I do believe that every single parent experiences some degree of the dreaded toddler tantrums. Whether it’s just the once or an everyday occurrence, it is just part and parcel of children learning and developing. We have personally been subjected to these tantrums in a variety of forms since our daughter turned 1. From the time we brought our son home from the hospital, she had a week of constant screaming, throwing herself on the floor and banging her head on anything and everything in sight. Then we had the tantrums over the dummy transition to wanting it all day and only being allowed it for sleeping. Right through to the present tantrums over anything from wanting ice cream before dinner to the lid on a box just won’t sit exactly right. The terrible twos had well and truly arrived and early at that.
For our beloved toddlers, these tantrums seem necessary and their way of communicating with us that something is not right. Around this age, children go through a huge developmental change. They are moving around a lot more freely, can understand so much more and are increasingly able to communicate with you verbally. They are also naturally trying to learn what’s right and wrong and look for different ways to test their boundaries. But, these changes can be incredibly overwhelming and they are like sponges, soaking up new information and processing this all the time. It can just all become too much and that’s when frustration and the feeling of not being able to cope kicks in. Toddlers are still expanding and developing their vocabulary, so aren’t always able to explain what it is they mean or want. They are still learning and experiencing different feelings and emotions and so can’t always rationalise or control them. A huge area of development which they are only just touching the surface of are developing social skills. Through play dates, nursery and siblings, they are finding themselves undergoing new experiences where they have to share toys and learning that it isn’t ok to act violently to others as a way to resolve a situation.
So although toddler tantrums are all part of growing up and an outlet for frustrations and overwhelm, they can still be extremely challenging for even the most patient of parents! Our daughter’s tantrums can last literally over an hour at their worst and we tried EVERYTHING before I followed my tips below. We went through saying no, removing items, the naughty step, tapping the back of her hand, saying sorry and none of these worked. She either couldn’t comprehend why we had acted in a certain way e.g. why she was placed on the bottom step or her behaviour would obviously become 10x worse when we would remove an item e.g. a toy being squabbled over. We just aggravated the situation and worked against her rather than helping her to understand and respect how she is feeling. But then we completely changed our approach, the tantrums and meltdowns literally halved, plus the ones she still has we are able to calm her down within ten minutes instead of an hour. So here are my go-to top tips for how to manage toddler tantrums in a calm manner which will hopefully minimise the length of a tantrum and also help you to feel calm and in control of the situation:
1) Pick your battles
This is an ultimate top tip for any parent who wishes to keep sane. Whether or not a tantrum has already begun, it is definitely wise to choose your battles carefully. There are so many things that our children do during the day whilst they are learning which can lead to us intervening or saying no to etc. But, sometimes if you focused on every single thing, you would end up saying no all day long, becoming more stressed yourself and your toddler will also become anxious and stressed too. More often than not, this will inevitably lead to an outburst. ‘Does it matter if the toy isn’t put away in its right place if they made an effort to tidy up?’ ‘Do they really need to finish every last thing on their plate before they get down from the table if they’ve tried a bit of everything? ‘ Will they really understand the meaning of saying sorry if they are forced to after ‘bonking’ their sibling over the head with a book after their favourite toy was pinched?’ So, my advice is to choose your battles and ask yourself whether it’s worth the fight or is their another way it can be dealt with.
2) Calm timeout
Now, this is not to be confused with time out as a punishment to think about what they have done. This is more of a timeout to feel safe and secure, giving your upset toddler a chance to calm themselves down without getting more worked up and anxious about being in trouble. Many tantrums occur because toddlers become frustrated that they just can’t explain themselves or understand why they can’t do something. They can become so worked up that trying to talk to them, no matter what tone of voice or words you use, is just going to make the situation worse. Providing your toddler with a safe place away from what triggered the tantrum in the first place, can drastically help reduce the outburst. However, what is crucial in this step is to ensure that when moving your child away from the situation to somewhere calm, it is done so in a calming manner yourself. Otherwise, this can completely change your toddler’s reaction and they will pick up on any frustration and anger very quickly and will just make their tantrum a whole lot worse.
