their feelings and letting them know their feelings are normal. Get down on their level, acknowledge their emotion and set boundaries. You can say, “I see you’re frustrated. It’s okay to feel frustrated but it’s not okay to hit when you feel this way.” By saying this, you’re not validating the behavior – just the emotion. After you let them know that it’s not okay to hurt people when they’re frustrated, tell them, “I’m going to keep us both safe while you are feeling frustrated,” and then give them a hug, remove the targeted sibling from arms reach, or remove your child from an environment in which they may hurt themselves or others.

Later – after your child has calmed down and is back to their normal cheerful self – take time to talk to them about what happened earlier and to calmly remind them that while it is okay to have these feelings, it is not okay to hurt others. Discuss things you can do when starting to feel frustrated such as taking four slow deep calming breaths.

The frequency and ferocity of tantrums will diminish over time. Being consistent in your approach to these moments can help this phase pass more quickly. By age three, most children will have learned calmer ways to process and communicate their feelings of frustration and anger.

Reward the Good

Parents should always look for opportunities to recognize and respond to their child’s positive behaviors – like sharing or being gentle with a sibling or pet. Praise and positive recognition are valuable ways to help children feel good about themselves, learn empathy and build a strong emotional foundation.

As always, if you have concerns about your child’s behavior or their health, talk to your pediatrician.

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s has a wide network of highly trained pediatricians at convenient locations throughout the region. Our experts are here to help and advise parents throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence.

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