When you see other parents sharing their family picnics and eating cookies on social media, it can be easy to think that things are just harder for your family.
As the parent of a toddler, I know firsthand what it’s like to be a parent of a very opinionated and fiercely independent toddler. In just a few seconds, we can go from playing to her being so frustrated that she can’t talk.
Then, before I know it, she might drop to the floor and start screaming while rolling around and flailing her arms while kicking or hitting me if I get too close.
It can be hard when your mostly polite, mostly well-behaved toddler turns into a monster. And it’s even worse if their behavior turns you into a monster, causing you to say or do something that you’ll regret later, like yelling or caving into your children’s demands.
Sometimes, I didn’t even see it coming, and we go from zero to a full-blown level ten temper tantrums in just a few seconds.
It can be frustrating as a parent when you feel helpless, and sometimes it seems like nothing works.
Meltdowns are common with young children, and it’s actually a physiological response that happens after being triggered by the brain’s threat detection system. Researchers have found that tantrums occur in 87% of 18 to 24-month-olds, 91% of 30 to 36-month-olds, and 59% of 42 to 48-month-olds.
The good news is that the research also shows that most temper tantrums decrease in severity, frequency, and duration as your child gets older.
It’s helpful for you, as a parent, to understand what’s happening behind these tantrums so that you can mitigate the threat by helping your child feel safe.
If you’re taking this course, then you might be wondering what you did to provoke these outbursts. You may be feeling guilty or embarrassed or just exhausted from these tantrums.
It’s important to remember that these are a normal part of child development. There’s nothing wrong with your child. You’re not doing anything wrong, and you’re going to be okay. You both are going to get through this.
In this guide, we’re going to review the scientifically-proven ways to enhance and practice the behaviors and activities that can strengthen what researchers call executive function and self-regulation. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child says these skills are like the air traffic control system for your child’s brain. It allows them to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.
While tantrums are unpleasant, they’re a normal part of child development. Learning how to manage them is the key when you can’t prevent them, and it’s an important part of your parenting skill set. In this course, you’re going to learn the strategies that research shows can help reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of temper tantrums.
How meltdowns occur
When a baby is born, they don’t have a fully developed brain. At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons. In fact, you can think of the brain as a collection of telephone poles called neurons. The real magic though is in the connections between these brain cells, which are called synapses. There are thousands of synapses being formed every second as infants learn and develop.
The first circuits that the brain builds are critical functions like breathing. The brain will also build the circuits that govern emotion, like the ability to feel calm and relaxed and feeling distressed and tension. When a temper tantrum occurs, it involves two areas of the brain.
The first is the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions like fear or anger. And the second is the hypothalamus, which controls heart rate and temperature. The hypothalamus can trigger hormones that the body reacts to like adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Think of cortisol as the body’s built-in alarm system that controls your mood, motivation, and fear.
When your son or daughter starts screaming because they don’t want to go to bath time, it’s not because they’re trying to be difficult. Rather, something unexpected happened where they don’t feel in control, so his or her amygdala identifies this as a threat, and the hypothalamus steps in to trigger a reaction.
When this stress response happens, your child will feel their heartbeat racing, experience sweaty palms, and their muscles will tense up. You may have noticed already that reason and logic don’t work in calming tantrums. There is no way to use rational arguments to talk your way out of this.
Another reason for this is that the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain located in the frontal lobe, plays a central role in self-control or self-regulation.
As an adult, if someone cuts in front of you in line at the grocery store, it might make you upset. However, your prefrontal cortex is what allows you to slow down and decide not to overreact to the situation. The problem with temper tantrums is that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood. That’s why when you try to reason with a preschooler during a tantrum, you’re appealing to a part of the brain that just isn’t fully functioning yet.
When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, they will gain lifelong benefits.
Handling big feelings
As an adult, you have control over your strong emotions when it’s not appropriate to fully express them, but your young child probably hasn’t yet. The temper tantrums aren’t fun for you, and they aren’t fun for your child either, but it’s a normal part of being a toddler or preschooler.
85 percent of 2- and 3-year-olds have tantrums. And these usually start between 12 and 15 months old, while peaking between 18 and 36 months. Sometimes tantrums continue until the age of 4, when they usually less in frequency after the age of 4.
As a parent, it may make you feel angry, frustrated, humiliated, or scared. It may even make you question what you’ve done wrong. But you can rest assured that you’re doing a great job. And you are not responsible for this behavior because tantrums are normal. They are not a sign of sever emotional or personality disorders.
