How To Handle Toddler Tantrums (without yelling or losing your cool)
How to handle toddler tantrums without yelling: It starts with understanding the cause of your toddler’s meltdown, considering all the factors that may be making them sensitive or overwhelmed, and keeping your cool when feel like ripping your hair out. These tips are perfect for overwhelmed, burnt out parents who don’t want to yell, but don’t know how to approach their toddler’s temper tantrums firmly but gently.
A few days ago, my 2-year-old son slapped me square across the face for the first time – like something you see in a movie.
My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were there, and I turned to them as if they knew what the hell you’re supposed to do after your kid smacks you into next Tuesday. As if they knew something I didn’t.
“What am I supposed to do?”
Guess what? They didn’t really know, either.
Because, even though they’ve both gone through that more times than I have, they were always just winging it like anyone else.
As parents, we often approach discipline with the mindset that there’s only one right way to handle things. We find ourselves unsure of our capabilities and constantly questioning whether or not we’re doing things the way we’re supposed to.
“Am I doing this right?”
“Did I discipline my toddler the right way?”
“Is there some method I’m missing here?”
Older generations will tell you what you should be doing, mommy bloggers will tell you what you should be doing, and other parents at the park will tell you what you should be doing.
But we all know that’s not how it works.
We need to stop assuming there’s one right way to handle toddler tantrums (or anything to do with parenting for that matter). It’s not this black and white concept, where you have to be stern every single time, or super calm and sweet every single time. Like there are 3 magical words you can say that will make the tantrums stop, and ensure your child will grow up to be a decent adult.
It doesn’t work like that!
And I’ve been guilty of it too! I’ve found myself in positions with my son where I truly just feel lost and in over my head. I’ll call my mom as if she knows some secret parenting hack that will stop my son’s meltdowns. Especially during my second pregnancy, I’ve felt so overwhelmed with my son’s big emotions. Learning how to survive pregnancy with a crazy toddler has been interesting to say the least.
I’ve been around kids for a long time. I was a nanny and a preschool teacher before my son was born. Nothing prepared me for the pressure of raising a tiny little person to understand that hitting is not okay, while somehow simultaneously letting them know that it is okay to be angry. Oh, and don’t forget to make sure they feel heard and understood, and that they know they have a voice and the right to a choice, but there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed in life – like smacking your mom square across the face in front of company.
It’s hard, y’all.
Also, I’m fairly certain my son somehow knows when I start getting too cocky or sure of myself and my abilities as a parent. I’ll think to myself, “you know what, I really think I have something valuable to share with my readers this week. I’m killin’ it.”
I start writing about the do’s and dont’s, and the methods I recommend. Next thing I know he’s regressed into a crazy, psychotic monster that doesn’t listen for crap.
That’s the thing about toddlers, and parenting in general. There is no one right method, and I’ll never have things figured out. And neither will you! Yay for uncertainty!
Regardless, let’s dive in, shall we? And remember – there are only two real pieces of advice you should keep in mind at all times:
- You don’t have to approach each tantrum the same way.
- Just because your toddler is still throwing tantrums after your best efforts, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
How To Handle Toddler Tantrums
No, I don’t mean “set boundaries,” like you should sit your toddler down at the dining room table and have a talk about what you expect from them. You need to sit down with yourself and think about what you will not tolerate.
What do you find absolutely out of line? Throwing things? Pushing siblings? Using hurtful language?
Before tantrums even happen, it’s good to think about what your boundaries are. Where is the line drawn? Some parents will not stand for public meltdowns, while others only care if their toddlers starts biting or fighting.
So figure out where the line is for your family, and what you will not stand for. This will help you stay consistent with your discipline later. You may be the sweet parent who gets down on her child’s level, until a certain point. Then the stern parent comes out and you have to switch from talking to your toddler about their feelings, to explaining that a certain action is not acceptable.
For example, I personally don’t mind tantrums in public. Having people stare at me disapprovingly in the meat section of Walmart isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but to me, that isn’t a huge deal.
But, throwing things out of anger and hitting Mommy? Yeah, that’s a no from me, dawg.
Related: How To Teach Your Toddler To Clean Up After Themselves
Take Preventative Measures
Toddler tantrums aren’t always avoidable, and some of them come out of absolutely nowhere.
But, there are also plenty of times our Mommy/Daddy senses will start going off. We just know it’s about to get bad if we don’t do something, and quick!
If your toddler has her eyes locked on a candy bar that you don’t want her to have until after dinner, it’s time to think quick.
Distract her with something else, or start an impromptu dancing session. It may work, it may not, but at least you can say you tried.
Another big thing I’ve started doing that makes a huge difference is taking snacks everywhere we go. For the love of God, don’t let your 2-year-old get hangry. You’re practically asking for drama if you don’t bring cheerios or fruit with you when you know you’ll be out for a while.
Sleep is another big one. Make nap time a priority!
