How to Manage Toddler Tantrums and Tips to Make Them Less Frequent
If you’re a first-time parent or even an experienced dab hand at this parenting malarkey, tantrums have the ability to knock you off your feet. And yes, that could be literally given the miraculous strength of an enraged small person.
What’s more, you likely weren’t anticipating the Terrible Twos would start comfortably in the Adorable Ones, and certainly not lasting through the Threes and Fours too.
So what’s going on? What’s causing the toddler tantrum? And what can you do about it? And if you’re also experiencing toddler biting and toddler hitting, are you raising a little hooligan, or is this all just painfully normal?
What’s Happened to My Baby?!
A toddler tantrum is a perfectly normal, run-of-the-mill development. It’s a milestone alongside taking their first step. But yes, we get you don’t want to photograph this one.
Like other developmental milestones, some children reach them sooner, while some later. Some like to demonstrate their ability at full volume in a supermarket (normal) and some will sit in the trolley like butter wouldn’t melt (also normal). Some will scoot through the toddler tantrum stage without a shadow of biting and hitting. Others will do a mighty good impression of being possessed by a demon. Again, all normal.
Your baby hasn’t disappeared. When the rage subsides they will still be the same little one, perhaps even more in need of the love and reassurance only you can truly give. Be patient, grit your teeth, smile hard, and remember that this too is a phase which will pass.
Toddler Tantrums: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Tantrums, even the longest lasting, are flashes in the pan: a swift, enraged fire. In reality there are multiple reasons for tantrums (they like to keep you guessing) but they are all to do with emotional immaturity making communication difficult.
This is completely normal for this age. They don’t have the same impulse control and ability to control their emotions as an adult.
At the core of a tantrum there is usually an element of intense frustration, often felt keenly with a sharp sense of injustice. They may start with a whinge and a whine, or they can go from 0 to 60 on the scream-scale.
What’s really important to remember is that it’s not about manipulation. Your toddler doesn’t have that emotional maturity yet (hence the tantrum in the first place). Think of it more like a pan boiling over. It’s messy, it’s hot, but it’s self-limiting and will need some tidying up afterwards.
How to Handle a Toddler Tantrum
So how do you manage them?
1. Take a deep breath: A toddler having a tantrum is pretty much a hotline to your own nerve centre. Brace yourself and detach the ‘this is personal’ feeling. Because it’s not.
The single biggest thing you can do right now is to demonstrate what calm looks like and mirror how they can handle these ‘big’ feelings. If they are in danger of hurting themselves, gently steer them away from danger.
2. Don’t try reasoning: We all had that lovely pre-parenting idea that we’d be the ones explaining everything patiently to their children and, hey presto, they’d calmly understand and move on. The reality isn’t quite like that.
When the rage is in full swing there’s just no rationalising the situation. By all means keep a calm running commentary but be realistic that this is more about appeasing the onlookers.
Reasoning may, depending on cognitive maturity, work once the storm has blustered out.
3. Realise the world isn’t staring: Whilst you may think the world is staring at you, they really aren’t. Even those that are, are likely looking at you out of sheer empathy. Promise.
It can help to remove the toddler from a public place so that you both have room to manage this the way that works for you.
4. Try to be with them in the moment: Try getting down and being with them in that moment. These big rage feelings are pretty scary when they are coming from inside oneself, so be there like you would if they fell over. This removes the horn-locking exercise that discipline or rationalising tends to lead to.
5. If that’s not going to work, step back: For some toddlers, the above tactic works a treat. For others, it’s likely to lead to the situation escalating. At times it’s sensible, especially if you feel your own inner pan boiling over, to step away to allow things to calm down.
6. Find out what works for your child: This goes to show that actually there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a toddler tantrum. So realise that in the early tantrumming days you’re going to have to embark on some trial and error.
7. Don’t back them into a corner: Often the tantrum gets prolonged as the little ball of rage can’t work their way out of the corner they’ve backed themselves into. If you continue to assert demands then all hell is going to break loose.
Instead, give them a way out. This doesn’t mean giving in, but give them some room to manoeuvre so that you can then reassert the boundary.
8. Don’t give in: It may solve the immediate tantrum but you just cranked up the volume and the stamina on the next one. Stay calm, stay firm, and show that even if they aren’t in control, you are.
9. Dish out the hugs: After the tantrum has passed, as it will, it’s time to praise your child for successfully calming down and reassure them with a big hug.
Now is the time to attempt some reasoning and explanation. It can be helpful to use the language they don’t yet have. For example “I can see you were really angry that your turn was finished on the swing…” Then follow it up with “It was hard to understand you because you used screaming, not words.”
Remind them that you love them and the tantrum hasn’t changed that.
How to Head a Tantrum Off at the Pass
First up, realise you won’t catch them all. It’s impossible unless you have the most amenable child. However, there are some tricks you can employ:
• Keep them watered, fed and rested: Thirst, hunger and tiredness are the holy trinity of tantrums. So carry snacks and water, and try to work life around their nap routine.
• Praise the good: By taking a long-term approach to praising the good behaviour you’ll make things positive and tantrums less likely. Therefore, if you notice they behaved nicely, praise.
• Warn them of change: Change is a real culprit for tantrums. Therefore, give them warnings when things are about to change.
• Try distraction: Sometimes the simplest tool in your repertoire is to distract. If you sense a tantrum is brewing then change locations, do something funny, or go and show them something new.
• Offer choices: None of us like being dictated to, especially when we’re just realising we have some element of control. So you might say “Would you like the red or blue t-shirt?” instead of dictating what they will wear.
• Listen when they are calm: In our busy lives it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle where we don’t hear our toddlers when they are trying to communicate calmly. However, if we can tune in to these attempts of calm communication then we show them that you catch more flies with honey.
When They Bring Out the Claws
If you’re experiencing toddler biting, toddler hitting and perhaps some pushing and scratching for good measure too, then it’s understandable you feel overwhelmed. However, just because your little one is in this phase now does not mean you’re raising a monster.
This too is a phase – a horrid phase – but a phase nonetheless. Remove them from the situation and afterwards reassert that we do not hit, or bite or kick. Explain how we can be heard in different ways. It will take time, and you’ll need the support of other caregivers in the meantime.
This Too Shall Pass
One day the tantrums will have passed. They will turn into a rational and calm human being. Their emotional maturity will catch up, and everything will be ok. Give them time.
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