Research shows that all children have tantrums occasionally, especially around ages two and three. By using the skills that you’ll learn in this course, you can diminish the duration, intensity, and frequency of these tantrums.
If you look at the situation from your child’s point of view, then the world may seem really big, scary, and uncertain.
Development of Emotions
As your child grows, their behavior can sometimes make you happy and your heart warm. There are other times though where their behavior can drive you a little crazy. From dancing around the living room to throwing temper tantrums, they are expressing their feelings and needs, even if it’s not in the way that you’d like them to express feelings.
Part of your child’s behavior is innate, they were born that way. But there are also other influences on his or her behavior in addition to their genes. Your parenting style will affect your child’s behavior, and the role models that they encounter and imitate will also influence their behavior. From TVs to movies and social media. Everything from starting a new preschool to being sick can cause stress.
Everyone has feelings of anger and aggression occasionally, including your child. These are a normal and healthy part of growing up. As a toddler or preschooler, your child may lack the self-control to express anger peacefully. This leads to naturally lashing out, and sometimes even hitting or biting in frustration.
The Terrible Twos
During the toddler stage—age fifteen to thirty months—your child still building their expressive language skills. So their ability to articulate emotions like happiness, anger, and sadness are not fully developed yet. You’ve likely heard of the terrible twos, where toddlers get frustrated at anyone or anything limiting their ability to touch or do anything they want to do… even if they aren’t able to do it themselves yet.
Imagine wanting to express a feeling or desire, but not being able to communicate yet and everyone around you is giving you a look of confusion when all you want is your blue water bottle. How frustrating. This lack of independence and loss of control leads to frustration for toddlers.
You’d probably be frustrated too if you wanted a spoon, but you couldn’t reach the utensil drawer yourself, and everyone around you thought you were saying “stool” instead of “spoon.”
Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist, and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, wrote in their book, “The Whole-Brain Child,” children in this age group “haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment.”
Make sure to check out our full Parents Club book summary of The Whole-Brain Child in the summary section of the Parents Club app.
And when this happens, your child needs you to take control for them and to help him or her develop judgment, self-discipline, and other tools to express their feelings in more acceptable ways.
It can be hard to look back at your child that used to be so cuddly, warm, and loving as an infant. Your toddler isn’t out to get you. They’re not trying to make you upset. Your goal in this stage is to provide boundaries or set limits on their behavior so they don’t cause harm to themselves, to others, or to property. But your job is not to punish them.
Discipline versus Punishment
Many parents think that discipline and punishment are the same, but there’s a difference. Discipline is the process of teaching while having a good parent-child relationship. This often includes giving praise along with instructions using a firm tone. And the intention here is to improve your child’s behavior.
Punishment on the other hand is negative. It’s when you provide an unpleasant consequence when your child does or doesn’t do something. Punishments can be a small part of discipline, but until the age of three and sometimes even later, children just don’t understand the concept of punishments. That’s why they’re often ineffective or can even cause behavior to get worse.
A better approach is to set limits or boundaries instead of giving punishments. Most children will respond to clear, calm, and decisive limit-setting.
You have probably noticed that your preschooler or toddler is very eager to take control. They want to be more independent than their skills and safety allow, and they don’t like having limits. In fact, in this developmental stage, saying the word “no” is a perfectly understandable and normal expression of your child’s need for independence.
So these temper tantrums are an expression of frustration. Your preschooler wants to make decisions, but they don’t know yet how to compromise, and they don’t deal very well with disappointment or restraint.
Another problem for your toddler is they can’t express their feelings very well in words yet, so instead, they act out in anger and frustration by crying or yelling or throwing their bodies to the ground kicking and screaming.
Even though these temper tantrums aren’t fun for anyone, the good news is that they are rarely dangerous. And your job as a parent is to support building this independence while ensuring your child’s safety and the safety of those around them (including yourself!).
Before a tantrum
It is possible to prevent frequent temper tantrums that commonly occur because of triggers like being tired, hungry, sick, injured, or frustrated. In a 2019 research article published by Dr. Laura Sisterhen, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas, it’s recommended that parents use the C.A.L.M. acronym before a tantrum starts.
There are four simple steps to help prevent tantrums:
- First, communicate well with your child.
- Next, attend to the child’s needs.
- Third, let the child share their feelings and listen.
- And lastly, make nap times and mealtimes a daily routine.
In the next few sections, we’ll go deeper into each of these methods to prevent tantrums.
