There are so many things that make parenting wonderful. One thing is sure though – toddler temper tantrums aren’t one of them.
This article offers you strategies to help handle and navigate through these challenging situations.
Table of Contents
- First off, what are temper tantrums?
- How to respond to temper tantrums?
- 1. Start with yourself.
- 2. Practice calming strategies on yourself
- 3. Equip yourself with patience to try different things.
- 4. Track episodes, triggers and contexts of temper tantrums to identify patterns.
- 5. Pay close attention to warning signs.
- 6. Distract or redirect your child.
- 7. Hold your boundary.
- 8. Get past the anger phase as quickly as possible.
- 9. As they try to pull you in, stay out.
- 10. Firmly correct the behavior.
- 11. Take them to a quiet(er) place.
- 12. Provide a solid reason for your “no”.
- 13. Help them regain calm with breathing exercises.
- 14. Encourage them to use words.
- 15. Whenever possible, offer a choice.
- 16. Tell them what to do instead of what NOT to do.
- 17. If they are about to hurt themselves or others, protect them.
- 18. Keep the structure.
- 19. Praise and Reward the Comeback.
- How concerned should you be about temper tantrums?
- Temper tantrums vs. Meltdowns: Same or different?
- Can temper tantrums be a sign of autism?
- A few more words to help you hang in there.
First off, what are temper tantrums?
Temper tantrums is a term used to refer to behaviors that appear as a response to anger or frustration that seems too extreme to the situation that provoked it.
They include behaviors such as crying, stiffening limbs or arching back, screaming, breath-holding, flailing, going limp, hitting, throwing items, pushing, scratching, biting, running or running away. The behaviors look impulsive, out of control, unreasonable and alarming.
Needless to say, temper tantrums make a scene so unpleasant that is challenging to react to.
Tantrums tend to become stronger or more frequent as a child adopts them as the means of producing an environmental change that is in their favor, such as getting access to the item or activity, escaping or avoiding a task or getting someone’s attention. (1)
How to respond to temper tantrums?
As opposed to reacting, we are using the word responding to emphasize the awareness and intention we approach temper tantrums with. Responding to temper tantrums isn’t only about what you do once it is happening, but in between the episodes as well.
Here are our 18 suggestions to help handle temper tantrums with more ease and success.
1. Start with yourself.
Temper tantrums seem to bring out the worst in our kids, and parents may feel like it does the same to them. This is why it is necessary you start with yourself. Observe the immediate impulse to react. Do you feel like yelling, screaming or hitting too? Do you want to escape the situation or break down and cry? Observe the effect your emotions have on your behavior. It is important that you are aware of these turbulences within you. The goal is to become aware of all the buttons temper tantrums push within you.
2. Practice calming strategies on yourself
To respond to temper tantrums with focus and intention, you need to be able to regain your calm and practice self-control. This is going to be challenging, and especially if you are facing other struggles while trying to cope with temper tantrums. Try breathing or grounding exercises. Think of your own mantras. Kindly practice reminding yourself – I do not mirror my child’s emotions.
3. Equip yourself with patience to try different things.
Young children react and respond to strategies differently. Just as you think you’ve found what works for yours, you may need to change things around and try something new. It is important to mentally prepare that there are no single, unambiguous answers to what will be effective for your child. The best you can do, really – is to try over and over again, until you find something that can stick. (and take care of your own well-being as much as you can!)
4. Track episodes, triggers and contexts of temper tantrums to identify patterns.
To be able to choose strategies to respond with, it is necessary that we try to understand when, where and how temper tantrums happen. Create your own tracking sheet with these columns: Place, Time, People (who were present), Behaviors, Duration, My Reaction or Response, The Outcome. Note your observations and try to identify patterns. You may notice that your tantrums don’t just appear out of the blue – for example, they may appear more often in public places, when there’s a permissive grandparent involved, when a child is lacking sleep or when their routine is somehow interrupted.
5. Pay close attention to warning signs.
Turning from calm to temper tantrum may seem to happen really fast. Yet, most children show warning signs while they are still relatively calm. They may be cranky, hungry or sleepy, may had a bad day or were really bummed that you weren’t going to visit grandma, or may have missed you while you were on a business trip – all of these sensations and feelings accumulate and finally burst at the next boundary. Try to catch them early – acknowledge they are there before you push them one step forward and one step too much.
