Parenting is a beautiful, magical journey full of the highest highs, the widest smiles, and countless moments to treasure. It is also packed with serious lows, challenging times, and absolute chaos. The toddler phase encompasses an amazing span of years where you watch your baby begin to blossom into a verbal, on-the-go, tiny human with their own needs, wants, and emotions. It's a pretty cool stage to witness, unless of course you are witnessing the dreaded toddler tantrum. Toddler tantrums are zero percent fun, and they can bring even the most patient and competent parent to their knees. Know the ins and outs of toddler meltdowns, how to deal with toddler tantrums, and when to worry that something more is amiss.
What Is a Tantrum?
According to famed clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy, tantrums are not merely willful acts of disobedience. They arise when little people harbor major feelings, urges, and sensations that are too powerful to house internally; hence, they explode on the outside. Parents often write tantrums off as reactions to something undesirable. (For example, you took away the iPad or said no to cookies at six in the morning, which resulted in a toddler meltdown). Dr. Kennedy explains that the tantrum is not typically a direct result tied to the action or antecedent that happened right before the tantrum, but rather the tantrum is the result of an emotional build-up that likely took place over hours, the day, or longer. Your little toddler's emotional cup basically runneth over, and now you have a tantrum on your hands.
Tantrum Warning Signs
When is a tantrum a passing moment in time, and when is it something to worry about? Parents often struggle to decipher how seriously to take their tot's meltdowns. A general rule of thumb, highlighted by Dr. Shefali Singh, is that if the tantrum is occasional and tends to align with times of hunger or exhaustion, it is likely nothing to become alarmed about.
If the tantrums seem to follow a discernable pattern or contain warning signs, then it might be time to reach out to your child's pediatrician to discuss what you are noticing. Warning signs to pay close attention to when assessing whether the tantrums have spiraled into something more than an occasional meltdown are:
- When the tantrums include self-injurious behaviors or harm towards others.
- Increased frequency of tantrums. Pay close attention to how often the tantrums occur and note this, as a specialist will want this input.
- Duration. Tantrums are typically over within 15 minutes (although they often feel like they last for hours). Tantrums that last upwards of a half-hour can be cause for concern.
How to Deal With Toddler Tantrums
Knowing how to best respond to the tantrum at hand is essential. A few best practice strategies will help you see the tantrum through and get you back to life with your little sweetie quickly.
Oof. Easier said than done! Staying calm while your kid is screaming and crying in aisle 12 of the Target shopping center is a challenge, but it is an essential strategy to diffusing the tantrum at hand. Dr. Kennedy encourages parents faced with a looming tantrum to self-regulate their own emotions and reactions and stay cool as a cucumber. Staying calm can become more manageable when parents work mindfulness and deep breathing into their every day life. Make learning to be calm and centered a focal point of self-care, so when tantrums occur, you have the skill set to endure them. (As they say, practice makes perfect, so practice peace, calmness, and mindfulness within yourself).
Try Not to Yell
Two wrongs don't make a right, plain and simple. When your child is yelling at the top of their lungs, it is not the time to fight fire with fire. Yelling at children, in general, can have very dire and negative consequences on their behavior and development. Keep your tone of voice low, calm, and steady, and should you feel a yell sneaking up on you, give yourself a little timeout and a bit of a breather to better steady yourself.
There is only so much you can do to thwart an impending tantrum, but you can always work on how you handle them and how you handle yourself. Be able to openly and non-judgementally assess and reflect on your parenting management skills and techniques. Journal what you handled well and what you can work on amid a meltdown. Give yourself some grace, as parenting is an ongoing learning process. Just as with anything else, learning how to best handle a tantrum might take time, introspection, and education on your end.
Distract Your Toddler
Toddlers are known for being cute and funny. They are not known for their lengthy attention spans. If you have a tantrum-prone tot, become a master in the art of distraction. Diversions and distractions will work best when your child is on the precipice of a meltdown, not in the eye of the emotional hurricane. If you sense a tantrum on the horizon, quickly distract your child with a fun new task, a challenge, a song... literally anything other than what they are focused on and ready to go to war over.
If you can proactively prevent a tantrum from taking place by removing known triggers, then, by all means, do so! Most tantrums have some element of triggers, and knowing what tends to set your child off can help reduce the number of tantrums you have to handle. If you know that your child melts down in the grocery store every time you waltz down the snack aisle, avoid the snack aisle when you are with them, or try giving them their favorite snack to munch on while you shop. You can't remove all triggers in all spaces for your children (and you shouldn't... they have to learn to deal), but remove the biggies and the obvious triggers to make life more manageable.
Try Ignoring the Tantrum
Sometimes you have to let the storms roll in and then roll out. When talking, rationalizing, comforting, and everything in between has failed to disarm your wailing tot, ignore them. Ignoring a child in distress might feel unnatural or even mean, but by ignoring them, you are choosing not to give the adverse behavior (the tantrum) any power. They can carry on, but their tantrum won't change the trajectory, nor will it alter the parent's course. As the tantrum rages on, busy yourself with something else, and know that this too shall soon pass.
Stay Positive and Reward Good Behaviors
If you want more good behaviors to occur, you need to recognize and reward them. When you see your toddler trying to breathe through the tantrum, note it, praise them and make them feel like they are doing something good. When your child is hitting and kicking mid-tantrum, and they stop when you sternly tell them to, praise them. Remember, you are not praising the tantrum itself; you are praising the positive behavior that happens to be occurring during the tantrum. Be specific in your praise, and know that even a meltdown can contain a moment of "Yay!"
Hug It Out
Hugs are powerful emotional tools. Remember: when your child is having a tantrum, they are overwhelmed and working through it. They are not out to manipulate and destroy you! Their behavior isn't something you love, but you sure love them! Give your toddler a firm hug and tell them you love them if that would help alleviate their tantrum. Create a circumstance of safety and unconditional love during a space where your toddler feels out of control.
All Kids (and Parents) Melt Down
When you witness your child in the throes of a tantrum, and you yourself are struggling to keep it all together, it can be hard not to get down in the dumps, blaming yourself, engaging in negative self-talk, and doubting your parental capabilities. It is imperative to remember that all kids (and parents) have meltdowns. Everyone loses it, pulls it together, and soldiers on. This is life. When you are in the toddler tantrum stage, cut yourself some slack, lean on expert tips and strategies to help you through this phase, and know that everyone who has kids deals with tantrums.