Sarah is trying to get her 3-year-old son Sam into the car to go to the library, when he suddenly decides that not only is his car seat a form of torture, but that he doesn’t want to go to the library after all. While trying to maintain her composure and calmly get Sam buckled, Sarah tries to talk him into it, reminding him of all the fun they have at story time and how much he enjoys picking out new books. Sam will have none of it. So begins the kicking, screaming, and body stiffening that Sarah deals with on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis with her spunky toddler, making her feel frustrated and question what she’s doing wrong.
“The main reason that children become unglued over seemingly small events is that developmentally they cannot handle the circumstances they find themselves in.”
The first thing that Sarah—and most parents—need to realize in these situations is this: no matter how difficult and frustrating this behavior is, Sam is a perfectly normal little boy.
From the ages of 2-6, children can be remarkably strong-willed and difficult to raise, while at the same time exhibiting some of the cutest, sweetest behavior a parent will ever witness. Oftentimes when their child is showing their less-than-angelic side, parents wonder what they did wrong. The truth is, part of parenting children this age means that we all have to ride the wave of their temper tantrums until they develop into more mature, calmer children. This doesn’t mean that you should tolerate everything or helplessly stand by while a temper tantrum occurs—there are ways to help your child, and you manage these waves of anger and frustration that show up in the form of tantrums.
The main reason that children become unglued over seemingly small events is that developmentally they aren’t able to handle the circumstances they find themselves in. Their first reaction when they feel out of control is to act out of control. This can be incredibly frustrating for a parent who doesn’t understand why their child can’t simply “get it together.” When your child loses it and starts kicking and screaming, it is essential to remember that you are not dealing with a rational adult who has a fully formed brain and the ability to self-soothe and reason through a situation. Instead, you are dealing with a child of limited verbal abilities who hasn’t even begun to grasp the concepts of patience, limits, or compromise. As difficult as it can sometimes be, it is up to us as parents to change our reactions to our toddler’s temper tantrums. Doing this can help teach children how to feel safe and in control, and how to grow into adolescents and adults who can manage their behavior.
Where to begin?
Step 1. The first thing to do in order to address your toddler’s tantrums more effectively and calmly is to be prepared. By this I mean that rather than wait until the next outburst and react to it in the moment, expect that at some point your child will have a tantrum again. Know that this is normal and not a reflection of poor parenting or a sign that something is wrong with your child. Sometimes just having the knowledge that our kids have the potential to blow up at any given moment due to their limited ability to handle frustration and disappointment at this age can help you feel more ready to handle it when it actually happens. If you face every temper tantrum beating yourself up and wondering what you’re doing wrong, the tension will only escalate. When you try to accept and acknowledge that this is a difficult time for your child and for you, you will find yourself less anxious and more prepared to ride the emotional roller coaster you’re on.
Here’s what this would look like. The next time you’re getting ready to get your child in the car, your first tactic will be to remind yourself, “This may not be easy. He may throw a fit—but if he does, it’s perfectly normal and I am ready to deal with it.” Being prepared and using “positive self talk” helps build your confidence to handle a tantrum.
Step 2. The next step is to know your child. All children are different, and as a result have different needs as well as triggers that may set them off. One child can function perfectly fine without a nap, whereas another child will have a meltdown on a less structured schedule. The same rule applies to a hungry child, a child nervous about new environments, or one who feels anxious about social situations. You can reduce tantrums by knowing what your child needs prior to entering into a situation that can cause her next tantrum.
For example, Jenny had planned after-school play dates for her 4-year-old Hannah two afternoons a week. During most of these interactions Hannah was a mess: crying, not sharing, and hitting other kids. Jenny tried everything she knew to calm Hannah down before realizing these play dates were adding to her daughter’s general exhaustion and feelings of being overwhelmed. By learning more about the triggers that caused Hannah’s meltdowns, Jenny realized that an afternoon nap was a better choice for her daughter.
You cannot predict your child’s next temper tantrum, but with careful planning and knowing what your child’s triggers are, you can greatly reduce them.
Step 3. After becoming more in tune with your child’s needs it’s necessary to then have a plan once your child’s tantrum starts. Being in the eye of the storm is very stressful for parents and children alike. Oftentimes parents feel they’re the only ones who feel awful when a tantrum occurs, but it’s important to acknowledge that your child feels pretty lousy, too. This knowledge can better equip you when you enter into the world of a tantruming child. At the heart of your plan should be you monitoring how you react to your toddler or young child. It’s easy to get sucked into the outburst by allowing your own mood to escalate and perhaps even overtake your child’s behavior! There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t, at one time or another, rivaled a toddler’s bad mood when tired, overwhelmed, or frustrated in the moment. Remember this, though: if our children are to grow into the calm adults we hope for them to be, then we too have to strive towards modeling this behavior for them.