6. Distract or redirect your child.
“Look at this book! It’s so colorful. And here’s your favorite animal!”
The idea is to make them look in another direction. This strategy is quite effective with younger children for whom out of sight is easily out of mind. When redirecting them to the next activity, is useful to try to make a first step towards it and then start it and wait until they join you. The idea is that your company and attention will be more important to them than whatever they are having a temper tantrum over. Distraction and redirection do not need to offer the next great thing to do. “Go get dressed”, “go to your room”, “take a few minutes to calm down and come talk to me then” are also viable options.
7. Hold your boundary.
Temper tantrums can be an intentional boundary breaking strategy. In other words, a child figures out that the more they act out the more likely your “no” is to turn into “yes”. Therefore, it’s important that you stay consistent.
8. Get past the anger phase as quickly as possible.
The thorough analysis of temper tantrums in a research by Dr James Green, Dr Pamela Whitney and Dr Michael Potegal, suggests that they are composed of two emotions – anger and distress (amplified sadness). (2) Anger usually builds up fast. After its peak, anger steadily dissolves until what is left is sadness only – it is then that children look for comfort. Researchers suggest that the best way to do so is to do nothing. Explaining, asking questions or yelling yourself will prolong the anger.
9. As they try to pull you in, stay out.
If possible, direct them to their calm down space and make it clear that you are not going to give them any attention until they calm down, not through long explanations but by staying out. It is your behavior that will communicate more than your words in the anger phase of the tantrum.
10. Firmly correct the behavior.
Provide clear and understandable feedback. For example, if your child throws something in anger you might say: “We do not throw things when we are angry.” “This behavior is unacceptable.”. Your child needs to have the feedback that temper tantrums are not a way to communicate anger and are not justified by the emotions they feel. You need to look serious and firm, but not let your voice be powered by your own frustration into yelling.
11. Take them to a quiet(er) place.
It will be easier to calm down when they are not surrounded by an audience and the triggers that caused the temper tantrum. That means that you will sometimes need to literally carry or drag your toddler from a supermarket back into the car. When you are at home, it’s useful to create a calming down zone or a corner for a child to go to when they are having a temper tantrum.
12. Provide a solid reason for your “no”.
It is important for a child to understand what gives stability to your boundary.
“We cannot afford to spend money on this.”
“We agreed on having dinner first.”
“We have a clear rule – no electronics in bed.”
This way, a child learns that “no” is not arbitrary but relies on a set of rules and principles.
13. Help them regain calm with breathing exercises.
“I know you are upset. It is not okay to scream and lie on the ground. Look at me. Everything is going to be okay. Take my hand. Breathe. Inhale with me. Let’s exhale together.”
Whenever you feel you can reach your child with this strategy, it is worth a try. You probably won’t be using it in a full-blown temper tantrum, but you may find it useful when your child is on the brink of it.
Practice calming strategies when they are calm. Talk to them about the importance to stop, breathe and then use the words.
14. Encourage them to use words.
In the lack of ways to express how they feel verbally, children resort to temper tantrums. Research shows that toddlers with less expressive language are likely to have more severe tantrums. (3) In the lack of words, a temper tantrum is a child’s way of communicating that they are not okay or that they are not happy with the way things are. During temper tantrum episodes, they are unlikely to respond to your encouragement to use their words. Afterwards, however, it’s important that you help them verbalize the experience .
15. Whenever possible, offer a choice.
The more they take part in making decisions, the less likely they are to oppose them.
Would you like to go to the supermarket or stay at home?
Do you want to eat dinner now or in 10 minutes, when the cartoon is over?
You can always add something extra to the preferred option to make it more likeable.
16. Tell them what to do instead of what NOT to do.
“Don’t scream” or “stop biting” doesn’t communicate what they should do instead. It’s important that you ask them to do something instead, such as “get off the floor and sit down with me” or “tell me what’s wrong – use your words”. It’s important that they can hear from you what is the alternative to getting your attention and care.
17. If they are about to hurt themselves or others, protect them.
The frustration may take the form of physical aggression. This does not mean that it is your child’s intention to be aggressive towards themselves or others, but that it may be the only way they know to channelize anger. The priority is to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. Hold them tightly until they calm down physically. This is not the same as giving in. If they are so upset that they cannot manage their frustration in any other way, your words won’t reach them. If you yell back or spank them, their reaction is likely to be fueled by your own frustration. So, stay calm and hold them firmly.