You can often see the signs that a temper tantrum is coming. And before a tantrum starts is the best time to avoid one from happening in the first place. Some children may seem more sullen or irritable than usual. So if you notice that playing with him or her or gentle affection doesn’t change their moodiness, then it might be time to take action to avoid a tantrum.
Common reasons for tantrums may be because they’re tired, hungry, or lonely. When you add that on top of trying to do something that’s beyond their capabilities or asking for something that they can’t have, you can often see early signs like whimpering or whining.
Tantrums are more common in the mid-morning or late afternoon. Those are the times where adults may be craving a second cup of coffee, but for toddlers, it’s also hard to managing their emotions when they feel tired or hungry.
Sometimes there are specific situations that will trigger tantrums. By keeping an eye out for the signs, you can avoid them when possible. If your child always makes a scene in the grocery store, then perhaps you can go grocery shopping before picking up your preschooler from day care. Or if one of her friends always gets your child worked up, then you could separate them for a few days or weeks and see if the interpersonal dynamics improve in the future.
If you’re going to be away from the house for a bit, then planning ahead means bringing extra snacks. By planning ahead, you can make sure that you’re home from the park with plenty of time before nap time.
If leaving the park is always a problem, then you can plan your transition home in advance. This might involve repeated reminders about when it’s time to leave the park or even setting a timer together on a phone.
You can make a plan with your child, and give updates, like, “let’s set a timer so that we know when it’s time to go home for lunch. can you help me set a timer for 15 minutes?”
Let your child press the start button on the timer so that they feel in control and involved in the plan. Then give updates at 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 2 minutes so that you can follow through with the plan that you’ve laid out.
You want to share the plan. So if temper tantrums occur when asked to go to bed, it is important to be sure children know when bedtime is scheduled so they can prepare themselves earlier in the evening. If bedtime is 8 p.m. it may be necessary to remind children at 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. that bedtime is at 8 p.m. so they will be prepared.
By planning ahead and giving yourself extra time just in case your child does have a tantrum, you can help make sure that your frustration doesn’t make the situation worse.
Attend to the child’s needs
For discipline to be effective, it must be consistent. This starts from a young age with parents smiling at their smiling baby and continues for all positive and appropriate behaviors. If your child feels encouraged and respected, they are much more likely to listen, learn, and change when necessary. Rather, if they feel demeaned and embarrassed, then your requests may not be as peaceful.
It’s always more effective to positively reinforce desired behaviors and to teach children alternative behaviors instead of just merely saying, “stop it!”
When you ask your toddler to do something, use a positive and friendly tone of voice and phrase your request like an invitation instead of a command. Of course, needless to say, it helps to say “please” and “thank you.” That’ll also have the added bonus of modeling the behavior that you’d like to see them use themselves.
It’s much easier to encourage good behavior through positive reinforcement than punishments when they’re disobedient. You can reward good behavior with praise and attention. If you notice your child sharing toys while playing with others, you could say, “Thank you so much for sharing! you’re doing such a great job being nice and playing gently with others!”
Young children seek out parental attention of any kind. In their minds, there’s no difference between good attention and bad attention, because all attention from parents is desirable. By using positive reinforcements frequently, you’ll be encouraging good behavior. Make sure to save your biggest reactions for the behavior that you’d like to see more of in the future.
Another suggestion supported by some researchers is to provide five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Positive interactions include spending time alone with a parent, providing material objects such as a sticker chart to earn a reward which may be a favorite toy, or giving verbal praise such as saying “thank you for sharing,” or “you are such a helpful boy/girl.”
Children don’t know the rules of your house until they’re taught the rules. It’s natural for toddlers to be interested in touching and exploring the home. If there are objects that you don’t want your child to touch, then it’s best to hide or remove them. Children often will have tantrums as a result of frustration, so childproofing cabinets that you want to keep your child out of can help prevent tantrums by minimizing the need for you to have to say no.
You can also consider setting up a safe space or a separate portion of your home where he or she can explore and play with books or toys freely. Having an area with age-appropriate toys can be really helpful to encourage safe exploration and avoid the cabinets that you don’t want your children getting into.
The goal is to be aware of what is frustrating children and remove the source of frustration if possible. However, if he or she becomes frustrated, you should try to distract them and remain calm so the frustration does not escalate into a tantrum. We’ll talk more about that in the “During the tantrum” section of this course.
Let the child share their feelings and listen
When you let your child control decisions, it can help allow your child to share their feelings while also showing them that you are listening. One of the best ways to prevent temper tantrums is to give age-appropriate choices. In building independence, your toddler wants to make decisions, so you can avoid tantrums by providing child-appropriate choices.