Understand Why Your Toddler is Upset
At the root of every tantrum is a scared or angry child who feels unheard or powerless. While it’s our job to make many decisions for them (because they lack the skills to make rational decisions for themselves for quite some time), don’t ever forget that they’re human too.
How would you feel if you wanted something and someone stood in your way and told you “no”? You’d be likely to freak out a little, too!
Being sleepy or hungry may exacerbate their feelings and make them react even worse, but the heart of the problem is usually pretty valid and understandable. We just have to put ourselves in their shoes.
We may chuckle and shake our heads. “He’s mad because I gave him the blue cup instead of the green one.”
“She wanted the square block to fit into the circular hole, and it didn’t work.”
It sounds silly. But to our toddlers, it’s extremely frustrating! They can’t wrap their heads around why something isn’t working out the way they wanted it to, and they demand that we hear them! Oftentimes they just simply feel out of control of their own lives. And that’s understandable, right?
It’s all too easy to think about ourselves in these moments. When our toddler is throwing a fit, our first instinct is to view it as an inconvenience to us. After all, they’re human, and so are we. But we have to be the adults in these situations. We have empathy, patience, and the ability to think beyond this exact moment. They do not.
Make Them Feel Heard and Understood
The biggest thing I’ve noticed about my son’s outbursts lately, is that he’s going to have them, no matter what. I can be stern and raise my voice, or I can be calm and understanding. Usually his tantrums last less time when I make him feel heard and understood, so that’s a win.
But the real upside is that it feels like the right thing to do.
I’m not going to lie to you and say I remain composed and calm every single time, but I will say that I try. And it feels much better going to bed knowing that my son may have had his moments of frustration and anger throughout the day, but he damn sure knows without a doubt that he can turn to his Mama with these feelings without her flying off the handle (most of the time).
There’s always a reason for our kids’ temper tantrums. They want us to know how they’re feeling, but they’re unable to verbalize their emotions. So, they show us by kicking, screaming, and throwing themselves on the floor.
We can’t make them stop feeling how they feel, but we can make sure they know we understand.
Try To Calm Them Down… or Don’t
Sometimes people just want to feel how they feel, without someone telling them they need to simmer down.
Depending on the circumstances, your toddler may just want a comforting hug and a soothing voice to calm them down. Other times, they just need to have their meltdown without Mommy or Daddy telling them they need to quit.
This ties back into letting them feel heard. You can’t control how long their fit will last, and a hug and a kiss may not always make things better. The best you can do is let your toddler know that you’re there for them, whether they want to hug it out now, or throw a fit and hug it out later.
Get Down on Your Toddler’s Level
A big way you can let your toddler know that you’re listening and you understand where they’re coming from, is by getting down on their level.
Crouch down and speak to them, eye-to-eye. If they don’t mind being touched, pick them up. There’s no denying that we seem domineering and overpowering when we tower over our toddlers, even when we’re speaking calmly.
Speak Gently, Even When Your Toddler is Yelling
I’ve seen this tip floating around out there: “The louder your toddler yells, the quieter you should make your voice.” Give it a try, it seems to work pretty well. It certainly doesn’t hurt!
Yelling back at our frustrated toddler does nothing to help the situation, that much we can agree on. No parent is perfect. Sometimes we’ll snap back or lose our cool too. It doesn’t make you a bad parent. But it’s definitely worth it to try staying calm, even when we’re equally upset about our toddler’s mood swings.
They’re unable to understand that Mommy almost burnt dinner, has been bickering with Daddy off and on for the last week, has a to-do list the size of Texas, and is now overwhelmed with her toddler’s screaming and kicking. But we’re able to understand where they’re coming from, and we should always strive to be the “bigger man”.
Start Gently, Then Move on To More Stern Measures
There is some debate over this one. Let me explain.
Some experts believe that our kids are less likely to listen the first time when we give them “chances.”
For example, little Timmy wipes a booger on his sister. The parent says, “Don’t do that again!”
Timmy does it again, and the parent starts counting to three. They gets to three and Timmy wipes a third booger on his sister. Only then does the mom or dad get up and discipline little Timmy for his bad actions.
Parenting experts believe this leads our kids to continue pushing boundaries and doing things several times instead of listening the first time, because they know they can get away with more before the parent will actually do something about it.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? I get it. But I also think it’s equally important to think about how we’re disciplining, not just when.
Our kids may be more likely to listen the first time when we pop off right away, but how we “pop off” matters.
If we immediately jump to “I’m taking that marker away right now because you drew on the table instead of the paper,” it’s not really fair to our kids (if they’re young, at least). Maybe they truly didn’t know any better, and they needed a reminder. Maybe they wanted your attention, and all they got was a stern talking-to, and their favorite marker taken away, all within a matter of seconds.
Do we really want our toddlers to “listen the first time,” simply because they’re unsure of what their parent may do or say?
They’re still learning, and they deserve at least one chance to be corrected instead of reprimanded. If they continue to do something after you’ve asked them not to, they’re testing you to see how much they can get away with.
