Taming Toddler Tantrums

Before becoming a mother, I would wonder why parents let their kids shout and run around in a restaurant. I would wonder why parents let their kids cry loudly while they stood by or walk away. I would wonder why parents let their kids roll on the ground crying and flailing their little arms and legs. Were they bad parents?

Now I understand. And empathize.

As a mother, I have seen my son throw tiny tantrums over–what may seem to us–silly things. He wants old shopping receipts. I want to throw them away. Tiny tantrum. He wants me to wear spectacles to sleep when I want to take it off. Another tantrum. He wants a lollipop. I say no. Tiny stomping legs (How can the little terror be so adorable at the same time?).

Temper tantrums are normal in children; an essential part of child development. This is a fact. They are often an expression of emotional distress triggered by frustration (not being able to communicate his wants), loss (something he wants being taken away) or disappointment (not getting his wants). More often, though, tantrums happen when kids are tired, hungry, sick or simply because they cannot do what they want. 

Positive side to tantrums is that your child is learning to cope with frustration from a young age. You are sculpting stress regulating mechanisms in his tiny brain. This will then help him deal better with frustration and rage later in life. According to Dr Margot Sunderland, a psychotherapist and child mental health specialist, the too-good child misses out on vital brain sculpting. This means that when he faces frustration later in life, he may respond with angry outbursts or struggle to be assertive.

“Meltdowns are terrible, nasty things, but they’re a fact of childhood,” says Ray Levy, PhD, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. “Young kids — namely those between the ages of 1 and 4 — haven’t developed good coping skills yet. They tend to just lose it instead.” And what, exactly, sets them off to begin with? Every single tantrum, Levy says, results from one simple thing: not getting what they want. “For children between 1 and 2, tantrums often stem from trying to communicate a need — more milk, a diaper change, that toy over there — but not having the language skills to do it,” says Levy. “They get frustrated when you don’t respond to what they’re ‘saying’ and throw a fit.” For older toddlers, tantrums are more of a power struggle. “By the time kids are 3 or 4, they have grown more autonomous,” Levy adds. “They’re keenly aware of their needs and desires — and want to assert them more. If you don’t comply? Tantrum city.”

Dealing with toddler tantrums is enough to make a grown man cry but the most important is your reaction to them. Your response will influence the outcome. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Stay calm. When you stay calm, you can think clearly and take proper action. 
  2. Distract him. Create a diversion that will interest him more and take his mind off the tantrum.
  3. Hug himA good firm hug will make your child feel secure and reinforce how much you care. 

    I was having a really hard time with our almost 3-year-old. Several tantrums a day with hitting, biting and thrashing around to boot! I tried it all. One evening, I was lying with him in bed trying to get him to sleep and the tantrum began. When I attempted  to ignore it, he started hitting me in the back. The longer I ignored, the harder the hits came. I was at the end of my rope until I remembered something a friend/therapist said to me “children need boundaries. They thrive in it.” I rolled over and wrapped my arms and legs around him. Not enough to squeeze or cause pain. Enough to where he couldn’t break away. He didn’t like it and was really angry, but I was determined to not lose my cool. I did this while he continued to tantrum for about 20 min. He eventually began to calm down and when he did, I relaxed my grip, rubbed his head and told him how much I loved him being a good boy. He eventually stopped completely, rolled over, hugged me back and fell asleep in my arms. I continued this approach with him every time he started to have a meltdown. We call it “a bear hug”.  We’ve been doing this for about a month with the length of each tantrum becoming less and less. He now goes days without a single tantrum. Now, they are just short crying episodes and the magic question is… “do you need a bear hug?” He typically replies with a “yes!” And then we just hug for several minutes.

    I think the key to what we did with him was establishing some firm boundaries, but in a very loving way. For us, it worked. Plus, he’s honestly been a much more affectionate little boy as a result. Good luck, moms & dads! ~Lauren Barney
  4. Listen respectfully. Listen to what your child is trying to say. Reflect back his feelings so that he feels heard and understood.
  5. Choose your battles. Avoid power struggles. Allow your child a little independence to help him feel in control when it comes to small things. Keep rules for really important things like health and safety.
  6. Know the triggers. Learn to notice when he would likely cause a meltdown and avoid it. If you know he would cause a scene if it is past his nap time, encourage him to sleep earlier.

Read on for more tips on taming toddler tantrums.

Understanding tantrums

Coping with tantrums

10 ways to tame your kid’s tantrum

Talking about meltdowns

The good news is that your toddler will get bigger and communicate better; this means that he will meet less frustration in his everyday life. Just give him time and love. Lots of love.


Angel is a mother of one and works as a full time editor and writer. She writes on a wide variety of topics in a number of reputable publications.

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