This might include decisions like, “do you want to walk up the stairs or do you want to fly up the stairs through the moon and the stars?” or you could ask, “do you want to read a book or draw with crayons?”
When you give choices, you have to make sure that each choice is possible and reasonable. That means that the choices should not be open-ended questions. An open-ended choice would be something like, “what do you want to eat for your snack?”
If you ask an open-ended question, then your child may respond that they want ice cream. And if that occurs, then you have to honor that choice.
A better choice is one that includes two options that are acceptable to both you and your child. So you may ask, “would you rather have guacamole or a cheese stick for your snack?”
Sometimes going to the park isn’t an option, so you’ll want to show some flexibility. When you offer choices, do not ever offer a choice where none exists.
For example, if it’s a health or safety decision, then that’s a parent’s decision. However, a child’s decision may be something like wearing clothes that don’t match, where you can choose to let the child make the decision that’s not ideal, but still okay.
You don’t want to make deals either. Some decisions are parent decisions, like bath time, bedtime, and what is being served for dinner. You want to avoid awarding extra cookies or trips to the park for cooperating with rules. Using bribery will just teach your child that they can break the rules whenever you forget to give them the agreed-upon reward.
In other instances, your child may not make the best decision. For example, if it’s cold outside and they don’t want to wear a jacket, then you may say, “You can either wear your jacket or you have to carry it with you or I will carry your jacket. Which do you want?” By letting them make this choice, they’ll likely realize that they are cold once they go outside and want to put on their jacket.
By offering limited choices when possible, it lets your child decide which pajamas to wear, which story to read, or which toys to play with. You can encourage independence in these areas so that they are much more likely to comply when it matters. It’s so important to pick your battles as a parent so that you aren’t saying “no” too often. If a request is reasonable, you should consider saying “yes” as much as possible.
On the other hand, if the request is not safe, like riding a bike in the middle of the street, where the child’s safety or someone’s safety is at risk, then you shouldn’t say “yes.”
Negativism or saying “no” is common in the toddler period. As a toddler separates from the parent, recognizes his or her own independence, negativism occurs. This is a normal developmental occurrence and they’re not doing it as a form of deliberate defiance. Avoid asking yes or no questions, as the toddler’s usual response will be “no,” whether they mean it or not. Offering the child a simple choice will give the toddler a sense of control. The parent should not ask the toddler if he or she “wants” to do something if there is actually no choice. “Do you want to use the red cup or the blue cup?” is more appropriate than “Do you want your milk now?”
When it is time to go outside, don’t ask, “Do you want to put your shoes on?” Instead, state in a matter-of-fact tone that the shoes must be worn outside, and give the toddler a choice of type of shoe or color of socks. If the child continues with negative answers, then you should remain calm and make the decision for your child.
As children get older and they’re better able to communicate their desires, needs, and frustrations through words, it’s important to teach them to express their emotions verbally instead of through tantrums.
You can encourage this by asking them if they’re feeling angry, sad, tired, or hungry so that you can help them feel better. Younger children often don’t have the vocabulary yet to describe how they feel. You can provide examples of “feeling” words to teach children how to start expressing their feelings through words instead of actions.
You can provide examples of feeling words such as “angry,” “sad,” “tired,” or “hungry.” Offering facial depictions of feelings (such as a sad face, angry face, and happy face) allows toddlers to select the picture that best describes their feelings. When children are older, you should teach them to express emotions verbally.
Make nap times and mealtimes a daily routine
It’s not possible to prevent every single tantrum, however, you can decrease the number, duration, and severity of tantrums by making sure that your child doesn’t get too tired, hungry, overly anxious, or unnecessarily frustrated.
Keeping consistent routines, such as when bedtime will occur or when it’s time to eat lunch will help avoid surprises and unexpected events in your toddler’s mind.
If you are away from home or miss your regular meal times, having simple, healthy snacks like fruit, vegetables, or hummus can avoid tantrums related to hunger.
Even if they don’t take a nap, it’s really helpful to have enough “quiet time,” especially if he or she is sick or anxious. Even if they don’t sleep, lying down for fifteen or twenty minutes can help restore energy and reduce the likelihood of tantrums from being too tired or even exhausted.
Research shows that children who do not nap may be prone to more frequent tantrums, so one way to help is to ensure that there’s a daily quiet time that’s consistent and regularly scheduled.
If he or she resists the quiet time, you may consider lying down with him or her to read a book, but try to avoid playing or excessive talking.