Life is new to them. They want to know how many times it’s even possible to do certain actions, and how much you’re willing to put up with. “Is there actually a limit to how many times I can draw on the table, or is it all about how long Mom/Dad is going to sit there and let me do it?”
It’s for that reason I believe, in the Toddler stage at least, it’s important to gently guide our kids in the right direction before moving on to sterner measures.
Related: How To Teach Your Toddler The Alphabet
Give Your Toddler Some Power
When I was a preschool teacher, I was given countless articles to read about why toddlers act the way they do. Almost everything I’ve ever read about toddler tantrums has stated that the best thing we can do as caregivers and parents, is to let them feel like they have a choice in situations where they feel they have no control.
Timed timeouts have also been proven to be ineffective. Gone are the days where it’s recommended to sit your child in a corner for a set number of minutes depending on their age. Timeouts are still great, it’s just the mentality behind them that has changed for the better.
It may not be beneficial to tell our toddler that they have to sit facing the wall for 4 minutes exactly before they can come back to us to talk. But it can be beneficial to tell them to go calm down, and once they’re ready to talk about how they’re feeling, or they’re ready to play nicely again, they’re more than welcome to come back.
This gives our toddlers a choice: You can stay upset, and that’s okay. Or, you can calm down and come back to play. It’s up to you, but these are the boundaries.
They have the choice to calm down within 20 seconds and hug it out, and they have the choice to take 10 minutes to regain their composure before coming back to play.
This lets them know that they have crossed the line and it’s not okay to act the way they are, but they have the power to choose how and when things turn around.
Another great thing you can do is add in some power of choice wherever you can. Maybe your toddler is upset because you gave her the wrong cup. You can’t give her the cup she wants, because it’s dirty, but you can ask her if she’d rather sit in the living room and watch tv or color at the dining room table while she drinks her juice.
It will give her a sense of control over her life, when she feels she has no say.
Don’t Give In
As much as we want to make our toddlers happy, and we want to avoid tantrums, it’s best that we don’t give into their every whim. If they’re freaking out because they saw a popsicle in the freezer and you told them they couldn’t have it, don’t give it to them anyway, just for the sake of not hearing a screaming fit!
This is indirectly teaching your toddler that they can scream and whine for what they want, when the real deal is: Sometimes the answer is just a simple, “no,” and that’s just the way it is.
Things To Remember about Toddler Tantrums
There is a Reason for Every Tantrum, Even When It Doesn’t Seem Like It
The biggest thing that’s helped me through this difficult stage with my son, is remembering that there is a reason for every tantrum, even when it doesn’t seem like it. What appears to be silly or nonsensical to me, is heartbreaking or infuriating for my little boy, and I have to stay in tune with that.
Every meltdown stems from either anger or fear, and I have the power to let him know that I’m here and I understand, despite the fact that he can’t verbalize it.
While it hurts my feelings when he hits me and pushes me away, I know he needs me to show compassion and understanding more than ever in those moments. – Not that that’s always easy to do.
Wait It Out… It Will Get Better
You’re not going to see improvement right away. You’re just not. You can do everything in your power to be the best parent you can be, and you still won’t see a difference in your child’s behavior for a while.
Tantrums are just a part of raising toddlers. It doesn’t matter if you follow Granny Jo’s advice, my advice, or advice given in a fancy parenting book – your toddler is going to throw tantrums anyway.
Really, all you’re doing now is limiting the amount of time spent crying by a little bit. It’s not about fixing their behavior now, so much as it’s building a foundation of trust between you and your child for the rest of their life.
There Is A Balance
You don’t have to “pick a side”. You see “strict parents” and “gentle parents” on television, or even in real life at the store or park. Remember, you’re always just seeing one instance of their parenting skills at work. The parent who snaps at their kid in the grocery store may very well be a “gentle” parent who’s kid has been testing the limit all day. You just happened to see her in that moment.
You don’t have to react the same exact way to every single tantrum. Consistency is always great, right? But there’s so much at play. You’re not a bad parent if you have a shorter fuse some days. Besides, every meltdown is unique. Some take a more stern approach then others. It’s okay to experiment with different methods, and it’s okay to not react the same way every time.
How do you handle toddler tantrums? Do you have the same reaction every time, or does it depend on the day or the reason behind the tantrum? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!
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Would like to know how did u handle or how would u handle if he slapped u in the face again . Thanks
As a father who was sent this article, I find the sexism to be tired and disappointing. When you target moms, you exclude dads. Please consider addressing “parents” instead. Our language helps encourage or discourage our thoughts and expectations.
Your advice is great, and I look forward to implementing it.
Hi Ken! Thank you for your insight and suggestion. I have updated the post and I couldn’t agree with you more. This was written several years ago when I was a wee lass (only one child and one on the way), and my ideology was quite different at the time. I strive to be inclusive and now try to avoid the tired sexism that had a hold on me as a young parent. I have so many articles that things like this can slip under the radar. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and I hope these things helped you on your parenting journey!
Beautifully written. Thank you for reminding me that I’m doing the best I can, and no Mom or technique is perfect.