18. Keep the structure.
It is very important that a child can predict what they will do next. The structure assumes them knowing when it is eating, sleeping or playing time. It is a way of setting some ground rules around which a child can learn to organize their behavior. When a child is not sure what to expect next, anything becomes a possibility – and there are more things to have temper tantrums about.
19. Praise and Reward the Comeback.
Coming back from a temper tantrum should feel rewarding for the child. Let them know that you are very proud of them for regaining calm or thank them for coming to talk to you in a calm manner. “I am proud of how you were able to calm down and come talk to me”
“Thank you for getting off of the floor and talking to me.”
How concerned should you be about temper tantrums?
Temper tantrums are, to a certain degree, one of the transitional stages to learning how to cope with frustrations. It is part of child development.
According to Dr. Michael Potegal, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, they usually occur between the ages of two and three, specifically in 87% of 18-24-month-olds, 91% of 30-36-month-olds and 59% of 42-48-month-olds. (4)
In other words, 2-year-old tantrums and 3-year-old tantrums are very common.
The frequency of temper tantrums differs, depending on the age, developmental stage and parental reaction.
We are not born with the ability to cope with frustration. Postponing our seemingly urgent short-term needs for long(er)-term ones is learning that happens during child development, as we improve our executive functioning. We learn that the answer to our needs can sometimes be “no” or at least, “not now” and we need to cope with the absence of something we wanted or needed for a time being.
As we mature, we learn to communicate our needs in means other than anger outbursts. However, when there are delays with expressing frustration verbally, this non-verbal communication of anger and frustration is likely to be prolonged and more intense.
Children struggling with language deficits or autism may have temper tantrums that are more frequent and intense. The difficulty of expressing frustration adds onto frustration they experience in specific situations.
If temper tantrums are severe in their intensity and last after the age of four, your child may benefit from some professional help.
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Temper tantrums vs. Meltdowns: Same or different?
Temper tantrums are often confused with meltdowns, as they look very similar if we compare them just by observing the behavior.
However, meltdowns are usually a result of a sensory overload. The brain is getting so much information that it’s hard to process it. A child feels overstimulated or overwhelmed.
On the other side, a temper tantrum usually has a purpose – such as communicating frustration, getting past the boundary set by the parent, a caregiver or others, drawing attention to what they need or getting attention from others.
Temper tantrums are also more intentional than meltdowns – they can be a choice. A child can choose to throw a temper tantrum, predicting the reaction it may provoke. In other words, a temper tantrum is goal-oriented and usually has an audience.
Can temper tantrums be a sign of autism?
Temper tantrums are not a sign of autism.
Children with autism spectrum disorders are likely to have a harder time regulating their emotions. The situations that children with no autistic symptoms learn to manage by the age of four, children with autism can continue to be frustrated with or overwhelmed by throughout life.
We have already described the difference between a temper tantrum and a meltdown. The chances are, what you see in autistic children will be meltdowns, not temper tantrums.
An autistic child is genuinely overwhelmed with their own sensations or emotions and unable to cope. They are not goal-oriented, but aim to relieve the amount of distress that a child can no longer hold in and can find no other way to express.
A few more words to help you hang in there.
No parent who is witnessing their child’s temper tantrum is immune to questioning themselves.
There’s no manual for parenting, so do not judge yourself harshly. You will figure this out.
Remember that every child is different. It takes patience and experimentation to reach the solutions that are worthwhile. As much as you are patient with your child, don’t forget to be patient with yourself.
Your self-care is an equal priority. You cannot pour from an empty vessel.
Tend to your exhaustion and irritability. It’s okay to admit that you are disappointed, annoyed, frustrated, and to acknowledge that there are times when your battery is below 5% and when your child’s tantrums are taking a toll on you. Whenever you can, recharge.
Hang in there, and good luck!
- Wilder, D. A., & Hodges, A. C. (2019). Tantrums. The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development, 1-11.
- Green, J. A., Whitney, P. G., & Potegal, M. (2011). Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children’s tantrums. Emotion, 11(5), 1124.
- Manning, B. L., Roberts, M. Y., Estabrook, R., Petitclerc, A., Burns, J. L., Briggs-Gowan, M., … & Norton, E. S. (2019). Relations between toddler expressive language and temper tantrums in a community sample. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 65, 101070.
- Potegal, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2003). Temper tantrums in young children: 1. Behavioral composition. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 24(3), 140-147.