We’ve all been there, sitting in a restaurant, walking the isles of the grocery store, or out at the playground when another toddler seemingly loses control. There is yelling/screaming, jerking movements of the body, and a parent (or parents) trying feverishly to calm and console the agitated toddler. As a bystander we can be quick to judge. Why can’t those parents set limits with their child? or Don’t those parents realize their child is exhausted? From where we sit the situation can and should be handled differently. We would never find ourselves in such a predicament…until we do.
Toddlers, in addition to being adorable and curious, are probably best known for their tantrums. The fact is tantrums are bound to occur no matter how well-behaved your toddler is or whether they are a child prodigy or not. Tantrums happen for a number of reasons, including uneven language skills (being able to understand more than they are able to produce), learning to assert independence, and being overtired. In these difficult moments it is important to support your child as they experience frustration and to find the teachable moment as a positive focus for yourself and your child.
- Moderate the situation. Remember you are the adult and able to adjust the circumstances to best work through the tantrum. Consider strategies such as removing your child from the present environment to calm them down, speaking calmly in order to lessen the intensity of the situation, and setting limits if warranted or needed. Try to refrain from rewarding for negative behavior and ask your toddler to use their words as a means to convey what is upsetting for them.
- Support the situation with dialogue. Talking through the tantrum (different from talking about the situation) with your toddler is an important way for them to understand your response to their outburst. For example, if your child’s behavior escalates to the point where he needs to be moved to a safe place, such as his bedroom, tell him why he’s there and let him know you’ll stay with him until he can be calm. Oftentimes the verbal cues will help to calm your child or at the very least curtail any escalation in the situation.
- Share some of the control. Toddlers have a need to control their environment. Empower your child during a tantrum by giving simple choices, as this will support them in regaining the sense of control that was lost during the tantrum. If a toy was taken away during the incident the choice might be as simple as “you can have the toy back once you calm down and talk to mommy about what happened.” As the parent you should ultimately decide if the tantrum is your child’s attempt to get their own way or an expression of frustration. The options you provide will vary depending on what you feel is appropriate in the situation, but the key is to remain calm. No one wins if both you and your toddler end up screaming in the situation.
- Planning and consistency can help. Tantrums inevitably occur at inconvenient times (think back to that public display of emotion we started out with above). If needed, keep a tantrum diary to analyze when incidents occur and what possible triggers might be (is he bored, hungry, sick, or overstimulated?). Also, take a look at any reoccurring pre-tantrum signs that take place before the flare up begins (for example, whining). Taking notice of these details will help you plan ahead and set a situation up for success. Taking a hungry toddler to the grocery store may not ensure a successful (or pleasant) outing or be a realistic expectation. Sometimes a simple warning about an upcoming transition can help prevent a behavioral outburst and allow your toddler to feel a little more in control of their environment.
In the end what others around you think should be the last thing on your mind; the needs of your child, emotionally and physically, must come first. (After all, we know those same individuals may find themselves in a similar situation at some point.) Remind yourself that this is a normal part of toddler development and not a reflection on your parenting ability. Remember to find the teachable moment, focus on creating positive behavior choices, and know that you are not the only parent working hard to navigate the toddler years!
You can find this post on StrongTots here.
About Chrissy: Chrissy is a mother of two energetic toddlers, a passionate educator, literacy specialist, school administrator, and consultant with experience in both public and private education. She has worked with students preK-12, consulted on educational learning plans and student placement for families, and advised schools on literacy curriculum and planning across grade levels. StrongTots is a passion for Chrissy and an effort to form a supportive parenting network grounded in research-based information.