An example of having a plan is as follows: Your child refuses to get in the car to go to daycare in the morning, threatening to make you late for work. The first step is to monitor how you are feeling. Are you feeling stressed? Angry? Ready to blow? Take a moment to step away from your child and give serious attention to what you are feeling in the exact moment the tantrum begins. Some parents benefit from closing their eyes, taking 3 deep breaths, then identifying what they are feeling. Repeat to yourself what you find out. For example: “He’s driving me nuts right now and my heart is starting to race. I feel my face getting warmer and I am feeling like I might yell.” Sometimes hitting the pause button in your head is all you need to momentarily diffuse a frustrating situation in order to see it in a different light. For many parents, by the time they’re done identifying how they feel, the moment where they might have reacted negatively has passed. I call this exercise “buying time,” because it does exactly that: it buys you the time to collect yourself before you proceed.
The second part of having a plan involves having some idea of what you will say and do ahead of time so you are not caught off guard by the tantrum. This can feel tricky since you never know when your child let loose, but think about other aspects of your life in which having a plan and being prepared have served you well: you wouldn’t walk into a meeting with your boss or a difficult employee without first being prepared about what you will say and how you will speak to them. You also probably wouldn’t go to a conference with your child’s teacher regarding a problem without some sort of plan. Likewise, you shouldn’t expect to deal with a difficult toddler without having a plan in place to help them through a difficult moment. Creating a mantra that sounds and feels right for your parenting style is imperative during a tantrum. An example of this might be, “I am the adult here and I can control my emotions even if my child cannot.”
So for example, if your child refuses to get dressed in the morning, repeat your mantra to yourself first, then say something like: “Last night we put out two choices of clothes for you to wear this morning. Please pick one and then you can fill your backpack with all the fun things you want to bring to school with you today!” If your child starts to throw a tantrum about what to wear, you can say, “I see you can’t make a choice so I will make it for you” and proceed to help your child get dressed. This may increase the tantrum, at which point you will have to repeat your mantra and proceed forward.
Step 4. Lastly, every parent asks: what do I do when a temper tantrum is in full swing and there’s no stopping my toddler? First, remember that sometimes it’s not possible to stop a tantrum altogether—the best we can do as a parent is to ride that wave until it ends on its own, while putting in place the structure needed to help our kids self-soothe and calm down. The first thing to do is create an environment in which your child is safe. If you are at home, designate an area your child can be placed in until their tantrum is done. This can be their room, a laundry room, or any other room where there is a door to close. If your child cannot get control, it is okay to say, “We’re going to take a break now” and lead them to their safe haven. If your child continues to come out of their room, gently and quietly lead them back to their safe place until they stop. Each time you can say, “When you’re done, you can join me.” You may have to do this numerous times.
Note: If ever you feel out of control or that you might strike your child in a moment of anger, take steps to isolate yourself until you can calm down. All parents have felt out of control at some point in their parenting life, so don’t think you are alone. Taking a time out yourself models for your child the importance of regaining control.
Surviving the Public Meltdown
If you are not at home when the tantrum starts, you will need to make a quick exit from wherever you are. Tell your child, “We are leaving now because you are not behaving politely,” then proceed to a safe place where your child can get back in control. Some examples might be: leaving the store and going to your car; taking them to a public restroom and staying with them until the tantrum stops, or leaving someone’s house and staying outside until your child is done. It is up to you how to proceed after a tantrum if you are not home. Leaving a social situation after a tantrum can show a child that the consequence of their behavior means the fun is over and they now have to go home. However, this isn’t always possible if you are at a family gathering, a school event, or somewhere that makes leaving impossible. In these cases you can say, “I’m glad you are done. Let’s go back inside but if it happens again, we will have to leave again.”
As always, catch your child being good. Be sure to comment when they handle a stressful situation well, when they play nicely with friends, when they use good manners, or when they go to bed without a fuss. Pointing out the positives in a toddler’s behavior makes it more likely that they will want to please you in the future.
Parenting toddlers can seem like an impossible task when they are prone to temper tantrums and mood swings. Otherwise normal parents can feel completely helpless and out of control when a toddler’s mood drastically changes or when things set them off. Remember that this is a normal and necessary part of being a toddler, that it will eventually pass, and that you have the capacity to be calm, confident and in control of your own emotions. By modeling this for your child each day you are helping them on their way to a brighter, calmer future.
About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
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.