From a developmental standpoint, tantrums are completely normal: they are actually an opportunity for toddlers to learn to process emotion and build resilience.
Written by: Jessica Diamond, MPH, RDN
From a developmental standpoint, tantrums are completely normal: they are actually an opportunity for toddlers to learn to process emotion and build resilience. All toddlers have very, very big feelings, and it’s our reaction to these big feelings that will determine how long and how frequent the tantrums are. With that in mind, it’s important that we, as parents and caregivers, are doing everything we can to stay calm, cool, and collected when these big feelings hit.
It’s important to stay even-keeled for two reasons. First, toddlers love consistency and calm, and they need that most when they are feeling overwhelmed and out of control. And second, your patience and attentiveness will make them feel safe and understood. Here are some tips for keeping your cool when your kid is mid-meltdown:
Fake it until you make it. Even when you are a 10 out of 10 frustrated on the inside, do what you can to fake being calm. It might sound silly, but with enough repetition, it actually works.
Take care of yourself. Parenting is hard and the days can feel long: it’s a full-time job that starts the second your child wakes up (at dawn, of course) and doesn’t end until you put your head on the pillow at night. So, find little ways to treat yourself throughout the day, like taking an extra long shower, putting yourself to sleep a little earlier, and/or getting in some form of exercise. Sneaking in some “me time” throughout the day will help manage stress and build up your reserve so you are ready to weather the next tantrum.
Just know that parenting is hard work, period. It’s ok that you’re having a hard time – we’ve all been there. Toddlers learn to push our buttons as part of their development, and our big reactions to their big feelings only escalate things. So give yourself a pep talk every day, and remember that your only job is to breathe and stay calm, no matter how your toddler reacts.
Tackling Tantrums (in Real Time)
Ok, so how do you tackle a tantrum in real time? Let’s set the stage: your child just sat down for a meal, and they say that they want to pour their water cup upside down. You explain that water stays in the cup at the table. They reach for the water cup anyways and you quickly reach in to remove the cup. They erupt into “Nooooooo, I want my cuppppppp” and then throw their body back and scream. Sound familiar?
To the parent or caregiver, this reaction is 100% irrational: we communicated a rule, they didn’t listen, and now they’re upset with the consequence. In response, we usually go one of three places:
Emotional Avoidance: “Stop crying!”
Invalidation: “What’s wrong?! I told you not to pour out the cup.”
Guilt Trip: “Do you want to hurt Mommy? When you don’t listen to Mommy, it hurts her feelings.”
But– what if we told you that each of these responses will mean longer and more frequent tantrums in the future? The problem is that each of the above responses does not actually teach your child to regulate their emotions. It may shorten the tantrum in the moment, but in the long run, your child won’t know what to do the next time their big feelings hit.
That’s why it’s important to identify and validate their feelings and help them actually process the emotion, all while holding the boundary. You might say:
“I see you’re really mad right now. It’s ok to be upset.”
“You really wanted to pour out your water on the table.”
“Water stays in our cup at the table.”
“In bath time tonight, you can have a cup and pour the water into your bath.”
“I love you and am here for you.”
“What do you want to play with in the living room instead?”
If your child is screaming, get eye-level, stay close, and say, “I can’t hear you right now, but when your body calms down, Mommy is here to help you.”
Below are some of our top strategies for tackling tantrums:
Name the feeling and then validate it. “I see you’re really mad right now. It’s ok to be upset.”
Show that you understand. “You really wanted to pour out your water on the table.”
Hold the boundary. “Water stays in our cup at the table.”
Offer options. “In bath time tonight, you can have a cup and pour the water into your bath.”
Show them love. Tell them that you love them and remind them that your job is to keep them healthy and safe. “I love you and am here for you.”
Redirect. “What do you want to play with in the living room instead?”
Stay calm and present. Being attentive and calm makes them feel safe and supported while they work through the emotion.
Here are the strategies from above applied to real-life scenarios (because, if you’re like us, you learn best from concrete examples!)
If your kid is having a tantrum over leaving the park:
Stay calm and get eye-level “You’re really mad. It’s ok to be mad.” (name the feeling/validate)
“You were having fun and don’t want to leave the park.” (understand)
“It’s time to leave the park.” (hold the boundary)
“I love you.” (love)
“What do you want to play with instead when we get home?” (redirect)
Or a tantrum over being in the car seat:
“You’re really frustrated. It’s ok to be frustrated.” (name the feeling/validate)
“You’re ready to get out of your car seat.” (understand)
“When driving, you need to stay in your car seat to be safe.” (hold the boundary)
“When we get home, you can help Mommy unbuckle your seat.” (offer options)
“I love you, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” (love)
“What do you want to play with in the bath tonight?” (redirect)