Ages & Stages > Toddlers

Managing Your Toddler: TANTRUMS!

Tantrums are normal for kids this age, even legendary.  Toddlers feel so passionately about everything, and they simply don't have the capacity to control themselves yet. 

Photo: Kim WoodsThat said, you'll be glad to know that most tantrums are avoidable.  Since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, toddlers who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums. And since toddlers who are tired and hungry don't have the inner resources to handle frustration, the less often your toddler feels overwhelmed and powerless, the less often he'll tantrum. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

Here's how to tame those toddler tantrums:

1. Sidestep power struggles.  You don't have to prove you're right. Your child is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world.  That's totally appropriate.  Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights.

2. Since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead.  Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation --  whatever  it takes --  prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny. Learn to just say no  -- to yourself!  Don't squeeze in that last errand.  Don't drag a hungry or tired kid to the store. Make do or do it tomorrow.

3. Make sure your child has a full reservoir of your love and attention.  Kids who feel needy are more likely to tantrum.  If you've been separated all day, make sure you reconnect before you try to shop for dinner.

4. Try to handle tantrums so they don’t escalate.  It's amazing how acknowledging your child's anger can stop a brewing tantrum in its tracks.  Before you set a limit,  acknowledge what he wants.  "You wish you could have more juice, you love that juice, right?"  (Look, you've already got him nodding yes!)  Then set the limit:  "But you need to eat some eggs, too.  We'll have more juice later." (As you move his cup out of sight.)  If he responds with his anger, acknowledge it: "That makes you so mad.  You really want the juice." 

With toddlers, keep the number of words you use pared down:

"You are so mad!"
"We don't hit."

5. When your child gets angry, remember that all anger is a defense against more uncomfortable feelings -- vulnerability, fear, hurt, grief.  If you can get him to go back to those underlying feelings, his anger will dissipate.  "You want that.  You are mad and sad."  or "You're mad at Mommy because you don't want me to leave.  When I leave you miss me."  Usually at this point your child will cry, and you can hold him while he experiences his sadness.  After you've helped them get past their anger and discharge their sad feelings, kids usually need to snuggle a bit.

6.  If your kid does launch into a tantrum despite your best preventive efforts, remember not to sever the connection.  Stay nearby, even if he won't let you touch him.  He needs to know you're there, and still love him.  Be calm and reassuring.  Don’t try to reason with him. 

Think about what you feel like when you’re swept with exhaustion, rage and hopelessness.  If you do lose it, you want someone else there holding things together, reassuring you and helping you get yourself under control.

He also needs to know that as soon as he's ready, you'll help him recollect himself.  Afterwards, make up.  Take some “cozy time” together.  

After the tantrum:

First, make sure that your child gets enough “cozy time” with you that he doesn’t have to tantrum to get it. 

Second, don't give in to the original demand that prompted the tantrum.  Kids need to be reminded when a tantrum is brewing that if they have a tantrum you aren't allowed to even consider their request.  Unless they are really at the end of their rope, this message usually helps them pull it together enough for you to address the situation (i.e., “I guess we can’t do a big shop today.  We’ll just get the milk and bread and go home.  And here’s a cheese stick to eat while we wait in line.”