Health Education

Toddler Tantrums

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Why do children have tantrums?

Children have tantrums because life isn’t going their way. If you say “Yes, of course you can have all the candy you want,” it is unlikely that your child will crumple to the floor. Tantrums generally begin when the brain turns on its “emotion switch” and your toddler realizes life is not fair.

Babies will cry when they have a need or when they are in some form of distress. They will smile or laugh as a response to something pleasant. However, it isn’t until the emotional state comes on board at about the age of 1½ to 2 years, that your toddler will get a taste of more exotic feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, frustration, delight or contentment. These are the days of big, giant feelings; so big, so GIANT that negative feelings can drive your child’s body right down to the floor. And the only tools your child has to help manage these feelings are the tools from babyhood; cry, scream, kick, grab. Babies are allowed to use all those tools because those are the only tools issued at birth. As babies grow into toddlers, not only are those tools now too loud and powerful, they are not finely tuned enough to handle the new demands of childhood.

What should I do when my child starts having tantrums?

If children are to manage their feelings, they will need a new set of tools, beginning with some understanding as to what in the world is going on inside the brain that could cause such reactions. Here’s your first job: breathe and remember “this too shall pass.” Second job: be empathetic. Your child will get the hang of these feelings. She’ll find a way to express them, accept them and problem solve. The tantrums will be a thing of the past—someday, as long as she is given better tools to use and she is able to see how those tools work for others.

Here are the tools:
  • Calm yourself before attempting to calm your child.
  • Accept the moment as it is. If your child is fast approaching the meltdown stage, it will not helpful for you to meltdown at the thought of it.
  • Acknowledge your child’s state and trust that he is going to be able to learn how to handle big feelings. Model for him that you are able to handle your feelings by continuing to breath and remain calm. If the tantrum started because your child did not want to get in the car seat, you may say, “You seem angry. This is hard. My job is to keep you safe so I will help you in,” or just hold him for a moment, CALMLY. If he calms, offer choices. Either way, remain as calm as possible as you place your child in the seat. Children will either learn that feelings are nothing to fear, they’re just feelings or they will learn that their feelings have so much power they can scare everyone.
  • Once your child shows some sign of calming, offer two acceptable choices. “You may climb in by yourself or I will help you in. What do you choose?” This may sound ridiculously simple, however IF you are calm (and that’s big) and you state the choices with confidence, your child may feel re-empowered and then able to move on. Try it.
  • Do not give your child whatever happened to be the catalyst for his outburst in order to stop the meltdown. It’s so tempting to hand over the desired treat with a disclaimer, “Alright, you can have it now, but just this once.” (They never hear that last part.) It is O.K. that your child may be disappointed or angry or frustrated. Having uncomfortable feelings motivates us to find solutions to our problems or learn ways to manage the feelings certain situations can produce.

How can I help prevent a temper tantrum?

As a parent, you can sometimes tell when tantrums are brewing. Your child may seem moody, cranky, or difficult. He may start to whine and whimper. It may seem as if nothing will make him happy. Finally, he may start to cry, kick, scream, fall to the ground, bang his head, or hold his breath. Other times, a tantrum may come on suddenly for no obvious reason. Yesterday, he may have fallen apart when you gave him the yellow cup instead of the blue cup and today he may fall apart when you give him the blue cup instead of the yellow cup. You should not be surprised if your child has tantrums only in front of you. This is one way of testing your rules and limits. Many children will not act out their feelings around others and are more cautious with strangers. Children feel safer showing their feelings to the people they trust. You will not be able to prevent all tantrums, but the following suggestions may help reduce the chances of a tantrum:

  • Encourage your child to use words to tell you how he is feeling, such as “I’m really mad.” Try to understand how he is feeling and suggest words he can use to describe his feelings.
  • Set reasonable limits and don’t expect your child to be perfect. Give simple reasons for the rules you set, and don’t change the rules.
  • Keep a daily routine as much as possible, so your child knows what to expect.
  • Avoid situations that will frustrate your child, such as playing with children or toys too advanced for your child’s abilities.
  • Avoid the word “No.” Although your child may love to say this word, hearing it is a fast track to a meltdown. If you say, “No, cookies are not after dinner,” your child may hear “No cookies — ever, ever, ever.” Instead, try this. “Right after dinner! I’ll put some right up here so we’ll remember. Now you may have some fruit. Would you like an apple or banana?” (Or you can offer to start a puzzle with her, or let her help you with a chore.)
  • Avoid long outings or visits where your child has to sit still or cannot play for long periods of time. Remember that if you are planning on making 3 stops for errands, you are pushing your child’s limits by making a 4th. If you really need the broccoli, realize that you are staring at a potential temper tantrum and proceed accordingly. If you have to take a trip, bring along your child’s favorite book or toy to entertain him.
  • Have healthy snacks readily available for when your child gets hungry.
  • Make sure your child is well rested, especially before a busy day or stressful activity.
  • Slow down. We tend to move faster when we’re in a hurry and that can cause concern for children. If you sense your child is growing anxious, just take a breath and slow down your movements. It will be reassuring to them and you’ll probably be more efficient as well.
  • Distract your child if a tantrum is brewing. Sometimes just changing locations, like going outdoors (if you are indoors), is enough to diffuse a tantrum.

So you’ve followed every guideline, you’re calm, you’re consistent, you limit your errands and STILL, STILL they have tantrums. Stick with it anyway. Be calm. Be steady. Don’t give in. Don’t get mad. Model what it looks like to be in control, even when you are walking out of a store with a screaming child. It is hard when life doesn’t go the way we want it to. It is hard for adults who have had lots of practice so be patient. Teach them that to take a breath, calm down, accept the feeling, and move forward is powerful. Teach them by showing them and they will learn.