As you already know, it’s hard to stop a tantrum once it starts, so being able to identify triggers really helps prevent them in the first place. Some of these common triggers are when he or she doesn’t want to change activities, becomes frustrated, or just being away from home too long… which could lead to being tired or hungry.
Therefore, it is important to maintain consistency and developmentally appropriate behavioral expectations and rewards when changing activities or taking the child out of the house. In addition, the child needs to have a daily routine as much as possible, especially one that includes meals and naps at specific times. This will help the child know what to expect every day and help parents avoid activities near naptime or mealtime because research shows that tantrums may occur or become worse when the child is tired or hungry
Children don’t like to be surprised, and when something unexpected happens, it makes them feel like they’re not in control. One tool that may help is using visible checklists and schedules to help transition more smoothly.
This is particularly helpful if the tantrums happen in the transition from one routine to another—for example—the transition from the dinner table to the bathtub. Or transitioning from the playground to nap time.
By making a magnetic calendar, dry erase board or poster board with stickers, you can create simple daily routine charts. Stickers are a great way to track chores, potty usage, or other behaviors that you want to reinforce.
When you fail to set appropriate limits, are too strict, or forget to reinforce good behaviors, it’ll lead to more frequent and severe tantrums than children with parents who take a moderate approach.
It’s best to set very few limits but to be firm about the limits that you do set. It’s normal for your child to tell you “no” a few times a day. When that happens, don’t overreact. Many toddlers will say “no” to any request or instruction… even one that involves cookies or ice cream. The true intention here is that he or she wants to be in control. Instead of punishing your child for saying no, you should respond by repeating your request calmly and clearly.
You can let him or her make age-appropriate decisions when it’s a minor issue. For example, if they want to wander slowly to the park instead of walking quickly to get there. Or if they don’t want to get dressed before breakfast.
However, as a parent, it’s your job to step in and make parent decisions. These are decisions that involve safety like running into the street. Another example might be keeping your seat belt on while the car is moving. In this situation, it’s your job to ensure their safety, even if you have to hold them physically. If your toddler runs into the street, you must stop them and insist that they listen to you.
Another area to be mindful of your boundaries involves using screen-time or the TV to regulate difficult emotions. In one study with 269 toddlers and their parents, researchers found that higher levels of screen time were associated with more problematic media use and more extreme emotions when the media was removed. You probably don’t need research to know that taking away the iPad can cause tantrums, but you should avoid using screen-time as the primary way of regulating your child’s emotions.
You can do this in a way that’s firm, but still loving. Consistency is key too because he or she won’t learn the lesson unless you respond the same way every time she violates the boundaries or rules. You’ll also want to make sure that every adult who cares for your children follows the same boundaries and disciplines in the same manner.
Kids with serious temper problems aren’t consciously throwing tantrums, but they may have learned, through reinforcement from adults, that tantrums get results. If a child encounters a problem, doesn’t know how else to handle it, and resorts to tantrums, they may well learn that, over time, this helps them get their way. Being inconsistent with boundaries leads to a vicious cycle because instead of practicing the regulation skills that help children solve problems in a productive way, they end up learning that having tantrums solves their problems. This results in more frequent tantrums in the future since this is their learned behavior.
During a tantrum
The acronym R.I.D.D. can help parents and caregivers handle a typical tantrum (Sisterhen, 2021)
- Remain calm. State firmly “no biting” in a neutral tone. A quiet approach emphasizing redirection and distraction is useful. The statement “no biting” is appropriate to the developmental level of the toddler.
- Ignore the tantrum.
- Distract the child. The caregiver may need to leave the room, building, or premises with the child and wait for it to stop.
- Do say “yes” when meeting the child’s physical and safety needs, but don’t give in to demands. Giving in to demands may reinforce undesired behaviors.
During tantrums, one of the best things you can do is to remain calm. It’s one of the most important things you can do.
If you have loud, angry outbursts, then your child will naturally imitate your behavior. If you shout at him or her to calm down, then you could make the situation worse.
Your goal during a tantrum is to be a peaceful parent. By maintaining a peaceful atmosphere, it’ll reduce the general stress level and make both you and your child feel better and in more control.
So before you engage with your upset child, it’s important that you first regulate your own stress response. As an adult, you have the ability to self-regulate and control your reaction. If you’re not calm, it is much harder for your child to calm down.
It’s not your fault that your child is having a tantrum, so don’t take it personally. It is your job to help your child feel safe and to help guide them out of their tantrum. Stop to take a moment to just breathe. Box breathing is a great technique to quickly bring calmness to your own body.
