Tips on How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums

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January 17, 2023
8 min read

toddler girl crying

In this article, we will cover how to deal with Toddler Tantrums – but more importantly remind parents tantrums are a completely NORMAL part of parenting toddlers.  

As parents we can’t stop Toddler Tantrums BUT with the correct strategies we can decrease their severity and their frequency.

What Causes Tantrums in Toddlers?

The human brain does not fully develop until the early to mid 20’s, your toddlers brain is undergoing some of the most extensive growth it will ever experience, it is still far from developed.  

This enormous frustration at not being understood and not being able to freely communicate with another person is very difficult to manage, and this is the usual source of tantrum behavior. 

Areas where protest often begins is with bed-time, meal times, getting dressed – and sometimes it feels like absolutely EVERYTHING you want to do in a day.

Toddlerhood years herald a shift from:

  1. complete dependence to 
  2. relative independence. 

This growing autonomy is coupled with an increase in expectation and a heightened focus on rules. The feelings some children experience are new and often overwhelming, which can lead to childhood temper tantrums and loss of control.

Tantrums happen in all sorts of settings, common tantrum triggers can include:

  1. Frustration: Toddlers may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, which can lead to angry outbursts when they can’t get their wants or needs met.
  2. Lack of control: Toddlers are just learning to assert their independence and may become upset when they feel their autonomy is being restricted.
  3. Fatigue: Toddlers may become more prone to tantrums when they are tired, as they may not have the emotional regulation to handle stress and frustration.
  4. Hunger: Low blood sugar levels can make a child irritable and more prone to tantrums.
  5. Overstimulation: Toddlers may become overwhelmed by too much noise, activity, or visual stimuli, which can lead to tantrums.
  6. Transitions: Toddlers may have a hard time transitioning from one activity to another, especially when they are engaged in something they enjoy.
  7. Unmet Expectations: When a young child expects something to happen and it doesn’t, it can lead to disappointment and tantrum.
  8. Need for attention: Some toddlers may use tantrums as a way to get attention from their caregivers.

It is important to note that all children develop differently and some of them may have different triggers than others and also that tantrums are part of normal development for toddlers and not necessarily a sign of a behavioral issue.

What happens during a temper tantrum?

The physical signs of a toddler temper tantrum or meltdown can vary, but some common ones include:

  1. Crying: This is often one of the first signs of a tantrum, and can range from a whimper to full-on sobbing.
  2. Screaming: Some children may scream during a tantrum, especially if they are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.
  3. Kicking and hitting: Some children may lash out physically during a tantrum, hitting or kicking things or people around them.
  4. Falling on the floor: Some children may drop themselves to the floor and lay there, kicking their legs or flailing their arms.
  5. Breathing changes: Some children may take deep or rapid breaths during a tantrum, or even hold their breath.
  6. Clenched jaw and fists: The child may have tight fists, clench their teeth or jaw, which could indicate an escalation of their emotions.
  7. Red face: The child’s face may become red, flush or blotchy during the tantrum.
  8. Hyperactivity: Some children may become very active during a tantrum, running around or flailing their arms and legs.
  9. In some cases, children hold their breath, vomit, break things or hurt themselves or other people as part of a tantrum.

It’s important to remember that not all children will display all these signs, and some children may exhibit different signs of a tantrum. However, it’s important to pay attention to your child’s behavior, so you can help them to manage their emotions and calm down during a tantrum.

How often do toddlers have tantrums?

Toddler temper tantrums are a completely normal part of being a toddler. 

Say it with us again – tantrums are NORMAL for toddlers.

Some parents may feel like every interaction with their toddler is resulting in a tantrum 100% of the time.

With the correct strategies as a general guide you can minimise tantrums to 20% of the time so 80% of the time they are regulated where you are playing and learning.

How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums

The most important action for a parent is to remain calm. An escalated adult cannot de-escalate an escalated toddler.

When your toddler is experiencing big feelings or tantrum:

  • they most likely won’t be able to independently regulate themselves, and 
  • will require you to co-regulate 
  • because your brain is calmer, it can generate some ideas for how to calm down
  1. Never escalate to their level or beyond.
  2. Ensure they – and those around them – are safe
  3. Try to distract them.
  4. By soothing your child with touch (if they are responsive to this) it will allow them to calm down more easily, we’ll talk about this more later.
  5. Try using language to acknowledge the emotions and problem-solve for your child like:

    • “it’s okay to feel angry about this, let’s do something that will help you feel better”.
    • This allows your child’s emotional experience to be validated and they learn that there are ways to move through these feelings.
  6. If tantrums persist and occur outside the home environment, always acknowledge them (point out the behaviour that you dislike, not the child)
  7. Ignore the behaviour not the child (provided the environment is safe to do so).
  8. As soon as your child has calmed down, heap praise on them for changing their behaviour
    • This positive reinforcement will be remembered by your child and soon they will self-calm when strong feelings begin to bubble.

