Every parent experiences temper tantrums at least once (ok, maybe usually more than once!). They can be embarrassing and frustrating. They can get you those ‘bad parent’ stares. Or they can interrupt your outing. And, certainly they can put a downer on your day. But if all kids do this, we have to ask, what are ways to understand and solve temper tantrums in toddlers and young children?
It turns out, this topic has been researched, and there are answers. While you could google many tips on controlling temper tantrums, we’ve found there are three ‘keys’ to managing these strong emotions in your young child (note the emphasis on young child…as the solutions may be different as they grow into older kids or teens).
Give your child a choice, rather than an ultimatum, to foster the feeling of independence
The thing with temper tantrums is that they’re usually communicating more than the demands the tantrum is about. To understand a temper tantrum in a toddler or young child, you need to know what is going on in their minds. These are namely:
- They are frustrated and don’t know how to express themselves
- They are trying to assert themselves
- They want to control something in their lives
Think about it: toddlers are little human beings who don’t technically get a say in anything. They have to do whatever mom and dad say all the time. They rarely get a choice. That’s frustrating for anybody. And while you may think they’re too little to have these feelings, remember that they are just bundles of little ‘humanoids.’ They are pre-programmed to become adults just like us. That is to say, a person wanting control is a given. No matter how much they love your unconditional cuddles too.
Now, when you add fatigue, hunger, neglect and communication issues to the mix, you can imagine how much worse the issue of control can get. It’s can be the ‘straw that breaks that camel’s back.’ Everything is going wrong in their little lives, and now they also have to eat that yucky broccoli?! Nope. They’re ‘throwing in the towel.’ Enough is enough. And so, you get the ‘resistance movement’ happening.
The parent, of course, is thinking, “little kid, you have no idea how good you have it.” But that’s definitely not what the toddler is thinking while having a tantrum.
The good thing about all this is that while a toddler is not too young to experience all these upsetting emotions, or to make demands of their own, they are young enough to be outsmarted by grown-ups from time to time. Ha!
So, you can ‘trick’ your toddler into believing they have a choice, and their own independence, by giving them select options.
Instead of saying “eat your broccoli,” you can turn that into, “do you want broccoli or peas?” See what a difference that makes? Now it’s not a demand, it’s a choice. Granted, for the time being, you’ll be hoping they don’t realize there’s a third or fourth option in the mix!
Of course, that’s bound to happen, because those little humans are smarter than we think, and they learn fast. So for that reason, there are more steps to solving temper tantrums in toddlers and young children.
Communicate acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, without giving in to the toddler tantrum
The other part to solving temper tantrums has to do with your reaction to them. While the internet may lead you to articles that advise you to ignore the bursts of anger and resistance, that alone isn’t the only fix.
Firstly, remember what we mentioned above: the child is trying to communicate something, which they can’t easily do for their age. Something else is wrong, and it’s not just about the toy in the store they can’t have or the washing of hands they don’t want to do.
Toddlers need to understand that despite their inappropriate attempts to get what they want, and to get it now, life doesn’t always work that way. So in addition to not acknowledging the temper tantrum, you also need to assert that your word stands.
When asserting yourself over the toddler’s assertions, of course you need to play this out carefully. Don’t lose it, and don’t let them get hurt (physically). Remember, they’re not on the same page as you: they’re emotional, and emotional doesn’t translate to rational. So you can acknowledge the emotion, without agreeing to the reaction or the demand. In other words, “You’re sad, I know. Come and talk to mommy when you’re done crying.”
They can take a minute or two to have their fit (however embarrassing it may be). But the result of that is not that they’re going to have their way. You can hear them out when they’re ready to stop. But they still have to wash their hands and they still don’t get the toy.
Over time, the hope is that they’ll understand what works, and what doesn’t, when trying to get what they want. Or, they’ll understand that sometimes, no is just no. But that doesn’t mean the world is over.
Use prevention techniques to understand and solve temper tantrums
The third key to solving temper tantrums in toddlers and young kids is about prevention. Yes, prevention is the best medicine, even when it comes to illogical toddler emotions.
Prevention can mean many things, however this third key to controlling bad toddler behaviour is usually defined as the following practical tips:
- Applauding good behaviour when it happens. For example, “Thank you for waiting your turn! That’s very nice of you! I like when you are patient.”
- Helping your child communicate their feelings through the introduction of new words or actions. For example, shaking your head back and forth to signal “no? You don’t like mushrooms?” or when they are clearly unhappy, ask them, “Are you feeling sad?” so they can learn that word.
- Giving your child advance notice of the instructions that are about to come. For example, “You can play for 5 more minutes, but then we are going to get ready for bed.”
- Reducing pressure on the child by ‘letting go’ of the unnecessary ‘rules’ that don’t change much. For example, “Ok, you don’t have to take a bath tonight, since you had one last night. But you’ll have one tomorrow.” Or, “Ok, you don’t have to eat now, but tell me when you’re hungry, and when you are, you’ll eat at the table, not on the couch.”
And of course, it goes without saying that a good nap can sometimes do just the trick!
To conclude: temper tantrums are normal, and not as bad as you may think
Temper tantrums are a part of normal growth and development in toddlers and young children. You’re not a bad parent if your child screams in a grocery store. Don’t forget, grocery shopping and running errands are super boring for kids. But you know what’s not boring? Candy and toys on the grocery store shelves. So this type of behaviour is to be expected.
If you feel your child is out of control and overly insistent, you’re most likely not alone. But if things start to cross lines, and you notice your child hurting themselves or others, then of course, it may be wise to ask a paediatrician. However, in most cases, it may just be a matter of practicing the above three tips on controlling these temper tantrums.