If you have to leave the room, and it’s safe to do so, then you might leave the room to take a few deep breaths so that you can lower your own frustration before reengaging with your child. You need to bring your own calm state in order to calm your child.
The brain has cells that have mirror neurons that fire in response to your behavior and other people’s behaviors. Research shows that parents’ reactions affect their kids and in some instances, even their newborn babies. The part of your brain that is active when you feel happy may also light up when you observe happiness in others.
So the best thing that you can do during a temper tantrum is to bring an environment of calmness to de-escalate the situation.
A lot of this comes down to focusing on your actions and body language rather than your words. Your child can mirror your emotions just by reading your nonverbal communication like body posture, vocal tone, and facial expressions.
When you engage with your toddler during a tantrum, it’s best to crouch down and make eye contact with your child during the tantrum. By couching down to their level, it helps show that you’re listening and engaged.
When you think about the world of a toddler, everyone else can be big and scary, so by coming lower to the ground, it helps your child feel safer and less threatened.
One method of calming is to offer to hug or hold your child. This is different than physically restraining them or forcing him or her to hug you against their will. Some kids like the physical touch from a parent, while others might have the opposite reaction. They may find the physical touch overwhelming. So it’s best to read their body language to understand your unique child’s preferences. For some children, an expression of your love and affection may be comforting to reassure a child who feels overwhelmed.
Ignore the tantrum
One way to bring calmness to the situation is to ignore the tantrum. That doesn’t mean that you ignore your child. It’s best to stay in the room and be physically and emotionally available. You want to combine your calmness with warm and empathetic words and body language. You want to signal to the amygdala that there’s no danger, and you can do that by making your child feel safe. When the amygdala no longer perceives a threat, then it’ll stop sending out the alarm that causes the stress response.
You can refuse to engage with the crying and screaming while still focusing on helping your child with an unrelated need. For example, if they are whining and crying because they can’t wear sandals in the rain, you can ignore the shoes and help them pick out the rest of their outfit instead.
Children sometimes have outbursts as a way to get attention, so you want to save your biggest reactions for positive behavior. With older children, ignoring the tantrum is particularly effective if you can instead focus on behaviors that deserve positive attention.
Distract, distract, distract
Another way to avoid tantrums is to distract him or her. There’s nothing wrong with this. As long as you’re not bribing your child to behave differently by offering sweet snacks or screen time, then there’s nothing wrong with intentionally changing their focus.
If a child’s sibling took one of their toys, you may be able to quickly end the tantrum by offering them a different toy.
Sometimes gentle restraint, holding, or distracting comments like “Did you see what the puppy is doing?” or “oh, someone just rang the doorbell” will interrupt behavior like kicking or biting before it reaches a level 10 tantrum.
You can also move physical locations, like going to another room or leaving the grocery store, as a form of distraction.
Even putting on your child’s favorite song can be an effective form of distraction. This often works better with younger kids, who have shorter memories and may easily forget their frustrations.
Another great strategy, if you feel yourself losing control, is to use humor. Instead of getting into a dispute about bath time, you can turn the journey to the bathroom into a race.
You can also soften your directions like “putting away your toys” by making a funny face or using a funny voice. If your child isn’t overtired or hungry, chances are using a bit of fun or humor can turn a temper tantrum into obedience through the art of distraction.
Lastly, you can encourage your child to self-regulate or self-soothe with calming sensory inputs. This might involve using fidget spinners, silly putty, or pushing against a wall. Even encouraging your child to take slow, deep breaths with you can help build critical coping skills so that they can better self-regulate in the future before a full-blown meltdown hits.
Do say yes
If you’ve asked your preschooler not to throw a ball against the window, then you can show them where they can throw it instead.
Validate the feelings
During a tantrum, using logic and explanation is a losing strategy. Explaining to your child why they should calm down rarely works during an escalated situation. Instead, a better strategy is to validate the feeling by using words to describe how your child may be feeling and validating that it’s okay to feel that way.
This might sound like, “I see that you’re not smiling and that you’re frustrated that it’s time to take a bath. It’s okay to feel frustrated.”
This strategy is called forming a story about the meltdown. You can do this by validating how hard the moment was and repeating back what happened.
The goal is to connect with your child and show them that you love them. You might say something like, “It’s okay to feel frustrated. You’re a great kid, and I love you so much. I’ll always be here for you. We’re going to get through this together.”
When you focus on connecting during meltdowns instead of trying to change the behavior, then it helps build the skills to self-regulate while also giving your young child the words to describe how they feel.