3) Don’t give them the attention
Toddlers thrive off attention, whether this is good or bad attention, it doesn’t matter. To a toddler, any attention is better than no attention. They are really clever at picking up quickly what to do in order to gain your attention. For example, if you react dramatically to them throwing a jug of water at you out of the bath (speaking from experience) I can pretty much guarantee in a few minutes later, if that, they will do the exact same thing again, because they know it gives them what any child craves the most, their parent’s attention. So, in line with our tantrum theme, don’t give it any more of your attention than necessary. Once your child has been moved as above to a safe, calm time out area, leave the room and don’t spend any more time on it. For example, when my daughter has a meltdown and isn’t calming down whilst we are in the same room, I will calmly pick her up and sit her down on our sofa. I choose this area because I know she is safe, she cannot hurt herself and because she knows she can get down at any point, I haven’t sat her there and told her she has to stay for any length of time. I then leave the room and make myself busy within the kitchen (our rooms are connected and I am able to see her from this room). When she knows I am not giving her tantrum any more of my attention and time, she quickly stops screaming and actually waits for me to come back, which I do so once she has calmed herself down.
After a tantrum has occurred, toddlers can be left feeling rather upset, unsure why the tantrum occurred in the first place and potentially anxious about being in trouble. Providing them reassurance is probably one of the best actions you can take. The reassurance isn’t telling them that what they did was the right thing to do or rewarding the tantrum in any way. But what it does show your child is that you appreciate they were upset. No matter how minuscule or meaningless something may seem to us, to a toddler it could feel like the end of the world. They need to know that we respect how they are feeling and by doing this we can teach them how to deal with it in the future, as well as also showing them the importance of respecting how others feel. For example, my daughter has really struggled to share her favourite toys with her brother, especially now he is on the move and can physically take them out of her hand. In the past, she would scream at him, snatch it back and push him over. Closely followed by a full blown meltdown as he, of course, continues to reach for the very same toy. Instead of intervening as I previously did, telling her off for pushing her brother and to share her toys I would start with reassuring her. I spoke with her calming explaining that her brother does not understand and really wants to play with her. I then asked her if she could find her brother another toy to play with so that she could continue to play with her toy. This worked brilliantly as my focus turned from the negative action to giving my daughter back control of the situation and teaching her how to deal with it herself in a calm, non-violent manner.
This method is an absolute gem for toddlers. As mentioned above, this one links in brilliantly with giving your toddlers attention, but positive attention and not focused on the tantrum itself. By distracting the toddler away from what caused the tantrum in the first place, helps to calm them down quicker and minimize the likelihood of a second outburst. Games or challenges are a fantastic and fun way to provide a distraction. These can be extremely easy and can work wherever you are, whether at home, at the park or out doing your weekly shop. For example, ask them if they can see 5 things green. Another way is to focus your attention on something else, making sure to over exaggerate to draw your toddler’s attention in even more. This will, sure enough, spark their attention and they will be wanting to know what it is your doing/looking at that is so exciting.
For me personally, I swear by these top tips and they have really helped to calm our household down and deal with any sudden outbursts. However, there is also one last word of advice I would like to share which on no certain terms must you ever ever do:
Never give in.
Toddlers are quite often smarter than we give them credit for. They watch their parents all the time as they are learning from us and taking everything in. So they know which buttons to press to irritate us or drive us round the bend. They are constantly looking for that balance of pushing our buttons enough but not too far that we become cross. This does not stop during a tantrum. During a tantrum, toddlers are testing their boundaries just as much. They are seeing how far they can go to get what they want. But, the moment you give in, in a toddler’s eyes they associate having a tantrum with getting their own way. So the pattern commences. You say no to chocolate before bed, that oh so familiar tantrum begins, you give in to just one piece, and again, reaffirming they will get what they want. This pattern then won’t just stop at chocolate before bed, but will begin to occur every single time you say no because they know it has worked once, so why shouldn’t it work again? When you have given in the once, it is really hard to undo the tantrum-getting their own way association. So my biggest advice of all would be to stay strong and never give in, no matter how trying it can be at times. Remember, the tantrum won’t last forever, but the way it was handled can impact significantly for next time.