“Too often, parents work under the faulty assumption that if they can simply explain things to a child having a tantrum, the child will fall in line and stop misbehaving. As a result, many parents talk above the developmental level of their toddler.”
Knowing how to handle your child or toddler effectively can feel overwhelming at times. There’s so much advice about what you should do that it’s easy to start feeling confused and unsure of your parenting skills.
But know that there is not a one-size-fits-all way to parent your toddler. And remember that the real expert of your child is you even though it can be hard to trust your parenting gut when your toddler is having a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store.
Therefore, part of becoming the most effective parent you can is to begin to develop parenting skills that combine your intuition, your strengths, and the values most important to you.
What I tell all parents of young kids is the following: as you navigate through your parenting years, you’ll try some methods that will work, and you’ll put them in your toolbox. You’ll quickly discard the methods that don’t work. And along the way, you’ll figure out what works best for your family.
Part of finding your way is learning what not to do when parenting your child having a tantrum. Learning what not to do can be confusing since so much parenting advice tells you what you should be doing. But the truth is, figuring out what pitfalls to avoid is just as important.
Here are my top four “Don’ts” when dealing with your toddler mid-tantrum.
Toddlerhood may represent the most stubborn, inflexible time in the life of a child. Too often, parents do not recognize this as a normal part of their child’s development. Instead, they are frustrated and bewildered as their child increasingly seems irrational and out of control.
In response, some parents tend to clamp down on their child. They hope that by being a stronger disciplinarian, their child will become less willful. Unfortunately, when you do this, you create a battle of wills. You create a tug-of-war between you and your child in which no one wins.
Instead, the key is to be more flexible. Give the strong-willed child more choices, not fewer. Giving more choices may sound counter-intuitive, so here’s an example of what I mean:
Four-year-old Bradley had a hard time getting ready for pre-school each morning. He would lie on the floor, fight with his mother over what to wear, and could never seem to get in the car on time. His mother realized that, as a strong-willed child, Bradley needed to have more of a say in what he was doing.
After identifying the areas in which he struggled, his mom created a plan that included giving Bradley choices. The night before school, she and Bradley would lay out his clothes for the next day. His mom would ask, “Do you want to wear jeans or sweat pants?” In the morning at breakfast, she’d ask, “Waffles or cereal?” When it came time to get in the car, she’d say, “Do you want to bring Superman or Legos with you today?”
In short, give your child a sense of control on issues that are not that important. In the long run, this gives your child a sense of autonomy in a world that is very structured and rule-oriented. Simple choices on a daily basis make it less likely that your child will want to fight you on the big stuff.
Confused yet? Don’t be. Just remember that too many choices can backfire. Don’t become so flexible that your strong-willed child doesn’t know what to do. Here’s an example:
Carly was 3 1/2 years old and had always been a great sleeper as a baby. Her parents would rock her and lay her in her crib. And she would sleep through the night. Since getting her big girl bed, Carly began to fight her bedtime, get up in the middle of the night, and wake her parents.
At a loss for how to get Carly to sleep, her parents gave her too many choices. If Carly wanted to read a book at 3:00 a.m., they read with her. If she wanted some juice, they’d bring it to her. Or if she wanted to sleep with them, but then change her mind 20 minutes later, they’d walk her back to her room. They allowed her to dictate the terms of her bedtime and sleep schedule instead of getting control of the situation.
A better option would be to set the guidelines for Carly before bedtime. To do this, say something like, “Tonight we’ll read two stories, have one song, then it’s time for bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night, I will walk you back to bed, and you will stay there”.
After Carly’s parents enlist her help in making her room as comfortable and cozy as possible, she will know what is expected of her for future bedtimes.
Toddlers need someone to be in charge, and that’s you. While you can benefit from giving your child choices, you will also benefit from setting loving boundaries so your child can feel safe and satisfied in the choices she has made. Experiment. Find the balance that works with you and your child.
Children and toddlers are irrational by nature. And, as a parent, it’s important to simply accept this fact.
Too often, parents work under the faulty assumption that if they can simply explain things to a child having a tantrum, the child will fall in line and stop misbehaving. As a result, many parents talk above the developmental level of their toddler. The outcome is simply more screaming and misbehaving by the child. And more stress and frustration for the parent!
A rule of thumb is to try using approximately as many words as the age of your child. For example, if your two-year-old bites, you say, “No biting.” Then you remove her from the situation. If your 5-year-old starts having a tantrum in the middle of the store, you say, “We don’t cry over toys.” And then you leave the store.
The point is, a long, drawn-out speech by you solves nothing. Your young child or toddler will just tune out. Instead, the best way to deal with a defiant toddler is to take swift, immediate action that involves the smallest number of words possible.
Since we as adults communicate in mostly rational and mature ways with other adults, we assume that we can do the same with our toddlers. Bear in mind, though, that your toddler lacks the maturity at this stage in their development to be reasonable most of the time. So, be brief. And be calm.
Toddlers between the ages of two and six often lose their tempers and scream. The main reasons for this are a lack of maturity, an inability to express themselves verbally, and frustration over not being able to process the situation in front of them. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Sam, a funny, strong-willed 5-year-old became frustrated while trying to put together his new Lego set. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t understand the instructions. Not knowing how to proceed, he did the first thing that came to his mind: he picked up his Lego set and threw it at his 3-year-old sister’s head. And he proceeded to cry and scream. His mother, while horrified and angry in the moment, stayed calm. She took him by the arm and told him, “We don’t scream or throw toys.” She then led him to his room for a cooling-off period.
Mom’s response was swift, calm, and effective. And she modeled for Sam how to stay calm when things aren’t going well.
Modeling—that is, showing your child what to do by example—is important. Toddlers don’t know what to do when faced with a rush of emotion, so they do what comes naturally: they have a fit. This type of behavior is perfectly normal for all toddlers. Nevertheless, they must learn that it is not acceptable in your house. Your job is to show your child the right way to react. And staying calm and consistent is the best way to teach them.
By the way, if you find that you are having a hard time controlling your temper, seek out support in the form of friends, other parents with same-age children, or by taking a parenting class at your local recreation center, church, or online. Having a support system during these difficult years of child-rearing can be a lifesaver.
Related content: The Calm Parent AM & PM™
So, avoid the pitfalls I’ve described above. Then, continually assess what is working and what isn’t working when dealing with your toddler and make adjustments as necessary. Trust your instincts and implement rules with which you are comfortable. In doing so, you will help not just your child, but your entire family.
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.