Tantrum Survival: How to Handle (and Avoid) Tantrums

Photo Chirag Rathod|CC

Here are some ways to lessen the number of temper tantrums your child has, to respond to a tantrum when it happens, and to help your child learn more about his feelings and healthy ways to express them.

How to Avoid Temper Tantrums

  • Observe your child. Because toddlers have a limited vocabulary, they can’t tell you what’s wrong. Parents can learn more by observing their behavior rather than trying to communicate directly. Observing their toddler allows parents to learn what they are interested in, what is important to them, what situations are hard for them and how they can most successfully manage those difficulties.
  • Offer toddlers choices. Toddlers need opportunities to practice making decisions. By offering them choices and listening to their ideas, they get to experience a sense of personal power and influence. Try: “Would you like water, or milk?”, rather than asking them an open-ended question about what they want to drink. By limiting choices, you can avoid the tantrum around “I want juice.”
  • Choose your battles. Setting limits with children is important, but there are also times that it is reasonable to negotiate. Choosing our battles allows us to keep our energy for the important issues and be more flexible about the little stuff.

How to Respond to a Tantrum

Finding a response that works best for both you and your child may take some experimentation. It helps to keep in mind that children’s expression of feelings helps them work through their emotions.

  • Accept crying. It is not the parent’s job to make crying stop. “Stop crying” techniques usually do not work because they teach children that their feelings are unacceptable or scary. It is not useful for us to shame or threaten children in an attempt to stop their tantrums. Instead, parents can teach them appropriate ways to express those feelings and let them know that they that feelings (even big, scary ones) are normal and ok to have.
    It’s important children know that you accept their angry feelings, even when you are stopping a particular behavior.
  • Listen to your child. Children often act out because they are begging for us to listen to them; to have someone who can hear and accept their frustration. Listening to your child may mean just sitting close or by verbally acknowledging feelings: “You seem really upset that you have the blue cup instead of the red one.”
  • Even if your child continues to cry, your “listening” is helpful. Your presence maybe what is allowing your child safely express their full feelings.

Tantrums are an opportunity to teach our children about how to deal with difficult feelings.

  • Keep your child safe. Sometimes children can express their anger and frustration in dangerous ways. If your child bangs his head, throws things or tries to hurt himself or you, you need to help keep things safe. You may need to physically hold your child, safely and gently, but firmly enough to keep you and him safe.

How to Deal with Difficult Feelings

  • Take Breaks. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay close and supportive when toddlers exhibit intense emotions. Rather than becoming angry yourself, take a step away, checking back frequently with your child to see how he is doing. When you leave the room, it is important that your child is safe, that you acknowledge that he needs some time to express his feelings, and that you tell him you will be back in a couple of minutes to check-in.
  • Offer safe outlets for your child’s anger. Everyone gets angry, but not everyone knows appropriate ways to handle that emotion. You can offer your child suggestions of safe ways to express his anger: “If you are mad you can say, ‘I don’t like that!!!’ Or, you can pound on this pillow.”
  • Talk about emotions. Teach your child words for their emotions. Try saying,“It looks like you are frustrated that we can’t go to the park right now.” “You sound angry when you yell.” As your toddler approaches age 3, your toddler will be more developmentally ready to communicate feelings via words, rather than tantrums.