The Tired Parent Guide to Coping with Toddler Tantrums

Toddler tantrums are a normal part of growing up. They’re also exhausting and can drive even the most patient of parents to the end of their tether. Public tantrums are also embarrassing – and close to unavoidable. Consider yourself lucky (unicorn status, actually), if you’ve managed to parent a child without ever experiencing a toddler meltdown.

What is a toddler tantrum?

toddler tantrums at a young ageTantrums are hard on us as parents, but also on our toddlers. As MyMama counsellor and parenting expert Chantelle Sciberras explains, “temper tantrums are unpleasant and disruptive behaviours or emotional outbursts. They often occur in response to unmet needs or desires. Tantrums are more likely to occur in younger children or others who cannot express their needs or control their emotions when they are frustrated. Tantrums happen when a child is trying to get something he wants or needs. Meltdowns occur when a child feels overwhelmed by his feelings or surroundings.”

According to the NHS, temper tantrums usually start at around 18 months but become less common by the age of 4, as your little one starts to express themselves better. 

Frustration, a call for attention, wanting something, not wanting to do something, hunger or tiredness can all lead to a temper tantrum. However, the root cause is the conflict toddlers feel between wanting to be independent and still craving parental attention. At this age, toddlers don’t have the coping skills necessary to deal with these strong emotions as an adult would, hence the reaction.

We asked Chantelle the million dollar question: 

How can we effectively communicate with a child during a tantrum and how should we react?

Chantelle suggests the following:

  1. First off, remain calm
  2. Get closer by moving to their level
  3. Give your little one choices…
  4. … And plenty of positive attention
  5. Give your toddler some control over little things 
  6. Keep off-limit objects out of sight and out of reach
  7. Distract your child
  8. Help your child learn new skills and succeed
  9. Consider your child’s request carefully when they want something

communicate with your child during a tantrumFinding out why the tantrum is happening can help you better deal with it as a parent. We know that this is not always easy, especially if your child doesn’t talk much yet or – often enough – the reason why the tantrum is happening is too complicated for our adult brains (we did experience a tantrum triggered by the shape of a banana once). Regardless of their reason, understanding and accepting their anger and finding a distraction should help.

More importantly though – even though it’s very hard, especially if the whole ordeal is happening in public – wait for the tantrum to stop. As noted by the NHS, “losing your temper or shouting back won’t end the tantrum”. Do your best to ignore the people around you and concentrate on yourself and your child. As Dr. Hershberg, a clinic psychologist and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide” emphasises, if you’re not calm yourself, it’s much harder for your child to calm down. You should also keep in mind that it’s not your fault that the tantrum is happening, but you are the one who can guide your little one out of it. 

The same applies if the tantrum reaches a new level with hitting, biting or kicking back. Whatever happens, do not hit back – this could make your little one think that what they are doing and how you are reacting is acceptable. Show them you love them but make it clear that their behaviour is not ok. 

Finding a big space where they can unleash their frustration can also help. Show them that you understand their feelings and frustrations and encourage them to talk about it. This helps them name their feelings and think about them. 

Is it possible to prevent tantrums? 

adopt a routine This would be the dream. Chantelle explains that while it may not always be possible to avoid a tantrum, you can minimise their frequency and intensity: “Experts say that anticipating how an environment may affect your child and responding appropriately are key.” She goes on to explain that it helps to be consistent: “establish a daily routine so that your child knows what to expect”.

As an example (and because supermarkets are tantrum ground zero), when out shopping for groceries, try to keep the trip as short as possible, and involve your child by talking about what you need for your recipes and letting them help you choose products. 

Should I be worried about our toddler’s tantrums?

Tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development. However, when they get very frequent, violent, and last longer than 15 minutes, they may be a sign of something more troubling. If you’re experiencing this with your child, it’s best to consult your paediatrician and they can guide you in the right direction. 

Surviving the terrible twos. And threes…. (and fours, maybe?)

dealing with toddler tantrums“Remind yourselves that at this age children are exploring and experimenting with their surroundings,” notes Chantelle. “They will start to learn what disappointment is, which might be a difficult emotion for young children to fully comprehend at such a young age. Nonetheless, as guardians, our role is to guide them through positive explanations, especially when things do not go as planned in the minds of our little ones.” 

As you navigate these seemingly unchartered waters, know that you are not alone as a parent. Tantrums are tiring, but they’re also just a phase, and soon enough your little one will be old enough to express themselves in other ways. Hang in there, and know that you are doing the best you can.

Get more expert support on all things parenting in our Ask the Expert section. 

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