Toddler having a tantrum while being held by dad

Surviving Toddler Tantrums

There’s a reason for the phrase the terrible twos. We’ve all seen a toddler meltdown happen  in the checkout line, at the dinner table or in the toy aisle. Anyone with a child over the age of five will surely sympathize with the parent wrangling a little person out of a restaurant who is shrieking, kicking and screaming. I’m talking about the dreaded temper tantrums, which so often go hand-in-hand with toddlerdom. While temper tantrums create some of the most trying moments for parents, we have solid research that helps us better understand the nature of tantrums and helps parents handle tantrums better. Here’s the good news: typical tantrums will last an average of 3 minutes and then usually blow over naturally if correctly handled by adults.

Why do tantrums happen?

Research tells us a toddler’s brain is often driven by instinctive urges and unregulated emotions because the brain’s ability to contemplate logically has not yet developed. For this reason, it’s important to determine what sort of feelings and emotions are driving your child’s tantrums. Sometimes it’s a situational cause, like your child is hungry, over-tired, or out of their normal routine. Sometimes it’s a demand for attention. In other cases, she wants a certain item like a cookie or a toy she sees in the store. Sometimes, children are rebelling – they don’t want to do something that’s being asked of them or they’re somewhere that they don’t want to be (like putting shoes on or being strapped into a high chair).

What can I do to stop them?

While every child is different, following the steps below will help you appropriately manage toddler meltdowns as they run their course in a healthy way.

  1. Keep calm and control your reaction.  Try to keep a neutral facial expression and calm demeanor when your child throws a fit. Act disinterested in what your child is doing, other than ensuring her safety. Do not respond verbally to any of her attempts to get a reaction out of you. Otherwise, any reaction — comfort OR correction — may only reinforce the kicking and screaming behavior and cause it to continue.  Christina, a mom of 1, says “When my son was having temper tantrums, I would leave him alone and just keep an eye on him. He would just release it, often screaming, for five or 10 minutes and then he calmed down. He’s like a new kid when he’s done!”
  2. Wait for the waves of anger to pass. The typical tantrum will have a mix of anger and sadness. If you can remain calm and patient, eventually the angry phase will pass and there will be only a puddle of sadness left. Now, it’s safe to respond to your child’s emotions.
  3. Reflect on your child’s feelings verbally. Speak to your child gently about how they’re feeling, using prompts such as: “I see that you are feeling sad. Would you like a hug now?” It’s likely he will melt into your arms, finally able to be comforted after the anger has quieted. Lacey, a mom of 2, says “I like to give my three-year-old daughters something positive to focus on before discussing the meltdown. I’ll say, “Charlie, find something that’s red for me!” or “Where are your sister’s boots?” If she can focus on something else, then I know she’s ready to talk about her tantrum.
  4. Provide a short review and redirection. After the entire storm has passed, you can briefly talk about what happened. However, you shouldn’t expect your toddler to process the event with adult logic. Lecturing will be ineffective. Simply say, “When I told you no cookies before dinner you became very angry and then sad. We will eat dinner first and then have a cookie after dinner. Now, would you like to play with your cars while I make dinner?” This quick recap will help your child process his feelings and move on.

What if it doesn’t work?

While these tips may be helpful for the average toddler meltdown, not all tantrums are typical. If your toddler erupts into frequent emotional meltdowns that last for more than 25 minutes, your child may be having trouble with sensory integration or other behavioral issues. Consult with your pediatric health practitioner for more information if you’re worried that your child’s behavior may not be normal.

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About the Author
Lynn Louise Wonders

Lynn Louise Wonders, MA, LPC, RPT-S is an early childhood development and parenting expert. She offers private coaching and consultation for parents throughout the U.S. She is a well-known professional in the field of play therapy, providing training, supervision and mentoring to child therapists world-wide having practiced for more than 15 years in schools, child development centers and through her private practice.