The car seat never used to be a problem. You’d plop your infant into the seat, and away you’d go. Suddenly, going anywhere in the car means that you’ll first have to endure an epic toddler tantrum.
What happened? Where did your sweet little baby go?
Toddler tantrums can start much earlier than parents expect. It seems that as soon as your child realizes there are options (walking vs. being carried; playing outside vs. staying indoors), the tantrums begin.
Parents can feel overwhelmed and worried by the sight of their tiny child wailing on the floor. Other parents feel frustrated and annoyed that their child seems to be willingly disobeying their requests.
So, what’s a parent to do?
Tips to help you manage your toddler’s tantrums:
During the tantrum: Instead of trying to stop the tantrum or quiet the screaming, focus on going through the wave of emotion with your child.
- Stay calm: Big emotions can be scary for a small child. When you are calm, your child feels safe. Focus on keeping your own emotions calm by doing deep breathing or repeating a mantra (“he needs my help right now” or “this is not an emergency”).
- Set limits: Children need to know the boundaries and limits. They feel secure knowing that these will remain consistent. Lecturing or reasoning will not work with toddlers. Instead, use short phrases to set limits, “Hitting hurts” or “Hold hands in the parking lot!”
- Be empathetic: Begin teaching emotional intelligence by using empathy when your child is upset. Try to see things from your child’s perspective, then put their feelings into words using simple phrases, “You’re so mad!” or “You seem sad!”
- Provide comfort: Stay present while your child is struggling. Get on their level – squatting down to eye level or just sitting nearby. Offer to cuddle or hold your child. If your child doesn’t want to cuddle, offer comforting words: “I’m here, you’re safe with mommy.”
- Skip timeouts: There is a lot of parenting advice about how to handle toddler tantrums, much of this advice focuses on using timeouts. I encourage parents to skip timeouts (and other forms of punishment) for toddlers. You can read more in this post: 7 Alternatives to Timeout.
Before the tantrum: While not all tantrums can be avoided, sometimes simple steps can delay or minimize tantrums
- Give choices: Offering simple choices throughout the day may help your toddler feel more in control. Almost everything can be a choice – apple or banana, walk or be carried, blue shirt or red, carry the spoon or the cup to the table, be changed on the floor or the bed.
- Plan ahead: Some children are easy-going, while others require more external support to stay regulated. Think ahead: pack a snack, be home before nap time, avoid or limit activities in over stimulating situations, run fewer errands, or allow for extra time.
- Change the environment: Look around your house and see if any modifications can be made to decrease power struggles: cabinet locks, limiting toys that are available, or access to appropriate alternatives (tupperware drawer, TV remote without batteries, etc.)
- Encourage independence: Young children are often capable of more than we know. Find opportunities for your toddler to help around the house: throwing away dirty diapers, carrying unbreakable objects to the table, or using a child-size broom to “sweep.”
- Limit your “No”s: Save the word “no” for dangerous, serious, or really-big situations. Look for other ways to redirect your child to a more appropriate activity, “Let’s put the blocks in this basket!” or “That is mommy’s pen, let’s find some crayons for you to use.”
A few things to keep in mind:
Your toddler’s tantrum is not about manipulation. You may feel like your child is doing things simply to make you upset. New brain research shows that children of this age are not developmentally capable of using their behavior to manipulate situations. Your child is feeling flooded with emotion. These feelings are too much for them to take, and often come out in the form of biting, hitting, and tantruming.
Big feelings are part of life. It’s hard to learn about limits and boundaries. It’s no fun to be told “no.” Your child is not a bad kid because they have intense emotional reactions. They need your help to manage these big feelings and learn how to handle disappointments in the future.
You are not a bad parent because your child has a tantrum. And you’re not a bad parent if you set a reasonable limit that results in your toddler having a meltdown. Your job is to focus on helping your child through this difficult time with empathy and compassion. Show them that big feelings are ok and that even though you set limits, you also provide comfort through the hard times.
If you’re in the trenches right now, struggling with a tantruming toddler, you’re not alone! This is a difficult time for many families. I’d love to help you through this stage! Learn more about online Parent Coaching.