How to deal with toddler tantrum in public

While behaviours are challenging in private, the perceived social judgement of being out in public exacerbates the experience for parents, and also sometimes for children. If you’ve signed up for the Toddler Toolkit you’ll know this is an essential time to use the Toddler Toolkit S.T.A.R approach so that you can SELF CHECK FIRST –  identify your own embarrassment or frustration at your child’s timing, and move on to a response that meets their emotional needs. 

5 ways for parents to stay calm when their child is experiencing a meltdown or tantrum:

TIP 1: Visualise a tornado representing your child’s emotions. Don’t get sucked into their experience because that won’t help either of you. Stand on the sidelines and be the support.

TIP 2: Remind yourself that your child is not choosing to behave like this, it is because they’re still learning

TIP 3: Remember that this won’t last forever

TIP 4: Slow down your breathing

TIP 5: Connect with your child – research shows that your child moves through big feelings more quickly when they’ve been heard and listened to

What to do after a tantrum?

Don’t expect your child to be able to say sorry or be able to reflect straight after a tantrum – reflecting and learning needs to happen when they are calm and fully regulated.

At the time move on like it never happened and praise any positive behavior you see (given the situation there may be minimal examples but there will always be something positive you’ll be able to find).

Wait until there’s calm and your toddler is regulated to start working on proactive strategies that will help to minimise the frequency and severity of tantrums. 

How to Prevent Tantrums

Preventing toddler tantrums can be challenging, as they are a normal part of development for young children. As discussed we can’t eliminate them but we can help to reduce their frequency and severity.

Here are some strategies for fewer tantrums:

Teach when they are calm and regulated… not in the moment 

  • In the Toddler Toolkit we talk at length about teaching and learning when your toddler is calm, there’s an emotional regulation toolkit and calming calming techniques – practice these while you’re playing
    Remember, the more your child practices calming techniques and emotion regulation, the better they will get at it. It’s like a muscle.

Set clear limits and boundaries 

  • Establishing clear limits and boundaries can help your child to understand what is expected of them, and this can reduce the likelihood of tantrums caused by a lack of control.

Provide consistent routines: 

  • Establishing and sticking to a consistent daily routine can help your child feel more secure and reduce the stress caused by unexpected changes.

Encourage verbal communication: 

  • Helping your child to develop verbal communication skills can reduce the likelihood of tantrums caused by frustration, as they will have more effective ways to express their wants and needs.

Give them choices: 

  • Giving children choices/a sense of autonomy, such as what they want to wear or eat, lets them feel like they have some control over their environment and it can also help to reduce power struggles that can lead to tantrums.

Be mindful of your reactions: 

  • Pay attention to your child’s cues and try to anticipate when they may be becoming overwhelmed or frustrated, and intervene before a tantrum occurs.

Watch for warning signs: 

  • As a parent or caregiver, your reactions can also have an impact on your child behavior, so it is important to manage your own emotions and stay calm in response to a tantrum, as this will help to de-escalate the situation.
  • One of the key tools in the Toddler Toolkit is the S.T.A.R Assessment tool for managing tantrums – the key to this tool is the S, a Self Check to take a quick moment to see how you are tracking emotionally and regulate yourself first  – remember an escalated adult cannot de-escalate and escalated child.
    NOTE: this advice is great for toddlers but also a wonderful skill to keep in mind when dealing with older children or even adults! 

Model appropriate behavior

  • Children learn by example, so make sure you model appropriate behavior, particularly when it comes to expressing emotions.

Take care of the basics

  • Be sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating well, and getting enough physical activity. These can greatly impact their mood and behavior

Conclusion

It’s important to remember that tantrums are a normal part of child development, and it is unlikely to completely prevent them, but using these strategies can help to reduce their frequency and severity. The calm regulated moments are when you’ll teach your toddlers the skills to better cope with them.

Paediatric Psychologist Amanda Abel and Paediatrician Dr Golly have written the Toddler Toolkit to support parents through the parenting toddlers from tantrums, toilet training, fussy eating and everything in between – over 15 modules these Paediatric experts will guide you to a gentler calmer way to parent.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Does attention deficit hyperactivity disorder increase toddler tantrums?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity. Children with ADHD can be more prone to tantrums than other children, and their tantrums may be more severe and longer lasting. However, it is important to note that tantrums are a normal part of development for young children, and not all children with ADHD will have frequent or severe tantrums. A diagnosis of ADHD should be made by a qualified professional with experience in assessing and treating this condition, such as a pediatrician or a child psychologist.

 

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