Part of the reason that children scream and cry is that they don’t have the tools yet to express their feelings in a calmer way. By validating the feelings and forming a story, it helps build the words to describe their feelings in the future. And it’ll help you better understand each other and grow closer together.
Some parents feel guilty when they say “no” to their children. You should avoid trying to explain the rules or apologize for them. By the age of two or three, children can detect uncertainty in your tone of voice, and young children are constantly testing your limits.
If you give in to your child’s demands, then it’ll cause longer and even more severe tantrums in the future. When you make exceptions to your limits, to your boundaries, then it makes it more difficult for them to understand which of them are firm and which can be questioned in the future.
When you set boundaries, you should state your position clearly and firmly. As your child gets older, you can add brief, simple reasons for your rules, but you still don’t want to go into long, confusing explanations.
The most important boundaries are the ones that keep your child safe or not destroy property. You’ll want to pick your battles, but stay firm and follow through on your asks.
So if you ask your child to do something that they don’t want to do, you should still follow through with your request. If you ask your child to put away their toys, then you could offer to help him or her with it.
If you’ve reminded your child not to touch the hot oven door, then you can remove him or her from the kitchen or stay there with them to make sure that they don’t touch the hot door. You’d never want to give a safety-related direction to a two or three-year-old and then leave the room.
Staying firm also means intervening when a child is hitting, kicking, or biting someone. The best course of action here is to hold the child or to separate them from the other person until the behavior stops and the child calms down.
Many tantrums happen when children are asked to do something they do not want to do. However, it is especially important for you not to give in even if a tantrum occurs, because this may cause negative reinforcement. For example, if children are having tantrums because they do not want to go to bed and you allow the child to stay up, they will learn parents often give in to requests if they make a big enough fuss. When parents give in to tantrums, it teaches children to act inappropriately to get their way.
You may be tempted to use bribes or rewards for good behavior. For example, “If you take a nap right now, then I’ll give you a cookie after you wake up.” This may immediately stop the tantrum and be beneficial in the short term. However, it teaches children that if they act inappropriately,
There are varying perspectives on time-outs when your child’s behavior is inappropriate. But it’s also important to understand what this doesn’t mean. A time-out doesn’t mean sending your child to their room as punishment or making them sit in the corner.
An acceptable timeout is a technique where you tell the child in a calm voice that you will wait for him or her to calm down, and that you look forward to talking again once that happens. This can be really helpful if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says it can be used in children as young as one year old. However, these timeouts should be a last resort. You can have your child sit in a chair or go to a boring place without other distractions. The goal is to give him or her time to calm down. You want to explain to your child what you’re doing and why, but without a long lecture.
The timeout should end as soon as they have calmed down. Ending the time out once they are quiet still reinforces the desired behavior. Once they have learned to calm themselves down, a rule of thumb that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends is one minute of time out for each year in your child’s age. So a four-year-old should have a four-minute time out. Then, when the time out is over, there needs to be plenty of positive attention when your child is doing the right thing.
Sometimes a time-out or cool-down period is helpful to calm down. However, you want to avoid using a time-out too often, because research shows that this strategy becomes less effective when over-used.
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. If the spanking happens, parents should later explain calmly why they did it, the specific behavior that provoked it, and how angry they felt. They might also apologize to their child for their loss of control. This helps the children understand and accept the spanking, and it shows them how to repair a relationship when damage is done.
Research shows that physical punishment may actually cause tantrums to last longer and become more intense. It also has the consequence of teaching your children that hitting is permitted when you’re angry or frustrated.
Research also shows that physical punishment will probably just prolong the tantrum and in fact produce more intense negative behavior.
After a tantrum
Repeating the request
When the tantrum is over, don’t dwell on it. Try to resist the urge to lecture your child after it’s done. For young children, they might not even remember the tantrum or understand what you’re talking about. And for older children, it’s not helpful to make them feel ashamed about it. It’s not helpful to relive or shame the tantrum, because it won’t prevent it in the future, and it could just reignite the tantrum if they feel guilty.
If the tantrum was triggered by a request from you, then calmly repeat it while remaining composed. By doing so, it’ll help encourage the understanding that acting out is a waste of time and won’t help avoid the request.
The emotional explosion from tantrums will serve as a form of energy release, which often can exhaust your preschooler so much that he or she may fall asleep soon after the tantrum.
The good news is that when they awaken, they’ll often be calm and their behavior is quiet and pleasant.
