If you have ever watched a desperate mother trying to avoid flailing arms and legs as she wipes her child’s snot off her arms in the middle of a shopping centre and vowed that your own sweet baby will never carry on like that, think again.
Toddler tantrums are a normal part of life.
It can help to think of a tantrum as an intense storm of emotion that a toddler isn’t equipped to handle, rather than an attempt to wield power over everyone around him.
Tantrums are often an expression of emotional distress and can be triggered by frustration, loss, disappointment, feeling misunderstood or a need to discharge an accumulation of stress. Of course, some tantrums are about pushing boundaries, perhaps to get the biscuit or toy that isn’t allowed.
These outbursts are usually fairly easily diverted or will blow over if they are ignored (with you close by). But do consider whether the ‘biscuit tantrum’ is actually the straw that broke the camel’s back ” is your child’s seemingly massive reaction really about the biscuit or an accumulation of minor but stressful events that have happened to her throughout the day (a spilt drink at breakfast, her brother knocking over her block tower, waiting for lunch while Mummy settled the crying baby) or the result of tiredness or low blood sugar?
By trying to see things from your child’s perspective, it is much easier not to take tantrums personally, and it will be much easier to help your little one grow through this stage relatively smoothly than if you turn every outburst into a power struggle.
You can reduce tantrums and help your child (and you) cope better with stressful situations by using some simple strategies and sensible planning:
Toddler Tantrum Tip #1: Eliminate Frustration Beyond Your Toddler’s Limits
Challenges are necessary for children to develop, but try to step in before a challenge becomes a frustration. Guide gently, but don’t take over. For instance, discreetly turn the puzzle piece over so he can put it in by himself. When you sense your tot is reaching the brink, create a diversion towards a calming, soothing activity ” a different place, a toy, a hug, a story, a song or perhaps a snack.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #2: Look For Triggers
Do tantrums seem to happen mostly when your tot is tired, hungry, rushed? Are there situations he finds difficult to handle such as playgroup, shopping or being strapped in a car seat? Keeping a tantrum diary might help you understand triggers. Try to think ahead and limit overwhelming situations. For instance, plan short shopping trips when he isn’t tired, take nutritious snacks and water whenever you go out, and don’t wait for difficult behaviour before you offer food or it can seem like a reward.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #3: Cut Out Junk Food
Some foods can make little angels morph into complete rascals: sweets can trigger blood sugar variations that cause mood swings; caffeine in drinks can hype kids up for hours (toddlers should never have ‘cola’ drinks, and that goes for Diet Coke too), so they are literally unable to sit still, let alone fall asleep; and additives in foods (even many that are normally considered healthy), can affect some sensitive tots. Again, a tantrum diary might shed light on food triggers.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #4: Listen Respectfully
Imagine the frustration of a little child who can’t express what he is trying to tell you. Is it any wonder he ‘loses it’ when he doesn’t feel heard by the important people in his life ” you would too, wouldn’t you? Listen carefully to what your toddler is trying to say, just as you would with another adult. Reflect back your child’s feelings so that he feels heard and understood. Say, ‘You look angry that your block tower crashed,’ or something similar.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #5: Choose Your Battles
Don’t sweat the small things is a good rule for parents. Save your energy for the things that really matter and avoid power struggles (it doesn’t matter, for instance, if your child insists on having her cereal in the pink bowl or wears gumboots with her party dress). Allowing her a little independence on small things can help your child feel in control, and she may then be more flexible on the things that do matter. Rules like seat belts and holding hands near roads are not negotiable, but a balance between health and safety and a happy day can benefit family relationships. So take a peak at things from your child’s perspective (imagine how you would feel if somebody told you how to dress or messed up your morning ritual), childproof your home, and keep rules for important things.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #6: Say No And Mean It
It’s far better to say yes initially than to change your mind after your child has exploded. Remember, maybe means yes to a child. Rewarding genuinely uncontrollable tantrums can encourage tots to use (semi)deliberate tantrums to get what they want.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #7: Don’t Give In To Embarrassment
It can be difficult to consider your child’s feelings when he performs a tantrum in public but whatever you do, don’t yell back, don’t smack and don’t resort to giving in because you feel embarrassed. And please, don’t walk away from an unruly tot in places like shopping centres. It is scary enough to be out of control without also feeling abandoned. The best thing you can do is scoop up your child and leave.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #8: Offer Comfort
Because you know your child best, you’ll know whether this is a ‘tiny tanty’ or a major blow-out, and whether he is better letting off steam by himself (with you nearby) or whether he needs to be removed from an overwhelming situation and held firmly but calmly. If your child is thrashing wildly and at risk of hurting himself or others, you can help him by using a technique known as ‘holding’. This will only work if you can keep yourself calm ” the idea isn’t to restrain
your child, but to help him feel secure and emotionally held.
Sit against a wall, if possible, to support your back, and breathe deeply to calm yourself. Psychotherapist Dr Margot Sunderland advises: ‘Visualise yourself as a lovely warm, calm blanket.’ Now envelop your child by holding him with his back to you (if he kicks, he will be kicking away from you) and folding your arms over his. If he is a bigger toddler, take an arm in each of your hands and cross his arms. You can also cross your legs over his to contain his legs and prevent kicking. Hold him calmly and use a gentle tone to say soothing words (‘It’s all right, I am going to hold you until you calm down’), allowing him to release his angry feelings. He won’t be in any space to reason with and will, in any case, not be able to activate the reasoning part of his brain while he is distressed. As your tot calms, let him lie in your arms and cuddle until he is over his blow-out. Then offer him reassurance and a different, preferably quiet, activity.
If you find walking away works for your child during a fairly mild tantrum, return when he settles, hug him and say, ‘I’m still here and I love you.’ Giving reassurance is not giving in. Just as adults need comfort when they feel upset or overwhelmed, toddlers need to know they are loved, even when their behaviour isn’t lovable, and by hugging him when he is calm you are rewarding him for settling down. By showing your child that you are in charge, he will feel secure and safe enough to let out his feelings and then move on.
Toddler Tantrum Tip #9: Express Your Own Feelings Appropriately
Supporting your child’s emotional fallouts goes hand in hand with acknowledging and expressing your own feelings appropriately and honestly. It can also help to think about which of your child’s feelings you have the most difficulty dealing with, and to try to understand your child’s perspective by trying to recall your own feelings as a child. Think of a time when you felt upset as a child and the response of adults in your world was unsupportive. Were you belittled for crying? Punished for expressing anger? Now, imagine how you would have liked to be treated.
Recommended Reading For Parents Of Toddlers
BellyBelly recommends the following books which are brilliant for toddlers and behavioural issues:
- Toddler Tactics by Pinky McKay
- What Every Parent Needs To Know by Margot Sunderland
- Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt