Ear-piecing screams that make mom's ears immediately ache, and possibly make her worry about the hearing of younger siblings in the room… Flailing arms and legs… Thrashing around on the ground… Hitting, kicking, scratching, and biting…
Toddlers don’t always have the skills and experience to deal with the extreme emotions they are feeling in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. That’s why we’re here to teach them.
We teach, first and foremost, by doing. Our words and behaviors model, from day one, how to act and interact in any given situation. If we use calm words to express any and all emotions, give ourselves time and space to cool down when we need it, and give ourselves the OK to experience a wide range of emotions, our kids will see that they don’t need to feel happy all the time; but they do need to develop healthy strategies for expressing their feelings.
Very young children are trying so hard to become independent. They want to be able to do it themselves, to have what they want when they want it, and to do it just like mommy or daddy! Sound familiar? Humans are constantly navigating ways to control their environments, exploring which actions produce which reactions. Toddlers just don’t quite have the finesse yet, at times, to do it in socially acceptable ways.
Just like you encouraged your child to develop strong muscles and develop motor control by placing her on her abdomen for tummy time each day, just like you talk and sing to her to help her develop her language skills, and just like you enjoy meals together to teach her how to eat, you also must (with extreme patience, at times) teach her how to safely, healthily express her emotions.
You can certainly develop many good strategies for dealing with temper tantrums. Here, for your consideration, are fifteen things not to do.
15 Yelling Match
It can be very tempting to respond in kind. It’s almost instinctual to raise your voice back at someone who is raising their voice toward you. If a toddler is screaming — an ear-piercing, incredibly high-pitched, awfully loud scream — at you, it can be very, very easy to snap and yell, scream, or even growl: anything to get them to just, for the love of god, STOP.
While yelling back may cause a little one who is screaming or throwing a tantrum to stop in that particular instance, what is it really teaching them? That it’s okay to scream and yell. That when they do, they will get a big, explosive reaction from you. Chaos breeds chaos, and before you know it, baby has found an incredibly effective way of getting your attention and getting a big reaction out of you.
If Mom models a calm (yet authoritative) voice, baby will receive the order she needs to calm the chaos. She’ll see that using a regular “inside” voice to communicate feelings is the ultimate goal, and much more pleasant for all involved.
14 Fear-Based Formula
When someone is lashing out at you physically, a high-pitched, raging scream making your ears instantly ache, perhaps even hands and feet striking out at you, and maybe even tiny, sharp nails clawing and pinching your skin, you may need all your will power to react calmly and without the use of force.
If you can, it may be best to try to relocate the child to an area where he will be least likely to injure himself if he is really thrashing around. If you are out in public, getting away from the current, crowded scene may of course be ideal.
What you should never, ever do is physically harm a child back. Aside from the obvious and terrible dangers of reacting this way (think not only physical but psychological repercussions down the road), physical punishment teaches children that things like hitting and kicking are acceptable behavior. If in doubt, (safely) separate yourself and give yourself a moment to cool down.
Plus, rather than react to a tantrum in a way that will scare a child into quieting down, wouldn’t it be much better to model healthy ways of expressing emotions?
13 Back Atcha
Hearing that whiny voice may be enough to make you feel like you’re going to lose it. When it’s accompanied by screaming, yelling, or even kicking and flailing, you may feel you’ve reached your limit. How do they like it when you use that voice, you may be tempted to try to exemplify.
Or maybe when you’ve just had enough, you’re ready to even laugh at a young child’s fits of rage over the fact that you put them in green pants instead of blue.
Mimicking or mocking are not, however, the way to go, and should surely be avoided if avoiding future tantrums is your goal. Reacting in this way is teaching, by example, that one needn’t treat others with respect and understanding — that it’s okay to take serious emotions lightly.
As much as possible, try to be calm and understanding, to lead by example how to treat others with kindness and compassion, even when they’re going through a rough patch.
12 Fine Then
If you’ve ever experienced a toddler’s rage before, you’ve probably also experienced the extreme, almost impossible to deny urge to just give them whatever they want — anything, ANYTHING, to get that awful, overwhelming, and (if you’re out in public) potentially embarrassing noise to STOP.
Of course this would be counterproductive, though. If junior screams when you tell him you will not be purchasing that candy bar from the checkout line, then you give in and buy it for him just to get him to shut the F up, you have conditioned him, essentially, to understand that if he screams, he’ll get exactly what he wants from you. You’ve lost all power.
Stay strong, stay your ground, and don’t go back on your word. Kids crave order and structure. It gives them (and humans in general) comfort in this crazy, mixed-up world. When mom and dad provide guidelines to help them stay happy and healthy, it helps them to learn about limits.
11 Go On And On
When you’ve had it up to here with a little kid’s behavior, it can feel like all you can do is tell them, again and again, in any way you can think of to express it, to not do whatever they did that is driving you completely crazy.
Lecturing, though, may be problematic in two ways. First of all, giving so many (probably impassioned) words to the topic has taught them that whatever they’ve done, whether it’s scream, yell, chuck a toy, or throw a tantrum, it will get a big reaction from you. Second of all, all the detail you’re going into is probably more overwhelming and distracting to them than it is helpful in getting them to stop the problem behavior.
Be clear. Be concise. Action and reaction. Choice and consequence.
Try, instead of going on and on, or even trying to use your words to make junior feel bad for the behavior, to teach him healthier, more pleasant for everyone, ways of dealing with his emotions. Saying, “I feel angry,” taking some time alone, or pausing to take a few deep breaths might all be great tools for him (and you?) to use next time he feels an outburst coming on.
10 Bare Necessities
What’s that old sitcom-ish cliché? Getting sent to bed without your dinner? Do you really want to be tying a child’s ideas about food and eating with punishment and reward, though? With the goal of helping a child with forming a lifetime of healthy habits, you may wish to avoid getting basic necessities like food and drink mixed up in the business of reinforcing “good” behavior and discouraging “bad” behavior.
Plus, of course, when a child (or anyone) has had all of the basic requirements of life met, it is much easier to be calm and comfortable and to behave in socially appropriate ways. More simply, if a child isn’t overly hungry or thirsty or tired, he will likely be happier and calmer.
Rather than taking away food or treats as a reaction to outbursts or tantrums — or giving food or treats as a reward for behavior you approve of — try, whenever possible, to use calm words, time, and space as necessary to help a child to calm down.
9 Why Am I In Here, Again?
We all need some space and alone time. It can be especially beneficial if we’re feeling angry, sad, or overwhelmed, which are all emotions that can contribute to a little one losing their shit and erupting into a tantrum.
Helping them to take a few minutes alone to pause, breathe, and move on may certainly be effective in dealing with an outburst. Leaving them there for more than a few minutes at a time, however, might be quite ineffective.
If you have chosen to use timeouts as, in essence, a punishment for unacceptable behavior, a young child left for more than a few minutes may struggle to remember what exactly is going on — or why they were ever put on a time out. If your goal was to teach a lesson about a certain behavior not being okay, it certainly has not been achieved if the child can’t remember why he’s even in there.
If your goal was giving them some time and space to cool down (perhaps the more effective approach…), well then they don’t need to be left alone in there longer than it takes them to do that.
8 Gold Stars
If the only noticeable reactions a small child gets are for negative behaviors, well then she’ll probably tend toward repeating those behaviors and even testing out a series of new, increasingly unpleasant ones. “Wow, I really got Dad’s attention when I did that! Now what happens when I do THIS?!”
In the ongoing quest to raise children who have the skills to healthily express any and all emotions, don’t forget to reinforce good behavior, as well. “I really liked the way you picked up your toys without me asking you to.” “It made me feel happy when you used your inside voice to tell me how you were feeling.”
My kids’ pediatrician even suggested the idea of a “star chart.” For each day that an unacceptable behavior was avoided — or that a good behavior was carried out — a shiny sticker is given. Just focus on one thing at a time. It’s like a fun game of working together toward better days!
A young child is trying to gain independence, and at the same time is discovering the various limits of this word — through testing them.
If one day something is off-limits and the next it is A-OK, a child can of course become confused. If it was okay one time, it’s okay in general, right?
One thing to consider here is that it might be wise to pick your battles. If a child feels like she does get to do many of the things she wants to do and has some agency and role in the decision-making process, she may be less likely to be extremely frustrated to the point of a meltdown when certain things result in a “no.”
So, for example, if you decide it’s not safe for her to tumble around on the couch because she might get hurt, tell her it’s not okay (and maybe what is okay: sitting, for example), and then move on. Then, if she starts tumbling around on the couch again, respond again in the same way, rather than giving in and deciding it’s okay after all.
Consistency is key.
6 Not Own Up
Being humans, parents don’t always react in exactly the manner that would be most ideal for any given situation. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, grownup voices are raised, too. Frustration can feel very intense and be very real.
Although it’s best to model calm, appropriate behavior, of course, when you’ve failed to keep your cool, admit it. You might say that you are sorry for raising your voice and that the behavior made you feel very frustrated, or mad, or overwhelmed, or whatever you felt. Just of course try to keep it within terms that your little one will understand.
It’s okay — the ultimate goal, probably, in fact — for your kids to understand that you are a human, and that all of us make mistakes. We all experience a wide range of, at times, intense emotion, and expressing it healthily and safely is what you are preaching and teaching.
5 Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Do you ever have the feeling you have a little tape recorder following you around, repeating many of the things you say and do?
My husband and I were fascinated at the detail with which our little girl began to imitate our actions, postures, words, and tones, from the time she could first form words and move on her own.
Therefore more important, even, perhaps, than what you say to your baby or toddler is what you do around them. Do you speak to and about others calmly and nicely? When you’re frustrated, do you give yourself time to cool down, and express your anger with your words?
Toddlers should certainly not feel like they are expected to be in a happy mood all of the time. We know that as humans, it’s impossible to do that, and that the varied emotions we experience are part of what makes life so interesting and magical. If mom and dad (and others baby spends a lot of time around) model good behavior, junior will likely follow suit.
4 All Eyes On Screamy-McScreamerson
The intensity of having all eyes on you can make whatever emotions you’re feeling even more, well, intense. Sometimes what a child needs is just some time and space to work out what they are going through. It takes some practice, but in dealing with the inevitable frustrations of this life, we can help our kids learn to pause, take a breath, and move on.
When our two-year-old is getting “that way” and we know some sort of outburst is coming on, it often starts to escalate quickly if both my husband and I are looking at her, talking to her, and giving her our complete attention. If we move on, say have a conversation with each other as we begin to do the dishes or some other activity that doesn’t make it feel like all eyes are on her, it can often help her to more quickly cool down.
3 Same Ole
If tantrums are becoming a repeated or frequent behavior, the doctor is a good person to check in with, just in case there is some illness or condition that is contributing to the outbursts. Much of the time, though, tantrums are just a normal part of young children learning to deal with frustrations and explore limits. It can quickly become overwhelming if they’re happening every day or even multiple times throughout the day, though, so when you can, consider pausing a moment to consider if some repeated environmental factor might be contributing to them.
Is your little love getting enough sleep? That’s a big one. It’s easy to feel frustrated and quick to lose control when you’re just plain tired. Maybe there’s some change to your routine that could help your child to sleep better or get more sleep, such as getting more exercise during the day.
Other huge factors include getting enough nutritious food to eat, having enough stimulating play (not being bored), and getting enough focused attention from you. Feeling rested, not hungry, comfortable, and loved will of course make it easier for kids to behave calmly and to learn to express emotion in safe, appropriate ways.
2 Mum Mom
Let’s talk. Parents, that is, and to our kids, that is. Kids tend to imitate behaviors they witness, especially if it’s something they’re exposed to often, or coming from someone they look up to.
If we see another child losing it at the park, screaming or having a tantrum, my older girl (and she did this from a very young age) often quickly pays attention. It’s clear she’s studying, taking it all in, as young kids are with pretty much everything around them. I like to explain that everyone feels _____ (frustrated, mad, sad…) sometimes, and also to talk about more appropriate ways of dealing with the emotion.
Similarly, when I’m feeling sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed, I try not to bottle it up so that everything seems just fine all the time. I’ll explain to my girl that I’m feeling a certain way, and through this I model the appropriate way of dealing with any and all emotions.
1 Feel Like It’s Forever
Being around a toddler throwing a tantrum, even just one, can be very, very overwhelming, to say the least. If you’re experiencing them as a common trend, it can really feel like life in general has taken a turn for the worse. But try to remember that this particular age and circumstance will not last long. This stage, too, comes and then goes.
With your (extreme, at times) patience, love, and understanding — and careful modeling of appropriate behavior — your child will likely slowly but surely learn better ways of coping with even the most extreme emotions.
You might look at it like all the other skills you’ve been able to teach your child, from learning to latch on and nurse to rolling over on her own to drinking from a cup or using a spoon.
With a caring guide providing unconditional love, your little one will get through this, and so will you.
Sources: Parents.com, KidsHealth.org