If he or she is sick or there’s a lot of tension in the house, then the frustration may start to build all over again. Children who are anxious, sick, or temperamental will have tantrums more frequently if they don’t get enough rest or sleep at night or during daytime naps.
When to seek help
Even though tantrums are a normal part of a toddler’s behavior, extreme meltdowns may indicate more serious issues. If your child is having tantrums five to ten times a day, they last longer than 10 minutes, or they include aggression and destruction of property, then you should consider seeing help from a medical professional.
Tantrums in 3- to 4-year-olds may indicate the children have not learned how to cope with frustration. As children grow older they learn to identify feelings, communicate these feelings to others, and act appropriately, rather than having a temper tantrum.
Finally, the research shows that persistent negative moods, negative behaviors between tantrums, or recurrent tantrums at school are considered abnormal.
Table 1. Normal and abnormal tantrums
|Normal temper tantrum||Abnormal temper tantrum|
|Age||Age 1-4||Past the age of 4|
|Behavior||Crying, flailing arms or legs, falling to the floor, pushing, pulling, or biting||Injury to themselves or others during tantrums|
|Duration||Up to 15 minutes||Lasting longer than 15 minutes|
|Frequency||Less than five times a day||More than five times a day|
|Mood||Should return to normal between tantrums||Persistent negative mood between tantrums|
By the time your child is in kindergarten, tantrums should only happen no more than once a week.
When you see these warning signs, it could be an indication that the excessive tantrums are psychological or related to anxiety or depression.
If you’re concerned about your child’s tantrums, you can consult the topic article on pediatric mood disorders in our topics section of the Parents Club app, which can help identify when it’s time to reach out to a cognitive therapist.
There are many strategies such as parent-child interaction therapy, where a therapist monitors how you interact with your child from another room while guiding and communicating with you through an earpiece. Many professionals consider this to be the gold-standard treatment for behavioral issues in children.
Occasional temper tantrums during the preschool years are normal and they should become less frequent by the time they’re four years old. Between tantrums, your child should behave like other kids his or her age. And their normal behavior shouldn’t lead to them causing harm to themselves or others. This includes destroying property.
If you see outbursts that are very severe, frequent, or prolonged, then it could be an early sign of an emotional disturbance.
There are a few signs that you should keep an eye out for to know if and when it’s time to talk to your pediatrician.
Number one is if the tantrums persist or get more intense after the age of four.
Second, if your child injures him or herself or others, or destroys property during tantrums.
The third red flag is if your child has frequent nightmares, extreme disobedience, reversal of potty training, headaches or stomachaches, or refusal to eat or go to bed. Other signs are extreme anxiety, constant grumpiness, or clinging to you.
And the last sign that is urgent is if your child holds their breath and faints during tantrums. In this case, your doctor may examine them for other causes of fainting, such as seizures.
If your doctor or health care professional feels that the tantrums may indicate a severe emotional disturbance, then they may refer you to a child psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
Although the majority of temper tantrums in toddlers are typical and part of normal toddler behavior, atypical tantrums can be a sign of behavioral and psychiatric disorders. Children with language deficits or autism may have more frequent and aggressive tantrum behaviors because of the additional frustration associated with difficulty expressing themselves.
Only with you
It’s not uncommon for children to only have tantrums only when they are around or with other family members. Children are testing your rules and limits, so don’t be surprised if they seldom have tantrums with outsiders, where they may not dare to test the limits of someone he or she knows well well.
One of the best things you can do is not take the tantrums personally. Remember the R in R.I.D.D. You want to remain calm and understand that this behavior is normal and they’re not doing it on purpose to cause you pain or frustration. As ironic as it may seem, the occasional outbursts are actually a sign that your child trusts you and wants you to keep them safe and secure.
Holding their breath
Some children may fall to the ground or hold their breath during tantrums. This behavior of holding their breath can be scary because some children will hold their breath until they turn blue or even faint.
Breath-holding events may occur during tantrums and affect 0.1 to 4.6% of otherwise healthy children. Breath-holding spells typically occur between six months and five years of age, with onset between 6 and 18 months, and disappear by five years of age.
Research shows that iron therapy is effective in reducing the frequency and severity of breath-holding events in children with iron deficiency.
Even though this can be super scary to watch, the child’s normal breathing will resume as soon as they faint, and he or she will quickly completely recover soon after. Normally, children will awaken in thirty to sixty seconds.
It’s best to keep them safe and protected while trying not to overreact. If you have a big reaction to the tantrum, then it will reinforce the tantrum breath-holding behavior in the future. When you don’t reinforce this type of behavior, it’ll usually disappear after a short period of time.